We talked a little bit about your family and how they responded and how that went for you. How do you decide whether or not to disclose your HIV status to someone?
For the longest time I went under this rule that if we weren't having sex, that was none of your business. But the more I go out and I talk to people, the more I write, the more I realize that my coming out and disclosing my HIV status empowers other people. So now it's a common thing. It's not a big thing for me to say, "Hello, my name is Shelton Jackson and I'm HIV positive." Because just by coming out and saying that, you would be surprised at how it empowers other people. My oldest son, I met him in Atlanta at a scholarship that we had both applied for and we were roommates, and that was the way I introduced myself. From that moment on, he has been looking up to me. He said to me the other day, "I can't believe that you just came out and said that to me, like it wasn't nothing." I'm like, "It's not. It's just who I am."
What is the best response you have ever gotten from telling someone?
My son's reaction. That he looked up to me and that he was proud to just call me a friend. "I can draw strength from you. You seem like a real strong person who don't take no stuff from nobody and I want to be like that."
What is the worst response?
The worst response I got was probably from the people of Baltimore. Because it's almost like an oxymoron to be black, gay and HIV positive in Baltimore. For some reason it just seemed like I was the only black gay person and then, on top of that, I was HIV positive and wasn't afraid to say it. So I have had people talk about me relentlessly, call me all kinds of names, spread rumors -- you know, "Don't talk to him, he got the package" -- block me on the computer, like they could get it through the computer. I just thought that was hilarious.
Where do you go for support?
That's when I turn to my support system, my grandmother and my friends I have elevated to the status of family. I draw all of my support from them. When I am going through something, I pick up the phone. It's weird because I was going through something this weekend, and it seems like just a year ago, I would have been the one with all the answers. Now this weekend, I was sitting there listening to my little brother and I'm like, "Okay, you're getting wiser as you grow up." So it was nice to be on the receiving end of the wisdom than to always be dishing it out.
How has your sex life changed since you become positive?
Well, for the last seven years, I was in a relationship, so it didn't make a difference. My first partner, we were together for six years ... four years of that was positive, and then he passed away, and then it got difficult. I went through the whole thing with my therapist about how to tell people my status. We did the whole role-playing thing, but when the time came for me to actually play it out, it was nothing like what we practiced. My first time going out after my first partner passed away, Thanksgiving, I met this guy and I'm like, "Oh, he's so cute ... yada, yada, yada ... I ain't had sex in a year, this should be interesting." On the way home he asked me about my HIV status. It just completely floored me because I had forgotten that I was HIV positive. I was like, "Oh, snap, I need to tell you that don't I?" And I said, "I'm HIV positive." Then I turned around and I started walking back toward the train. Then he said, "Where are you going?" I said, "That may not have messed you up, but that really messed me up. So I'm just gonna go home. You have a nice life." He stopped me, grabbed my arm, and was like, "Well, wait!" He said, "I'm sure I have had sex with people that are HIV positive, but you are just the first person who has ever told me." And that ended up being my next relationship. It lasted about a year and a half.
Have you faced much rejection from potential sex partners?
Yes. I moved to Baltimore as a single person, and like I said, just being out about my status, it is not the "in" thing to do here in Baltimore ... to let people know that you are HIV positive. So there was no sex because people were afraid of me.
How do you deal with that?
I did something that I wasn't too proud of. I stopped telling people that I was HIV positive. Then my conscience got to me. I realized that I had become one of those people that I said I would never become -- people who just go around having sex with people and don't tell them. It took me a minute, but I was like, "You know what? This is not the person I want to be." So I started telling people again. I had my little profile on the online chat things and I put a nice, big picture of my face and said I was HIV positive.
Do you have a policy about how or if you tell a sex partner that you are positive?
For me, it always has to be up-front. Now it's an up-front thing because I am at this stage in my life where if you can't deal with that, that's your issue, not my issue. I know what I look like naked -- you're the one that's trying to find out!
How do you have that conversation?
It is a straight-up thing. You meet people and people's favorite question is, "Tell me a little about yourself." I hate that question now! But it's, "I'm 28. I'm a student at Morgan. I'm a writer. I'm HIV positive." We go from there. You know, "I'm slim. I'm toned. I'm this. I'm that." But it's there from the get-go. So I know that if they can't handle it, ain't no need to waste my time.
Tell us a little bit about your partner.
[He's] also HIV positive. This is my first time dealing with a younger man. He just turned 23 on World AIDS Day. All of the guys that I've dated have been older men. Then I met this little guy and we just got along. I mean, we were like really in tune with one another. I met him and a week later he was still at my house. I wouldn't let him go home. He would go to work and I would be like, "OK, you coming back?" He finally said, "Do you like me or something? You keep inviting me back." I was like, "You know, I guess I do." He was just like, "I've never had anybody to understand me." He is a smart individual. He is a computer person, so if you put him in front of the computer, he becomes this completely different person. I've learned that when he is sitting in front of the computer, leave him alone. Because to get his attention I literally have to sit on him. Because I am an attention hog. Anything that takes his attention away from me, I have issues with.
Did you make any New Year's resolutions?
Ken and I brought in the New Year real quiet. It was just the two of us. He is my full partner in my publishing company and we were like, "It's going to be a really big endeavor, and this year is going to be big for us."
What's the biggest adventure you've ever had?
Adventure? My trip to London with my ex. It was the first time I had ever actually been overseas, and it was just beautiful to see the way other people lived, other things. I have this fascination with castles. So we got to go see all of these old castles, and I saw the Rosetta Stone and I was like, "Oh my God!" At the British Museum you see everything the British have stolen from everybody -- all their colonies. That was the first time I had real fish and chips in the little paper and everything. It was a wonderful experience.
If you were granted one wish, what would it be?
I would get real personal with that. The world has its own problems, but if I had one wish, it would be to have my father back.
What books, movies, music or TV shows have had a big influence on you?
I don't do TV. I turn my TV on for the Golden Girls and Scooby-Doo. And as far as literature, my first year at Morgan has been very enlightening. One book I got into was Invisible Man. I identified with the Invisible Man and the things that he was going through. Some of the things were stupid, but the underlying "I am invisible to everybody" just rang in my ear. That's one reason the magazine I am starting is called Invisible, because I think that the LGBT community on HBU [historically black university] campuses is just that: invisible.
Anything else you'd like the people reading this article to know about you?
People always look at me and go, "You have been through all of this and you have it all together!" But I try to let people know that HIV is a process -- a growing process. I wasn't always this strong. I wasn't always this vocal about who and what I am. There was a point where I sat in my room and I cried all day. Having to tell the doctor to take my partner off life support and then watching him die in my arms. That has a tremendous effect on you and what you do in life.
So, I don't want people to look at me and go, "This is the person I want to be," and then expect to make that change overnight. This process took seven years for me to get here. It took four years for me to say to other people that I am HIV positive. I just want people to realize that HIV is a process. It's a growing process. It is not going to happen overnight. Only you can determine how fast or how slow you go. I just want people to realize that I wasn't always this strong and I only got this way through the help of my friends, and just wanting to help other people in return.
|SHELTON'S POST-DIAGNOSIS MEDICAL HISTORY|
|CD4+ Count (May 2008): 150 Viral Load (May 2008): 100,000|
|Medications, Side Effects and Illnesses (chronologically)|
|April 1998: Diagnosed after two inconclusive test results|
|2001: Started meds -- Epivir (3TC, lamivudine) + Ziagen (abacavir) + Reyataz (atazanavir) + Viread (tenofovir) + one other (cannot remember)|
|2001: Lost 50 lbs. (went from 155 down to 105); diagnosed with AIDS wasting syndrome|
|2001: Diagnosed with ulcer of the esophagus; treated with Boot for weight gain|
|June 25, 2002: Partner passed away|
|2003: Developed resistance to Epivir|
|2003: Switched meds (CD4 3 / Viral load 199,000) -- Norvir (ritonavir) + Viread + Reyataz + Emtriva (emtricitabine, FTC)|
|November 2006: Stopped meds at CD4 638 / Viral load undetectable (stress resulted in not taking them correctly)|
|May 2008: Weight down to 129 lbs.; started meds -- Retrovir (zidovudine, AZT) + Emtriva + Reyataz + Norvir|
|I got comfortable -- too comfortable -- and started taking my good health for granted, which led me to stop taking my meds. My CD4 count and viral load went from 638 and undetectable to 150 and 100,000 in a year. I am currently fighting again to get my numbers back up and refortify myself. I see myself in the final stage of my evolution, evolving into the person that will carry out my destiny. I am not giving up because I know my struggles with HIV show others that it can be done. So, I fight the good fight and hope that others learn and grow from my struggles, my failures and my accomplishments.
Updated May 2008
Shelton Samad Jackson died on March 2, 2009. Click here for more information.