April 9, 2014
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.
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.
How have your relationships with your family and friends changed since you were diagnosed? How were they at the beginning, and then how are they now?
My mother and I, our relationship is much better. We still don't talk about it -- which is cool, because I know that takes time. But the fact that we are talking and she says she loves me -- that's a big step. I know that for her it particularly affected her. Because it's one thing to have friends. But in your backyard, it's totally different.
I've lost some friends. But they weren't friends; they were dead weight. And the people who remained and stayed, they're meant to be. You know, they're here. They're like, "Girl, you took your medicine? OK. Sure you're all right? Good." My best friend, who posed with me during the campaign, has always been a big supporter of me. I mean, we've been through thick and thin. He literally was watching me die on a deathbed at the hospital. I actually watched our president being inaugurated from the hospital.
So those friendships that I have instilled and planted years ago are still here, alive today. It's been more positive than bad.
As far as dating goes, that's a totally different animal. But, for the most part, I've gotten more good than bad.
When it comes to disclosing to people that you are dating?
Is there a length of time that you wait to tell someone? Or is it like on the first date, "This is me"?
Yeah. Because I want you to know what you're getting -- what you're paying for, per se. There was a time where this guy I was getting to know when I first got to Atlanta, I had to tell him. And we hadn't talked about sex for three months. It was great.
I invited him over for dinner. Started kissing on my neck. I'm like, "Oh, shit." We're going to have to have this conversation.
When I told him, he literally said, "I can't date a disease. I didn't sign up for this." Gets up. Walks out the door. Don't even shut my door, child. He just leaves. That was like so heartbreaking. Because I was honest.
But it taught me, "OK, you were honest with him. You did your job. You did your part. You were responsible for not only his life, but for your own. And you loved yourself enough to disclose something so personal. So, hey, you win some, you lose some." And guys are guys. Give them a Snickers bar; they'll be all right. They'll be OK, child.
Are you in a relationship now?
I am happily single -- not just single, but happily single. I'm in a relationship with Madison, my iPad. And we're just good Judys. But as far as dating-wise, I'm not looking, but I'm not pushing away. I'm open, and I just want it to happen.
This is a loaded question, but tell me a little bit about what it means to grow up living in Florida. And then about being black in Florida. Do you think that being black and gay and HIV positive in Florida is harder than other places?
OK. Being black, gay, young, HIV positive in Florida: oh. It's a red state; that says a lot. For me, it was difficult because, not only was I gay, but I'm this black kid in the projects who likes to read books, and who speaks proper English, and doesn't function and operate the way it's expected to operate and function. So that was a dynamic on its own that was difficult.
And then adding HIV into the mix: it's like, oh, girl. Fuck three strikes -- I've got five! So it's difficult. And honestly, I had to get out of there. Because I knew Florida was not going to be the place that could cater to me. I'm not bashing my home state. I love Florida. I mean, you know, that's my bitch. But I knew at the time it wasn't a conversation to be had about HIV at all. And it needed to be. I knew I needed to go to a place where there were people who looked like me, going through the same thing; and there were places that provided services and support -- treatment.
I have a great, great doctor: Dr. Tejani. He's awesome, not judgmental at all. We talk about his kids. It's very personal. And it's important to have a doctor that you feel like is a part of your family. Because they are a part of your family. He doesn't treat me like a number. He's very concerned about my health, which is a great thing. He does what he can to make sure that I am getting the best possible treatment.
I'm currently taking Norvir [ritonavir], Truvada [tenofovir/FTC] and Reyataz [atazanavir], which at first, it was a bit of an adjustment from the Atripla [efavirenz/tenofovir/FTC]. But it works. And I'm here. So as far as my treatment has grown, as far as with anything, I had to find out what works for me. And I did. I'm healthy. I'm undetectable. The viral load, she's, like, hella low. Like to the point where she's like, "Girl, we're just going to let you ..." So I'm excited.
From when you were diagnosed, how long was it till you started treatment?
I was diagnosed in 2003. Well, it says 2004 on the poster, but it was actually 2003. I didn't start treatment until like 2009. So I didn't really get on it right away -- because, again, it didn't exactly exist to me. Taking that pill meant, "OK, this is really some reality for your ass." So I had to get adjusted to that.
How do you access your HIV meds? Is it private insurance, Medicaid, ADAP?
ADAP, boo. ADAP. Them meds high. I'm just going to keep it real. Throw science out the window, the medical terminology. Honey, them pills is high. One capsule ... Hell, a bottle is a mortgage. It's ridiculous how high these pills are. But I'm grateful for ADAP. That's why we need to continue to fight to keep ADAP. Because ADAP is a program that is allowing people to have the access to the medications they need, to keep on living.
Because once you take away ADAP and these other programs that are funded specifically for us, we're going to die. I hate to put it like that. But we will die! That's why I need the government to stop chirping about ADAP. And I said it.
You said you were undetectable.
Do you know your CD4 count?
My CD4 count is 450.
What else do you do to try to keep healthy? Do you exercise? Do you have a diet?
I exercise. I dance a lot. Dancing really helps me stay focused, spiritually and physically. Diet: Girl, you are what you eat. No, but I do try to stay on a consistent, not-so-much-fried-stuff diet. But I definitely like to eat.
What kind of work do you do now? Can you say where you're working now?
I actually am the CEO and founder of my own company, called Bows & Arrows, which is an international approach to the arts, and HIV awareness, spreading it across the world and inspiring young people to become powerful.
I'm an artist, musician, dancer, visual artist, literary artist. I wear so many hats: Google me. And not in a bad way, but really it's a lot that I do. Mainly the umbrella is: I'm an artist.
Do you ever get sick of talking about HIV?
Yeah. There is some fatigue at times. But at the same time, I know that it's needed to be talked about. Because, although we do talk about it, I don't think we talk about it enough. And I don't think we go to the places that need to hear it; I think we, a lot of times, preach to the choir. We need to go to a lot of these heterosexual communities and talk about this, from our perspective -- to show them we're really not that different.
And, quite frankly, you all need to listen up. Because this is serious. It's not like a sexual issue. This is a human issue. So, as human beings, we should be able to be receptive to what HIV has to say.
How do you think having HIV has changed you?
It's changed me a whole lot. It's given me a purpose, and it's allowed me to build a platform, not only just for myself. People who look -- and don't look -- like me can say, "There is someone out there who really is taking on this fight." I just want to be able to fight in a very creative way, that I can leave my mark on here, when I do leave -- and say that I fought the good fight, and I left some color for the world.
Last question. What advice would you give someone who had just found out that he or she is positive?
Baby, it's not the end of the world. It's not the end of the world. Find a support system. And if you don't have a support system, if you don't feel appreciated where you are, leave. Find people who are going to appreciate you, who are going to nurture you, and who are going to want your success to be flourishing. Just don't give up hope. Because this is not a death sentence. ... I know you're freaking out. But just breathe, take a second. Breathe, take a second.
And you're going to be OK. Put on your heels and keep walking.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.