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On Being Young, Gay, HIV Positive, Paraplegic -- and an Advocate

An Interview With Raymond Jackson -- Part of the Series This Positive Life

March 1, 2011

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This Positive Life

Welcome to This Positive Life! Raymond was born with HIV. At age 4, he suffered a stroke that left him paraplegic. He didn't realize he had HIV until 1992, when he was only 12 years old. And as if that was not difficult enough, he was reeling from his mother's death and struggling with his sexuality as a gay youth. But he persevered. Raymond talks to us about his incredible journey, the hardships of being different, the pressures of dating, and the things he does to combat HIV stigma and educate others who may also feel out of place.


Inspiring stories of people living with HIV.

Can you start by describing how you found out you were HIV positive?

Well, I found out, Olivia, that I was HIV positive at 12. I was born with it. I was diagnosed in 1992, January the 6th. What happened was my father was an intravenous drug user, so he gave it to my mother and then I got it through birth. So I found out at 12 that the reason I was taking medication all those years before then was because of my HIV status.

So you had been taking medication?

Yes.

Do you remember when you started?

I think ever since I was born. I don't know clearly because I was so young, but I believe it was ever since I was born, I was taking something.

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Now was your mother also taking medications too?

She didn't want to because she was very spiritual, a very spiritual woman. The funniest thing, how they met, her and my father, they met while she was doing prison ministry. So my mother was a good girl, virgin, everything. Just a good girl and she really didn't want to because of embarrassment, because of lack of knowledge. It was 1992, so the AIDS epidemic was really fairly new. So she took me off of the medication as well, when I was a little bit around 1, because she believed that God would just instantaneously heal me right then and there, and it was tragic because I became paraplegic, had a stroke at 4, became paraplegic and that's when everything happened.

So now was your mother still with you at age 4?

No, she died when I was 3, of AIDS.

So who was caring for you at that time?

My grandmother. My grandmother, really, she took me in when I was 4. She's a blessing. She's wonderful and she really was my lifesaver from me being put into foster care and all of those things like that. So she really made my life even better. She definitely did spoil me and I have a lot of luxury because of my grandmother. My grandmother is the very reason why I take my medicine today. So she's the very reason, even though she may not know that. But she is.

That's beautiful. So now was she the one who told you when you were 12 that you were HIV positive?

Yes. She was the one who told me as well as the doctors. I go to University of Medicine and Dentistry in northern New Jersey and my doctor is Dr. Dashevsky. He told me. And he's been working with me since I was a little boy. So when he told me, it was really shocking. I didn't really know what it was. I wasn't really knowledgeable on HIV/AIDS because I was only 12.

"At the same time of them telling me that I was HIV positive, I also told them that I was gay. So it kind of put a lot of tension within the family."

Had you heard of HIV at all or AIDS?

I heard of it, but I heard a lot people who were gay or in the lifestyle only died with it. So that leads to my other thing. That it was really funny because at the same time of them telling me that I was HIV positive, I also told them that I was gay. So it kind of put a lot of tension within the family, caused a lot of problems. A lot of people were misunderstood, especially me, because my family is very -- I'm Baptist, so they're very strong about these people -- fire, brimstone people. So it was very frustrating being HIV positive as well as being gay.

So you already knew you were gay?

Yeah, I already knew.

How long had you known?

My cousin says that when I was 3, I told her I wanted to be a girl. I don't know how that happened. I don't know if it was true or not. But I was always different than other boys. Never liked to play in the dirt. Was told not to by my grandmother. I was afraid to. I didn't do a lot of things, didn't play with trucks. I liked playing with Barbies. Plus, I was raised around girls. I watched a lot of Cinderella movies. Every movie of Cinderella.

So it was really a good thing, very, very, very good. And I always was curious about boys, always. And I think what really helped me to discover it was, I remember there was a boy in preschool and we were always on the computer together and we were -- you know how kids are curious at that age -- so we would do things we weren't supposed to do behind the little things, but I didn't know what homosexuality was at that point. I thought homosexuality was when a person has sex in their home.

Oh!

Because when you really break down the syllables: Home-O-Sexuality. So you would really think -- I thought personally that that's what it was, even though I heard it in church, still didn't understand it until it actually was me.

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