Antron Olukayode describes himself as an "artivist" -- a blend of artist and activist. After a sexual assault at the hands of his boyfriend at the age of 19 left him HIV positive, he experienced alienation and homelessness. However, his inherent creativity allowed him to spin these experiences into art and he is now the author of two volumes of poetry, each dealing with a different part of his life, but each centered around his diagnosis and subsequent life with HIV. And, he is no longer homeless.
Chosen as a spokesperson for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Let's Stop HIV Together" campaign, Antron is now using his considerable talent to raise awareness around HIV prevention and treatment, and has founded two drop-in centers for LGBTQ homeless youth. A true character, Antron's vivacious personality shows that life after HIV can be colorful, funny and well-lived.
Can you start by describing how you found out that you were HIV positive?
Sure. Well, first off, I'm from a very small town, a college town called Gainesville, Fla. -- go, Gators! -- I'm an artist, so I don't follow that too much. But I was 19. After I was raped by my first boyfriend, which -- I'm still kind of leery on the term, because I think boyfriend is such a heavy title, so I don't want to just give him that. But I'll say a reminder: my first reminder. It was college. I was studying for midterms. And I remember studying at his place.
He just storms through the door, and he's like, "I want to fuck; I want to have sex now." Now, around this time, when I was 17, I was raped by two men in a field. That really deterred me from wanting to have sex, and wanting to have any kind of interaction sexually. So I explained this to Jay, and I told him how it made me feel. This is the first guy that I really talked and expressed this to. He seemed understanding and what have you.
But this particular day he was just pissed and he wanted some. I was still not comfortable. It got to the point where it got really physical, and he started beating on me.
Jay is 6'2", a basketball player. So, me: I'm 5'7". I'm scrawny at the time, you know. I could fight him off only for so long. I remember the last blow, him planting it on my face. I fell to the ground. And I felt the cold floor. And I saw my blood.
I remember him taking my clothes off, and I remember him screaming, "I can't believe she did this to me!" Well, apparently the girl that he was using as his beard, she infected him. And he found out that day he was infected. Then he came and intentionally infected me.
So when he raped me, too, it was just like ... I didn't think about HIV. It was more so of the hurt that I was enduring. Because this is someone who said he loved me. Even though he never said, "I love you," he would use euphemisms -- he would use other sayings, of his expressing his love. And it was one abusive moment after another.
A year later I was staying at home with my mother again. And I remember donating blood for the Red Cross. Maybe two, three months after that, I received a letter from the Florida Health Department. Now, they did something real ratchet, and decided: OK, we're going to take this very confidential letter; we're going to stamp it Confidential with this big, red stamp; and we're going to tape it on his door.
So they taped it on the door. Thank God I was home and my mother wasn't. I took it off and I looked at it. I'm like, gosh, what's going on. So I called the health educator and she came over to my mom's place. She told me that I was positive.
I was in a state of shock, because I was very sheltered, a wallflower. I had really low self-esteem. I didn't really -- not necessarily think it would happen to me -- there just wasn't a lot of conversation about HIV. And if there was conversation, it was very negative. People who were suspected, or even known to be living with it, it was just really negative connotations and derogative terms following that person's name.
As far as HIV, having a support system, Gainesville wasn't, at the time -- and I'm not sure how it is now -- but at that time, the support really wasn't there. So having heard her come out and tell me this, I'm like: My gosh, I'm another statistic. You know, I cried for a second. But I knew. Something in me was like, it's going to be fine.
After I found out my diagnosis in October, New Year's Eve, a "friend" decided to tell my mother behind my back, without my consent, and she kicked me out of the house. I didn't know where to go. I got on my knees and I said, "You know what? Look. God, if you get me out of this, I'm going to use my talents and my gifts to help people who are living with this, and become more educated."
But it took a while for me to process it because, again, this is something I just never thought would be my future -- or a part of my future. But at the same time it became my platform, and my purpose. At that moment, when I actually had that letter in my hand, I'm like this can't be good. Because I don't think health departments are handing out "Great job!" for it.
For donating blood.
Right. Exactly. So it was very, very ... I had to face it alone. Again, there wasn't a support system. There wasn't a group I can go to and express myself about it. I thought I had someone, who also is living with the virus. He has his loving, supportive family. At that time, my family -- it wasn't even a conversation to be had. So for him to do that to me, I felt like it took my right to have my time when I was ready to come out to my family about it. And I just didn't want to believe it myself. I didn't have suicidal thoughts, necessarily. But it was just like, "Oh, God; something else that is going to keep people away from me."
Just to put this into context. You said you were 19.
And how old are you now?
So this was 2003?
Were you in college at the time?
Mm-hmm. And I dropped out of college because of it.
Did you ever go back?
Well, I tried going back online. The online experience is great. It's very convenient -- now that I'm going to be doing more traveling and what have you. But I really do love the classroom setting. It's more personal, and I'm able to see my professor and have conversations and interact with my classmates. So the online programs, although they're great and they have their pros, it also does have its cons. So I decided to stop school for a while, until I was able to focus mainly on school. Because my focuses are in so many different places right now. I know I would be lying to myself, saying that I was ready to go back.
But I do believe in education. I do believe that you have to have some kind of structure when it comes to what it is that you're doing.