So, you were diagnosed at 19. How long would you say it took you until you were ready to talk about it and become the activist that you are now, 10 years later?
You know, God is funny. Because I was like, Lord, I'm good at being in the back. I was going to chill on my own, eat my fried chicken and drink my red Kool-Aid, and just watch everyone else. Because I wasn't really ready to talk about it to the point where ... You know, I'm already an outcast as it is in my community. I'm black, gay, and gifted. In the projects, you can't be like ... you know, without having them think that you're trying to be better than them. So that was definitely a dynamic that I was dealing with. And then now adding HIV into the mix, it's like, girl.
When I moved to Atlanta, I was able to -- and it's funny, because when I moved there I had $200, if that, with four boxes of my life, rooming with eight other gay guys in a two-bedroom apartment. Right! Right! But it wasn't all negative. It was mostly positive.
I remember when Tim had called. And Tim was the person who told my mother of my status. He called me. I guess my mother gave him my new number. And I just remember letting him have it. Like, I was giving him reads for the gods! Because I was so angry with him. Because he took something from me. And it was as if he didn't have the sensitivity to understand why what he did was not OK.
After the conversation, my godbrother, Quentin Stroud, he pulled me to the side. He was like, "Come walk with me." And he was like, "You know, everything makes sense now."
I said, "What do you mean?"
"Well, why you had to come here, and you left -- what was going on with you. It all makes sense." And he says, "Well, you know, I'm positive. And everybody else is positive."
So I'm like, "What?" Like, this whole new world was opened to me. And the poetry came even more intensely. But I was still keeping it to myself. I was still writing for me. I wasn't expecting to go and save the world. At the time, it was my lifeline. It was what kept me sane. Because I had some shit going on. And I'm like, girl, I'm going to throw a chair! Somebody!
So a friend of mine named Kelvin, he introduced me to Craig Washington. And Craig Washington, from AID Atlanta, he felt love. I remember my first event, which was at Fire. It was like a celebration of black gay history -- you know, black gay men. And we just performed.
I loved the reaction from the crowd. I'm like wow; I would love to do this more often. But again, it wasn't something I thought would make me who I am now.
But living in Atlanta, getting the support that I needed, and getting in touch with resources and services -- it really helped me deal with my own pain by educating other people. I started working for a nonprofit called NAESM: National AIDS Education and Services for Minorities. Working with them allowed me to become a little bit more enlightened about HIV.
You know, I love people. I'm a people person. So I was able to talk with them and pretty much see where they are in their heads, and kind of talk them down, their anxiety of coming to get tested.
Then, my first book, Bohemian Rebel Naked and Exposed: Vol. 1, came out, which is a collection of poems that I'd written from my junior year in high school until 20-21, when I first got to Atlanta. The moment it published I lost everything. I lost the house -- well, the apartment -- the car; money. I lost everything. I became homeless for three years. Dealing with that, and being positive, and not on medications was a task. But I can definitely say it was worth every moment of it. It taught me how to be even more humble. And it really allowed me to connect now with people in a way that, "OK. I understand where you're coming from, because I've been there."
I've been doing this for nearly eight years. And I can't believe I can say that. Because I never thought I would be this proud, Nubian, fag warrior. But, at the same time, it was all a part of the plan for me to come from behind the scenes. I was pushed to the front and on the spotlight. I'm like, "Oh, OK. So what do I do from here?"
I found my solace through performing, through spoken word, through being on a stage. And then it became from a stage to books, and then from books to painting, to drawing, to music, to helping start both The Crib and The Evolution Project, which are both drop-in centers for young men of color, ages 16 through 24, through both AID Atlanta and NAESM. So I definitely allow the story that I've been given to plant seeds. And therefore those seeds have grown, and they're harvested.
It was not an easy journey. I can definitely say that I worked hard to get where I am. No one gave this to me. All the money I put in it, the time, the sweat, the tears, the experiences ... and during those experiences, having to maneuver myself through those experiences with a smile on my face. Because there are times where it gets hard, and I have to come home and cry. Because I'm Wonder Woman but, shit, I need help, you know, sometimes.
But now I see myself in a position where I am an activist -- or artivist, I like to say -- and respected. I've been trained and mentored under some really great people, who have seen something in me and allowed me to flourish and grow, and to be myself, and to bring myself into a room.
Did you ever see that man again who was your rapist?
Yeah. I did see Jay again. I saw him. He didn't look really good. It was 2007, I remember. Because I went back home for a funeral. It was my Pop-Pop; he had passed. Ugh, I miss him to this day ... And I ran into Jay in the street. He was like, "Wow, you look good! You look real good! How are you doing? How's it going?"
And I'm sorry. It wasn't 2007. It was 2008. But I remember looking at him and, you know, when I tell this story, people are like, "I would have beat his ass. I would have ..." But I didn't feel that in my heart. I felt compassion for him. I knew he wasn't taking care of himself; you could just tell. He wasn't wasting away, but I could tell. He didn't seem like the Jordan that I had once fallen for.
He apologized. He said he was sorry for everything. I ain't gonna lie; I'm a Taurus. We stubborn as hell, so -- I was like, "Girl, I do not want to hear that." But at the same time, I knew that it was genuine. It was coming from a very genuine place. So I accepted his apology. And at the same time, it still haunted me. There were still some things about it I don't think he realized that he had broken. He apologized, but a part of me wanted to kill him. I really wanted to just watch him burn ... and smile ... and pour more gasoline. Like, a part of me was feeling that way.
I kind of was like, "Well, I shouldn't feel this way." But at the same time, I'm like, "Well, girl, he did give us this, you know? So we should be pissed off."
But I think when you're compassionate enough to forgive a person and to rid that whole scenario out the window ... No. I haven't forgotten about it, because it is a big, critical part of my history. But I think, at the same time, it had to happen the way it did. Because it allowed me to have a purpose and to actually want to live my life and to help young men like myself, who look like me -- and who don't look like me -- and people who don't look like me to realize this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed.
You said that a friend of yours had taken away the opportunity to disclose to your mother. Who was the first person that you told on your own terms about your diagnosis?
I guess Quentin would be my first person. Because after the phone call, after I just let Tim have it, he pulled me aside and started talking to me. It was a moment that I really needed, because he understood. And it felt good to have someone to understand what I was going through and what I was feeling. It wasn't that you just told my mother all my business. I felt betrayed. I felt hurt. I felt dismembered, and just needed to figure out for myself: What am I going to do? How am I going to handle this?
Actually, I really didn't just necessarily pick one person to tell. It was more like a whole stage of people to tell. I literally was pushed in the forefront when I read my first poem, called Red Ribbon. It's basically a poem about HIV. It says It is a mark that I'll never leave/A blessing and a curse.
It's basically a pseudo, fucked up, twisted love song to HIV that I wrote. It was my way of saying, "OK, it's part of my reality now. This is real."
I thought people would be like, oh, OK. It's cool. She wrote a poem. Congratulations. But it was very much ... it was a lot of love. I received a lot of love. I was told that I was brave for what I'm doing. And from that moment, it made me feel affirmed that I wasn't alone in this. Because, for the longest time, I had been dealing with it by myself, and not having any clue: OK, what should I research? How should I feel?
It's a really numbing feeling when you find out your whole life is turned completely upside down, and it's without your consent, and without your control or your say-so at all.
You're now a national HIV celebrity with your campaign, but how do you decide whether to disclose your status to someone? Or are you just open with everyone?
I decided I'd rather pour my own tea in your cups than to have somebody else pour it. So, in 2008, I was approached after completing a NAPWA program called Common Threads at the time, which is still going on. After that, CNN approached Adolph St. Arromand, who I worked closely with. He's actually the one who gave me my first prevention job. And I've been under his wing ever since.
He asked me how did I feel about talking about my status on CNN for World AIDS Day 2008. And I was like, "OK." Because it was kind of like my coming out, you know, for everybody. My thing is I don't want anyone to ever say, "You didn't tell me." Because the whole world heard it.
It was so surreal. Because the interview took place in my neighborhood, at The Evolution Project, on Auburn Avenue at the time. And right across from it is a transitional house. We filmed there. I ate with the guys. I talked with them. They were interviewing me and I was talking about my struggles, when it came to the job, and being positive, and just, in general, living as a young black gay man in the South who is positive. At the time, I had written two books: Bohemian Rebel Naked and Exposed: Vol. 1 and The Rising: Vol 2. And The Rising is around the time when I became homeless and was living with HIV, couch surfing and what have you.
When it aired, it was just like, oh, my God. Everybody knows! Girl! Did we just do this? Did we really just say this to CNN? "Hey, you all, I'm HIV positive.
But at the same time, that's the thing about stigma. We have to dispel it. We have to break that silence -- and we being the general public. Because not everyone is there, and I respect that. Because that is a loaded thing, when you have something that's within you, a conflict inside of you, that you're not quite sure how to deal with.
For me, I was in a place where I had dealt with it. And I'm interviewing younger guys with it. It would have been disrespectful and irresponsible of me not to say anything -- especially when I was clearly being pushed to the front. Because, again, I was chilling in the back with my fried chicken and Kool-Aid -- chilling like, "OK. I'm a poet, but I just want to be behind the scenes."
I think part of that is from me just being shy. But from that point on, I started getting emails from people all over the world. In fact, a good friend of mine, Seth Chandler, who is a graduate of Georgia State University now -- he's been to the White House and Harvard, and all this good stuff -- he saw my interview on CNN. He was living in New York and he was contemplating whether to move to Atlanta or not. When he saw me speaking, he was like, "Wow. He really inspired me."
He wrote me. He was like, "You inspired me to come and pursue my dreams." He took me out to dinner. He's a writer, as well. And he had a copy of my book with him, like the first copy of the first book. And just to give you an image: I'm naked on the cover, literally. You don't see my hoo-ha, but you get to see all this chocolate skin. He's like, "Would you please sign it?"
I said, "Of course. Yeah." And conversing with him made me realize, well, it was the right decision to come out with my status, even though it was for the whole world to see. At this point, HIV isn't something that "Oh, my God, I'm afraid to talk about it." Because it's so a part of my life. I've been living with it for 10 years. It is what it is. So that's how I feel about that.