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 bit about yourself.
I live with my lover, Ken, in Baltimore. We have been together for four months. Baltimore is just ... black. But this is like the suburban part, right on the edge of the city -- four blocks up starts Baltimore County where it gets really nice. So I'm right on the edge of that. I need that security when I move anywhere because I can't be scared to walk out my front door.
I am doing a few different things: First and foremost, I just started my own publishing company, SSJ Publishing. I am also finishing up my third book of poetry, The Dawn of a New Day. Also, I am starting a magazine called Invisible, to be targeted to the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] community of color on historically black college campuses across the nation. I'm also studying journalism at Morgan State University.
Where did you grow up?
Newark, New Jersey.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
What kinds of work have you done?
My work experience, mostly, is in accounting. My longest actual job was in New Jersey at the African American Office of Gay Concerns as the administrative coordinator for them -- payroll, budgets and writing grants. I coordinated volunteers. You name it ... I did it. Now, here in Baltimore, just to supplement my income, I write for the local gay paper, Gay Life.
What work did your parents do?
My father was a garbage man, and my mom was a drug addict and an alcoholic -- she had a job here and there but never anything stable. My father was a functioning drug addict. He went to work Monday through Friday and on the weekend he did his drugs.
Who are the most influential people in your life?
Personally, Grandma ... hands down! My grandmother, my father's mother, made me realize what it means to actually love somebody regardless -- no clauses, no nothing -- just because you're family -- because I am an extension of her.
Professionally, it would have to be my old boss at the African American Office of Gay Concerns, Paul Wright. From day one it was a lesson on how to operate -- how to do HIV prevention, deal with kids, adults, the state, anything. Anything that I needed to do professionally, Gary Paul Wright taught me.
Are you a religious or spiritual person?
I am a spiritual person. I am not necessarily religious.
What are your feelings about the church?
Well, I grew up a Baptist. My grandmother took me to church every day. So once I realized that the people that they were talking about as devils was me, once I was old enough to say that I didn't want to go to church and not get sniped down to the floor, I stopped going. Then I tried to go back, but the more I listened, the more I realized that they were sitting up there talking about me. They want to call me a devil, they want to say that I am going to hell, and they want to say that my life is an abomination -- and then they want me to pay them! I was just like, "I'm not going to pay you to talk about me." That's just stupid. I'm just like, "That is the last thing that I will ever do. If I am going to go somewhere for a fellowship, it's not going where you can use the Bible the way you want it."
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I write! On top of everything else, when I get a spare moment I sit down and I write. I have a blog on my Web site, www.sheltonjackson.com. I'm in the process now of trying to write my first novel. I have three very different ideas about how to write it, so I am writing three different books at the same time.
How did you find out you were HIV positive?
My partner tested positive, and we were in a monogamous relationship so I kind of just knew. We were two years into our relationship so we had stopped using protection: If he was positive, I was positive. But that didn't make me go get tested. My friends actually made me go get tested, because I knew, but I didn't want to know.
What were your feelings when you were first diagnosed?
I ignored it, to be completely honest, because my partner found out when he got pneumonia. When he came out of the hospital, he still wasn't 100 percent. So I just devoted all of my energy to taking care of him. I just forgot about me, which is what I wanted to do anyway.
How did your feelings change over time?
They changed during the third year after my partner tested positive -- he got pneumonia for the third time and we didn't think he was going to make it. For me, the only thing that made being positive okay was him. Because my idea was, "If you get sick, I'll take care of you. If I get sick, you'll take care of me." But when it looked like he wasn't going to make it, I was going to be alone. So it was either take care of myself, or I would die by myself.
How long do you think it takes to process a diagnosis?
It's different for everybody. I went into denial for three years. Then it took me another year to say it to anybody else. So it was four years after I actually tested positive before I even did anything about it. I honestly don't believe that it should take that long, not if you have the structure to support you.
But didn't you have that support?
I had it, but I wasn't willing to engage it because I was the support structure for all my friends. I was the one that everybody came to with all their problems. So when I had a problem, I didn't think they were strong enough to deal with my problems and their problems.
But when I finally told them, it was the best thing that I could have ever done. I live in Baltimore now and if I was to pick up the phone and say, "I need somebody," in two hours there would be a knock on the door saying, "Let me in. I'm here ... what's wrong?"
What advice would you offer someone who has just tested positive?
Basically, the advice I would give to someone who just tests positive is that you need to reevaluate your life, because more than anything it makes you focus on what you haven't done, what you want to do, and the importance of time -- you no longer have the luxury of it.
So it really just makes you focus. You have to make the decision whether you want to live or die -- because if you don't do anything about it, you're going to die. So if it's "I wanna live," then take the steps in order to keep yourself healthy, and not just live, but live the life that you wanna live.
When you look back, would you have done anything differently before either of you tested positive, in terms of the use of condoms in your relationship?
Yes, I would have used condoms. But for me, I was young and na?ve, and the only thing that mattered to me was that there was this other person who loved me like I loved him, so I thought that love would conquer all. So I was blinded by that notion -- and let down my guard. I did not realize that I could still love him and not get infected.
What is the first thing someone who has just found out they have HIV should do?
Call your best friend and pour your heart out and tell him, "I need a hug ... come get me."
How has having HIV changed you?
It's completely changed my life, actually. Because I was infected so young, it just made me look at everything differently. Again, it made me realize the importance of time and the things that I wanted to do with my life. I always looked at it like, "OK, I have a limited time in which to do this, so I have no time to waste." Through the last eight years, I have realized that I can live as long as I want to but I am still very cognizant of the constraints that I feel because of time ... because I am HIV positive.