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Larry Bryant

January 2006

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Larry Bryant 

About Larry Bryant

Table of Contents

Personal Bio

Tell us a little about your life.

I live in northwest D.C., about a mile from the Capitol and a few blocks from Howard University, right in the middle of a diverse brownstone neighborhood. I live alone, but someday I want to get married, have children, and live happily ever after. ... One of my favorite movies is Love Jones. I dream of meeting that one woman who becomes your life -- and of just belonging to someone. I work for Housing Works as national field organizer here at the D.C. Federal Advocacy Office.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in D.C. and went to high school here, but my dad was in the Air Force so I spent time in Hawaii, Texas, Kansas City, different places -- I was an Air Force brat.

What did you want to grow up to be when you were a kid?

I remember I was five or so and The Towering Inferno came out, and I told my dad after seeing the movie that I wanted to be an architect. Why a burning building would inspire me to be an architect I don't know! But once I figured out what it took to be an architect, I didn't want to do all the math.

What kinds of work have you done?

I went to college as a graphic design and commercial art major, but after the first couple of semesters, I got bored and impatient. I was already making money designing T-shirts and posters that were all over campus, so I got very interested in an educational psychology class that I was taking. So I started going toward education -- teaching.

In the years after college, it was hit-or-miss. After being diagnosed, everything I thought about doing was really temporary and up in the air. I played semi-pro football for a couple of years, and still had some aspirations of going pro -- I had a lot of pro tryouts, NFL and Canadian Football League, and for a while I even had an agent. But I got ill after my third year of semi-pro -- first, I hurt my Achilles tendon, which slowed me down. Then I developed a tumor on one of my adrenal glands, which would probably have killed me within about three months if it hadn't been treated. At the time, I thought, "OK, here I go. This is it" -- being HIV positive, it was right around that 10-year point -- "I'm dying." But it was corrected, and I remember the doctor telling me that if I wanted to play football again, I could. It wasn't HIV-related -- it was just something that had happened.

At that point, I took it as a hint. I made a promise to myself that I was going to make everything count after that. That was the point that I stopped playing football and started teaching and working in the social-service fields.

What work did your parents do?

My dad was in the Air Force, and my mom worked for the federal government. Now she works at the Pentagon. She wasn't in the building on September 11, but she was in the neighborhood -- I will never forget that morning.

Who are the most influential people in your life?


My parents are always going to be there. They still serve as my main influence, and they're usually the people I talk to first about anything. But I gain a lot of inspiration from the people I advocate for. I meet people all over the place who come from all kinds of backgrounds and are dealing with all sorts of things, and they inspire me every day. People always joke with me, saying I'm a real important person now that I work in D.C. -- and half the time I'm on Capitol Hill shaking hands and having lunch with Senate staffers and all that stuff. But I always have to turn it back and say, "I will never be as important as the people I work for." When I talk with people out in the field, I want to instill in them the fact that I'm there for them, and the reason is not just that people need assistance and help but because they are my main source of inspiration.

I've been blessed that I don't have to worry about medications, about health issues or being homeless. But in a heartbeat, I could very easily be one of those people that I advocate for, in the most dire situations. When the C2EA [Campaign to End AIDS, a nationwide grassroots movement of people with HIV that culminated in a march on Washington, D.C., in November 2005] caravan went through the Gulf Coast last summer, the people there who were dealing with the effects of the hurricanes on top of being positive and living in the South still wanted to wait on us hand and foot and make sure we were comfortable. And I just thought that was the most incredible thing.

Do you consider yourself an AIDS activist?

I never would consider myself an activist, but I guess what I do has become that. Before meeting Charles King [the cofounder and executive director], I never heard of Housing Works, but now that I'm here I understand where I fit in. He has his dynamic and seemingly larger-than-life presence, but when I met him I had no idea who he was, so I think I had an advantage there, because I wasn't blinded by seeing him in person. As much spotlight as he draws, he's very good at deferring it. He loves the idea that people, when put in a particular position, can be just as productive and honorable as anyone. So I remember asking him, after he offered me a job, "Are you sure you want me?" Reading all these clips about him and ACT UP and all these sit-ins and protests, I don't see me doing this. And he was like, "Yeah! Sure!" But now it's about being comfortable with the process and the sense of urgency -- and we all feel that -- but sometimes we have a difficult time developing the confidence to access it.

What does activism mean to you?

It can be as simple as not settling; things need to change. And I think over time people who are positive have become complacent. A lot of people in the early '80s fought and died so that we could have the Ryan White CARE Act, ADAP [AIDS Drug Assistance Program], and all the benefits and services that we have. And somewhere in the early '90s, people stopped fighting. We have become accustomed to believing we will always have these services. But now things are going backward and we're trying to wake people up to the fact that we just can't take these things for granted. The millions of people who have died from this disease -- we can't just accept that. So, an activist, to me, is someone who's not going to stand for it. The trick is how to make a legitimate and articulate message that people will listen to.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I've gotten into community theater. I was in an audition just this past Sunday for a play and I had to sing a little bit in addition to doing a reading. It's an outlet -- I'm terrified when I get up there and do it, but despite my personality, I just follow right along with it.

Are you a religious or spiritual person? Do you attend a church?

I'm very much spiritual, not so much religious. I was raised pretty much in Oakland Baptist Church here in Alexandria, Virginia, but honestly, I haven't been to church on a regular basis since high school. I'm less enchanted with being in the pew than with just having a free spirit and understanding where you are and how you feel.

HIV Diagnosis

How did you find out you were HIV positive?

I didn't go and get tested. It was spring of 1986, between my freshman and sophomore year in college, and being a scholarship athlete, one requirement was to do community-type work, and one thing I did was just donate blood at the blood bank. So after maybe my third or fourth visit, the nurse stopped me and said the doctor needed to speak to me before I went back with the rest of the guys to donate, and that's when I was told. They found the antibodies to the virus in my blood, and therefore I could not donate blood. That was before pre- and post-test counseling, so they were like, "OK! Have a good day!" And from that point, I was off on my own.

What were your feelings when you were first diagnosed?

It's easy now to say it was shock, but at the time, it just seemed like everything was in slow motion. I knew exactly what the doctor was saying, but I just didn't. ... It was like denial:

"It must be wrong, it must be a mistake." And complete terror, because in the mid-'80s every other day on the news or in the paper you heard that someone had just died of some AIDS-related illness -- Rock Hudson, Liberace. The term "HIV positive" didn't exist -- it was just "You have AIDS, and you're going to die." And pretty much the doctor told me that. I'll never forget it. He told me, "You may not show symptoms or you may not have any related illnesses, but at the most it'll be 10 years." And I was 18!

How did your feelings change over time?

Later, as it started to sink in, I began to realize that anything I had thought about doing in the future I might as well pencil out. It was: "What can I do that will be fulfilling for the next two to three years?"

Over time, obviously I became more knowledgeable about the whole process -- not just me physically, but the whole system of social effects that HIV has had on the world -- opposed to "I'm HIV positive" and how it affected me. That numbs the sting a little bit. I look at it as a larger community thing, which is how I got into activism.

How long do you think it takes to process a diagnosis?

I've been positive for 20 years, and after 20 years I've learned to deal with it -- just to be able to survive and work and live a fairly normal existence. But some people never get to that point. I'm very surprised when some people I meet in the work I do who are newly diagnosed, and they appear to be handling it very well. So I think that's more or less an individual thing. And a lot of things that affect that individual perception are just other co-factors they're living with, what else is affecting them in their life. Sometimes people, particularly in lower socioeconomic areas, tend to have what you think of as a much harder life and they may be more numb -- sometimes that makes a difference. Your support system sometimes makes a difference.

What advice would you offer someone who has just tested positive?

Just take a deep breath, because your immediate reactions might be to do something that will make the situation worse. So it's like, think, and feel, and hold on. Don't panic -- again, a lot of this is easier said than done -- but just take a deep breath. And do as much as you can beforehand -- you know, if you're in a situation where you are knowingly getting tested, do as much as you can to equip yourself. Some of us think, "Oh, I can take it when I get it," but you never know what it's going to feel like.

What conditions in your life put you at risk for HIV?

I know the risk categories as they would apply to me, and the only possible way was through unprotected heterosexual sex. And normally when I speak to a group, especially to kids in high school or college, I try not to break it down like that, because sometimes it almost sounds like I'm trying to distance myself: "Oh-no-no-no-no-no, I'm not gay!" But I want them to understand that unprotected sex comes in many forms, and I say it that way.

I think the only real awareness I had of AIDS was what I saw on TV -- people like Rock Hudson and Liberace. It was the "gay disease." I didn't hear about the whole intravenous-drug connection. It was one of those things that you know is out there, but it wasn't really me.

When you look back, what could you have done to avoid being infected?

I can't think of anything specific. The idea of using condoms has always been out there, for pregnancy -- and before HIV there were gonorrhea and herpes and other things, so there were prevention-type messages around. People weren't taking them seriously because it was always "Well, go get a shot or take a pill and you'll be OK." There wasn't the peer group or face-to-face people -- the outreach and education, especially on the grassroots level. Here again, the president himself didn't talk about it, so people below him in his administration -- and certainly not in schools -- weren't really talking about it. And it's sad because a lot of that is still not in existence, and what little grassroots organizing there is, is losing funding. It's hard to say what message would have "saved" me.

What is the first thing someone should do when they find out they have HIV?

The easy answer, I think, is, "Get help." Talk to someone, get it out -- not necessarily out in the open, but understand where you are. I think a lot of people either attack it head-on almost with overkill, like a panic situation, or they completely ignore it and figure, "There's nothing I can do about it now -- I'm just going to roll up and die." But I think people should just do everything they can to assess where they are and what they need to keep themselves where they are. Because it's not necessary for people to readjust everything -- it's more about making sure the status quo is protected, and then build from there.

How has having HIV changed you?

I make sure that every step I take is a step worth taking, because it's one you can't repeat. So everything I involve myself in, whether it be work or some extracurricular hobby or whatever. ... You begin to taste your food a little more, you begin to feel the breeze a little more, and everything just becomes a little more colorful and alive. That's what happened to me. It's the ultimate level of appreciation.

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This article was provided by TheBody.

See Also
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