"It became actually my career, what I wanted to be, and do," says Jeffery A. Haskins of the HIV work he's been involved with since the epidemic's earliest days. His path was not always so clear -- he'd studied business, accounting and theater management, and when an accountant position opened up at the newly formed Minority Task Force on AIDS, his journey began. But that journey was not simply as an activist, but as an activist of color -- part of a group often overlooked in histories of early HIV activism -- and, by 1993, as a person living with HIV himself.
Here, Jeffery talks about how early HIV activists organized, particularly those based in Harlem at the time; and how his role as a pastor deeply informs his life with HIV and his quest for justice. Along the way, he also talks about being an artist, how theater helped him to express himself, and how he and his family evolved together in their understanding of his sexuality and HIV diagnosis. Watch or read part two of this conversation, in which Jeffery talks about his physical and spiritual health.
This interview was conducted in October 2012.
Can you talk about when and how you found out you were HIV positive?
Basically, you know, there were many years where people were dying. And you're so busy working in AIDS for 21 years that you're burying your dead. You don't think about yourself and your health. And my lover died. But we had been practicing safe sex. He had gotten HIV from his former lover.
So then I thought about it, and I said maybe I should go get a test. It was July of 1993. I did go get the test. My best friend took me. And he's the person that I told that I had it.
In 1993, you had already had a lover who was positive, and who had passed away?
Yeah. He passed away actually in March of '92. And then I just came to a decision in '93 to go do it.
What did you think and feel when you first found out that you were positive?
It was like being hit by a boulder, or a ton of bricks. It was numbing. But, because I was in the field, I had to process it quickly. I had to keep things going. And so I think I had some loss around my health, and some grief around that HIV got me, you know: It didn't get my best friend, but it got me. So there was some sadness, and there was some remorse, and there was pain around it, because now I had to say, "I'm an HIV-positive person." Well, first, I had to come to terms with it for myself.
How did you do that?
I just read more and got educated, and talked to other people who were HIV positive about how they were dealing with it. I knew people that were. So I just really observed them more and started to see that they were OK, I guess, at that time. They had to take their medicine. You know, that had to start for me. So now you have a new ... chore, a regimen, of pill-taking. So you've got to get that down. That's a science that you gotta learn how to get down to a routine, and regularly do it.
Did you start taking meds right away in '93?
Yeah, I did.
How did that go? What kinds of options were available, as far as treatment?
Well, I was on AZT [Retrovir, zidovudine], which was not a good option. It was toxic. It was hard. It was the first drug that I took -- just to get my system ready, because the protease inhibitors were coming out -- the new line of drugs were in the pipeline. So, you had to get your system ready to take new medicine. It was kind of brutal: the diarrhea, the nausea. Just brutal. It was brutal. It was painful-brutal.
How long were you on just the AZT monotherapy before other medications became available?
I can't really remember. It all kind of gets to be a blur after a while. But it wasn't long; I do know that. Because then it was going on to the protease inhibitors.
How was the experience different between AZT and these newer drugs?
Well, it was less toxic. The protease inhibitors seemed to work better. When the first ones came out, you had to take them with food so your stomach was coated. If you took it on an empty stomach, you knew you would have the kinds of conditions you had with AZT. And so you would remember to eat first, then take the medicine. So you got into a system, and it kind of got you into a regular routine -- that basically would keep you alive.
We were still at the point, in '93, where people were still dying. Less were dying, but still; we were still going to funerals, as I recall.
Going back a little bit, you mentioned that you were practicing safer sex with your partner who had passed on.
Do you have a sense of when you came in contact with HIV?
It would have to be in the '80s. I mean, we've always done that: who it was; when it was.
I came out in, what year was that? Was it '73? So, yes, my first year of college, away from home.
You came out at Howard University [in Washington, D.C.]?
No. The first year I went to Xavier University in New Orleans.
Was everybody accepting? Did you experience any backlash for coming out as gay in either of these places?
Well, we weren't so obvious about it back then. I mean, the women were in the women's dorm; the men were ... It was separated. It wasn't coed dorms. Those that knew they were gay: We kind of like came together, and then we admitted it one day. And then we sort of hung together.
You know, the biggest thing in New Orleans was Mardi Gras. So, on Mardi Gras day, you would dress up in drag and be fabulous. Nobody would know or think who you are, and what you are doing. Everybody dressed up. I mean, Mardi Gras is sin day. You can have fun. You can have sex on the street. Which is interesting, because all kinds of things get passed on Mardi Gras. You know? So that's an interesting thing.
But we were very much in our clique, I would say.
So you were out to each other?
Yeah. We weren't out to the school. There was none of that.
No LGBT club, or anything like that.
None of that. When I went to school, in the dinosaur age, that was pre-everything. You know? Because I'm a civil rights baby. I'm the first generation. I'm a baby boomer, a civil rights baby, a NOW woman's baby, a fight-the-Vietnam-War baby. Coming from Washington, D.C., it's all political. So, every one of the struggles, my parents were at, and they were advocates, and they took me too. And they taught me. You know, the Martin Luther King Day bill; the march on Washington for gay rights; the AIDS Quilt. You name it. ACT UP! ACT UP! Fight AIDS! You know, all of that, just, advocacy.
HIV is a social justice issue. We were doing the advocacy to, first of all, make AIDS known; and then the advocacy around black gay men. Because black gay men -- you know, people wanted us to be invisible. But black gay men had a voice, and we started our organizations. It was black gay men I was burying. When we say, "bury your dead," it was black gay men.
It was not, in the beginnings of it, in New York City that I first heard of AIDS. I first heard of it in D.C., and it was black gay men in D.C. So it was in my community. AIDS was present. My community wanted to do "silence" -- but "Silence Equals Death." And we were like, no, we have to talk about it. We are ostracized. We're oppressed. They say it don't exist in our community. We say yes, it does. Because I have no friends. You've got sons and daughters.
We went to funerals. Pastors wouldn't talk about it. There was nothing said about what they died of. Rare blood disease? No. AIDS. And that was the going time, in the '70s, '80s.
And until Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson came out, the white man and the black man, in the '80s and early '90s. Then, all of a sudden, President Reagan's like, "OK, I'll go to the event and address them." Years into the epidemic. No wonder why they were booing him. Because you didn't do nothing! The federal government did nothing.
So, with that, and forcing them to do that: It became actually my career, what I wanted to be, and do. I had to make a decision. Yes, I wanted to be on Broadway. I didn't go to Columbia University and get a master's in theater management with the intention of working in AIDS, to have my first job be at the Minority Task Force on AIDS in Harlem, and then to go to People of Color in Crisis in Brooklyn.
I wanted to be not the performer, but the manager of the show. That's what I studied to be: the producer. And we even had our theater company, the Rainbow Repertory Theatre, founded and directed by Reginald T. Jackson. We did over 80 LGBT shows in a 12th-floor loft theater space. I served as the managing director and handled all the business matters of the theater. So I was working in it.
At the same time, I had two passions -- I had three passions, actually, going on at the same time: I had the theater; I had AIDS service; and I had church. You know? I had church. Which ended up with me becoming a minister, with me becoming a pastor, and trying to bridge all of them together.
What happened was that, because of the AIDS crisis, you had to be creative. So, as an outreach worker, you had to get creative with creating stuff. You had to get creative with storytelling. You had to get creative with role-playing. You had to get creative with performances. And so I was able to develop my one-man show, called The 26 Project. The reason it's The 26 Project is because my lover died on the 26th. He died on March 26. My lover's name was David Dawud Edwards. My best friend was Rory Buchanan, and he died on Nov. 26. And then my good girlfriend was Craig G. Harris, and he died on Nov. 26. So it became The 26 Project.
It was a one-man show talking about my experiences with AIDS, living with HIV, and doing that. And what I did with it was take it to different places and raise money, and give it to the AIDS organizations. The proceeds covered the expenses of the show, what it cost, and maybe gave me a meal and a bus ticket back, you know, but most of the money went to the organizations.