Are you in a relationship right now?
I'm not in a "relationship," but I'm in a "mutual understanding" situation.
Yeah, it's complicated. How has having HIV affected your mindset around approaching relationships and your sex life?
So, I've had some very weird experiences with this. I've dated four people since I've been in New York, and I'm on the fifth guy right now. These are dates, people I'm interested in, but of course I've had sex with people -- random people -- just for the hookup. But, the first four individuals, it was kind of creepy, because they all said the same thing as it ended. I was never the one to break the relationship off, because I actually thought the relationship was going well. They knew my status. They knew I was open with it. They were very supportive of me being open and the work that I'm in, but it's like, I guess they were intimidated by how strong-minded I was about being focused, about being able to reach the next level of my career, being able to reach the next level of my education. And, I don't know, I guess they just wanted to run away, because basically it was always "I'm not ready for this," but five months down the line, you're dating someone who is clearly below your level of interest and it just has me looking at you like -- wow!
Well, I think that there's a big difference between dating someone who's positive and someone who's in the community and out with it and telling their story. People get really intimidated by that.
I actually talked to one of my exes. It's crazy that you would actually bring that up, because one of my exes did tell me that. He said, "You had such a focus and I didn't want to be a distraction." But, like I explained, if you were a distraction, you would've been pushed to the side, but you weren't. You were someone actually helping me. You were that comfort I needed when I came home. Because most of the time, I don't like being by myself. I love to have a friend over. You know, someone that I like just to come over, just to put a smile on my face.
It all boils down to me living here by myself. At the end of the day, when I go home, it's just me and my dog. Sometimes, that can be kind of depressing. I like having people around. That support is like, wow, "Why would you just up and leave?" None of them ever said that it was based around HIV, but that's always one of my first assumptions, when it comes to that. But I try not to do that, because when you assume things, it always leads to a bad case. I try to stay positive with that.
What do you think about the attitudes among young gay men of color around HIV that you've encountered? You've dated four people, but have there been people who have been like, "No, I don't ..."
That's uneducated. It's like, the first thing, how I frame the question. I let them speak about their experiences, let them talk about it and then when the HIV comes in, that's when I ask questions. I'm not one to be like, "Oh, we've been talking for three days, so I'm HIV positive, just want to let you know that." I won't even have sex with you if we're having a conversation, getting to know each other.
If it's a random hookup, I explain, "Oh, I'm HIV positive, make sure you wrap it up." They're OK with it. It's just the ones where we're in relationships. They always have these bad experiences with people who don't say anything and it's always around that -- the "trusting" part. It's like, "Oh, I dated this person and they didn't tell me their status until after we had sex." I, for one, I'll let you get to know me first. I'll let you get to know the outer part before I let you know my body. I'll have conversations with you. I'll see where your head's at, you know. If the conversation comes up at dinner, then we'll talk about it. I'll let you in on my story. But most people in the ballroom community and in the LGBT community know my story; it's just that now, when it comes to ballroom, I really don't date in ballroom, because all four of my relationships came from ballroom. The one I'm in now came from outside ballroom, and I actually like how it's going.
Tell me a little bit about your background and the neighborhood you grew up in. Just tell us a little bit about where you grew up and what it was like, especially coming out in that environment.
Coming out -- whoo! So, I grew up in Greenwood, S.C., in a suburban neighborhood -- very quiet. The population was majority white, but I had no problem with that. There was no racism, none of that stuff, everyone got along. I love my neighborhood. My mother's a preacher -- well, a pastor. I grew up in the church mostly all of my life, but I was more so the singer. I was into anything that was musical -- show choir, all-state chorus -- I did all that good stuff.
Growing up, I didn't really have a good relationship with my mom. My mother and my father separated when I was 3, and my father now lives in Miami. We haven't spoken to each other since I was 13. He hits me up every now and then on Facebook, but I feel like, if he wanted to reach out, he would've reached out to me then, not just at different high points of me growing up. He hit me up when I was 16, he hit me up when I was 18, he hit me up when I graduated, he hit me up when I turned 21, but OK, what about the in-betweens? That's more of the stuff I was stuck on.
With my mom and my stepfather, I guess it was more so she couldn't accept what my father put her through. She looks at it like, he got away with it. But you know there's always two sides to every story. So when I found out both sides, you know the way she treated me, it's like she took all her anger out that she felt for my father on me, which put me in the seat of being the black sheep of the family, because I was the nice one. I didn't really cause any trouble or anything, only when I was in school, because it was like, at home, things were so strict you couldn't do anything. You couldn't even breathe. If you breathed the wrong way, you were on punishment, or you got your ass beat. That right there, I just got sick of it.
All my frustration went into running track, being involved in any kind of activity that involved not being at home. When I went to college, I picked a college that was in a whole other state, literally 700 miles away from home, and I made sure that I was not going to go back home. The plan before I graduated -- and my brother knew this well -- was to move away and focus on myself and not family, because we don't have to hear that "no" anymore, or "no" to everything; it's always negative inputs. Family is like, down the line. But I had a fun experience growing up. I had a lot of friends, and I still keep in touch with them. But when it comes to family, I really don't even reach out to them like that.
What has your health been like since your diagnosis?
My health has actually been good. I've been undetectable for the past three years. The first year was a struggle, because I was on a medication by the name of Atripla [efavirenz/tenofovir/FTC], and it wasn't one of my favorites. I didn't like it. I didn't like the side effects. I dealt with that for like two years, actually two and a half years, and then I moved here and Complera [rilpivirine/tenofovir/FTC] came out. I've been on that, no sickness or any of that. Now, all of a sudden, in the middle of the heat -- I have a cold! It makes no sense! And I'm so upset. But I'm gonna get past that. Health wise, everything is great. I'm not complaining one bit. I just want to get rid of this cold.
Do you have a good relationship with your doctor?
Yes, I actually love my doctor. I'm able to talk to her about anything that's going on in my life health wise, any of the risks that I've taken, and I've never really been open like that with a doctor before. So, this is actually a big step for me.
You said that you're taking Complera. Do you access your meds through private insurance, Medicaid, ADAP, out of pocket?
What's that process like? Is it easy?
It's a very easy process. The people call me for the initial shipping it out, and then I pick it up from my doctor on Mondays.
Do you know your CD4 count?
My CD4 count is 1,124. Which is really good.
That's really great! Do you do anything else for yourself to keep healthy?
I work out three times a week. I'm trying to make it an everyday thing, but it's really hard when you have a dog at home, when you have a responsibility. He's like my baby. And that's something that keeps me healthy, too. Because when it comes to the depression, because everyone goes through it, I can say that I suffer from it from time to time, being alone. But my dog makes me happy, when we go out for walks; he loves the park. He's full of energy and loves attention to the point where it can be annoying, but it's the love that counts.
Tell us about the work you do now. You were talking about being very ambitious, so just kind of share that with us.
So, to give a little history: I was influenced on being in prevention through my gay father, Luna. He is an amazing person and someone that I look up to, cherish, love. He holds a very high stage in my life. I'm very proud of him being in my life. He introduced me to a few places -- Harlem United, I started up there just as a regular peer doing office work, learning how to manage my skills, getting into the professional field. I also went into the stages of change and Mpowerment, which were prevention interventions that dealt with HIV prevention, lowering your risk of contracting HIV. I loved the fact that you work with youth. I took this first job at APICHA, and basically did HIV testing, outreach, spoke to a lot of people. I love interacting with others. I love to be the center of attention -- that's what my friends call me.
I did that for almost a year, and now I am actually over an intervention that I was once a part of called Mpowerment. We call it The Mix at Harlem United, and it's a really, really good intervention and I love my peers. Because you get to actually pick who you want to be in your intervention and you actually train them, and put them on a level to where they can take this to the next stage of their career, whether they want to be in prevention, or if they just want the knowledge to pass on to their friends. Right now, the work that I'm in, I actually like it. I'm a community health specialist, and I love the team.