Table of Contents
- Personal Bio
- HIV Diagnosis
- African-American Identity and HIV
- HIV, Health Care and Treatment
- Disclosure, Relationships and Sex
- Resolutions, Adventures and Wishes
Tell us a little about your life.
I currently live alone, but I'm very close to my mom and my mom's side of the family. I am recently re-establishing a relationship with my father, and I have a brother and sister by my dad as well, so I'm re-establishing those relationships. I've been an associate editor at Positively Aware, an HIV treatment journal from the Test Positive Aware Network (TPAN), since June 2005, and I have a kitten. His name is Hemphill, for Essex Hemphill, the great black gay author and AIDS activist who died of AIDS in 1995.
What's the community like where you live?
It's very diverse. I live right around the corner from TPAN -- different kinds of people, economic ranges, class ranges. I can walk down the street and have people offer to sell me crack and have people ask me to buy it for them.
Where did you grow up?
On the south side of Chicago. It was difficult because I've known all my life that I'm attracted to men, and, at the time, I was interested in keeping it a secret and hopefully ridding myself of those thoughts. However, even through that, I was this very creative, active, outgoing kid.
What did you want to grow up to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be an audio engineer, specifically for Janet Jackson.
What kinds of work have you done?
I was the head cashier for Sport Mart when I was in high school, and I worked at McDonald's and Subway. Before I was at TPAN, I was a claims adjuster for Allstate. I was also the manager for a skating rink, which was probably the most fun.
What kind of work did your parents do?
My dad was a mechanic, although he wasn't really around. Now he's an electrician. For the majority of my youth, my mother was a stay-at-home mom, and my stepdad worked at the post office, and he took care of us. Then she went back to school, and now she's an administrative assistant for an energy company.
Who are the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?
Charles Clifton [former Positively Aware editor and executive director of TPAN, who died in 2004] was definitely one of the most influential people. Also, my grandfather. My mother is very influential, even in those ways where I'm like, "I'm never going to be like her." That's influential too. Dr. David Malebranche -- I'm just smitten by him. Dr. King, definitely. People, period, influence me. Because I am a social-work major, I study people, and I'm changed by people's behavior.
What activities are you involved in at the Test Positive Aware Network?
Aside from being an associate editor, I also helped organize an outreach campaign known as TRADE -- Teachin', Reachin', Advocatin', Demonstratin', Empowerin' -- geared toward brothers who get down with other brothers. We are looking to open up the dialogue about safer sex, safer drug use, and just greater responsibility. From that, we have developed a Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus that is all encompassing of the black gay or same-gender-loving experience. We have business owners, researchers, activists, advocates, the health department, community-based organizations, and club owners. Promoters come to the table regularly to discuss how we can address the epidemic in the black MSM [men who have sex with men] community.
Being involved with TPAN and these men's health projects has helped me to grow and learn and to give back what has been given to me in terms of support, understanding, and compassion, because I think we lack that, especially when we talk about the MSM population.
Do you consider yourself an AIDS activist? What does that mean to you?
Well, somebody told me that you have to go to jail in order to be an activist. But, yes, I do consider myself an activist because I am committed to eradicating this virus, specifically from communities of color -- as Malcom X said, "by any means necessary." If it means going and sitting my black ass on the steps of the White House to draw attention to the fact that nobody is paying attention to HIV in communities of color, that's what I'll do. And we've got some pretty radical stuff planned that I'm usually told I'm going to have to tone down, but at this point, I'm not in the business of toning anything down if it's going to get the job done.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love spending time with family and friends. I like to drink and party. I love to go clubbing. I love to read, and I love music and movies. I like to bowl, roller-skate, and I like to boy-watch. I love to travel.
Are you a religious or spiritual person? Do you attend church?
I don't attend a church right now. I have this very weird Joan of Arcadia relationship with God -- I don't know if you're familiar with that show. I feel as if God talks to me all the time, sometimes in a masculine voice, sometimes in a feminine voice. But I can always distinguish when it is God and when it is my ego -- because, you know, they can sound alike. I feel that we have a very good working relationship, in which there are some things that I accomplish for Him and there are some things that She does for me. I wake up in the morning and talk to God in the shower, and it's a very real "You know what, I feel like crap today. Can we do something about it?" kind of thing.
I think that all started when, despite what the church might say, I questioned God. I was 17 or 18 years old, wondering how in the world something as big as HIV could come into my life, and how God could allow for all these atrocities in the world -- poverty and young children being abused sexually, physically, and emotionally, and wars. I just began to question God. And I got this smart-ass remark back in this very clear voice that I was sure was God, which simply said, "How could you allow it?" That kind of kicked off our relationship. I was like "Oh, that's how you're going to play! Okay, fine!" And that changed everything.
How did you find out you were HIV positive?
I was a senior in high school, a member of the Senior Boys' Council. We did an annual Lifesource blood drive, but I hadn't planned to give blood, so my girlfriend at the time punked me. She talked about me being a leader, but not walking what I was talking. So she punked me into donating blood. A couple of weeks later, I got a letter from Lifesource saying not to donate blood anymore and to make an appointment.
Then I made an appointment and had to travel all the way from Hyde Park to Lifesource out by O'Hare Airport. I went in, and that was the news I got. There was a little post-test counseling, but I zoned out, so I don't even remember what that was like. So there was this long ride there, wondering what the hell was going on, and then this long ride back, knowing. It was crazy!
What were your feelings when you were first diagnosed?
Initially, on the train ride back home, I had this odd feeling. Although the protease inhibitors weren't on the market yet and HIV was still viewed as a terminal disease, I had this feeling that everything would be okay. But I still had some doubts and this whole idea of dying young and all of that went through my head.
How did your feelings about living with HIV change over time?
When I was first diagnosed, I thought I needed to live as if I were about to die. I dropped out of school, focused more on working full-time and partying. I was just kind of existing. And then I got to a point where I realized there were medications available that could help me live longer, and I just started to change my whole outlook.
How long do you think it takes to process a diagnosis?
Forever. It's an ongoing process that has different stages. And as long as there's no cure, you'll still be processing that diagnosis.
What advice would you give someone who has just found out he or she is positive?
Tap into whatever support networks are available. I know that's what kept me alive -- the support of my family, friends, TPAN and the support groups. And educate yourself.
What conditions in your life put you at risk for getting infected?
Besides the physical, I also dealt with a great deal of self-esteem issues. I was sure that my sexual orientation was bi, but I was very uncomfortable with it, and I really didn't want that to be. So in trying to hide and keep that away from the people closest to me, I put myself at risk for HIV.
What is the first thing someone should do when they find out they have HIV?
Pray! A big part of that support base is spirituality, so tap into whatever spiritual base you are comfortable with and begin to really seek a higher being.
When you look back, what would have prevented you from becoming infected?
Being secure in who I was. If I'd had someone who was a little older and more experienced sexually -- and who was not trying to have me, which was a huge issue then -- but who was simply trying to guide and counsel me in what it meant to be a man who has feelings for other men ... well, I think things would have been a lot different.
How has HIV changed you?
HIV made me question life. HIV made me question God. And it made me take on a whole new outlook. My life right now is very good, and I'm not sure I would be able to say that had HIV not entered into it, because it really made me explore who I am, why I'm here, and find purpose.