It's early Friday morning on a warm Spring day in early June. I'm standing in front of a class filled with about 30 teenage girls from all racial backgrounds, at the Young Women's Leadership School in Queens. As I begin to speak, I immediately have their attention. I can hear a pin drop. As I move through my presentation, they cling to their seats. They follow each word with anticipation, as I share an emotional story about a dear friend:
A few years ago, a longtime friend went missing for about five days. His name was Orlando. No one heard from him. He was not answering phone calls, replying to texts, or posting any messages on Facebook. So my other friends and I began reaching out to his family. None of us thought his disappearance was life-threatening, but we were concerned nonetheless. Through further investigation, we learned that he had committed suicide a few days earlier. We were all heartbroken. But naturally, our next response was to try to figure out what caused him to end his life. His mother told us that Orlando had discovered he was HIV positive a few weeks ago. He became depressed and didn't know how to live with it. That was the moment when my heart really sank. It was another life-changing moment for me.
Had I been brave enough to tell him that I was HIV positive, he would probably still be alive. I still believe that to this day. We could have supported each other. We could have gone to the doctor together. We could have spoken about the challenges of taking our meds. But just like him, I was too scared to tell anyone about my status. I didn't know how to stand in my own truth. I kept my HIV diagnosis a secret for six months after finding out. I didn't tell a soul. It wasn't until Orlando died that I decided it was time for me to be brave. I didn't want any more of my friends who might be suffering to feel alone.
Since joining Love Heals' Speakers Bureau as a Freelance Health Educator many years ago, I've had the privilege of traveling throughout New York City to tell my personal story about living with HIV to college and high school students, similar to the school mentioned above. In addition to sharing my own story, I've also educated young people about ways to prevent HIV, and raised awareness about this epidemic that continues to affect us locally, nationally, and globally. Although my goal is to ultimately decrease HIV infections among young people, I also aim to provide contextual insight, share preventive tools, and reintroduce the element of humanity that is so often excluded from the HIV prevention narrative.
As an HIV-positive speaker, I have shared my story with over 25,000 youth throughout the metropolitan area. As a result, I've noticed that I have inspired young people to share their own stories. After seeing the girls' reaction to me disclosing my status, I began to pay closer attention to how my audience responded to my story. I became more aware of and in tune with the different ways that audience members process and respond to the information I provide. I realized that telling my story inspired them to share their own stories. There is an amazing quote by a researcher named Brené Brown, "Every time you tell your story, you make it easy for someone else to tell theirs." I agree with that, and I have continued to experience it time and time again.
Since I have been telling my story at schools and CBOs, some young audience members have requested counseling for past sexual abuse trauma. Others have disclosed their HIV status to me, and for many of those young people, that was their first time doing so. Last year, a 15-year old girl from Long Island approached me in tears, completely distressed and desperate for help because she was more than four months pregnant and had not told anyone. These are just some examples of how sharing my own story helped others share theirs.
The common thread that remains clear and consistent with every single presentation I give is that many young people have stories locked within them that need to be told. Due to fear of judgment, stigma, lack of acceptance and validation, endless ridicule, projected shame, lack of compassion, and disapproval, young people choose to conceal their stories and wear masks instead of asking for help.
How can we expect young people to demand that others recognize the value of their bodies if they don't acknowledge it themselves? How can we teach about HIV when we so often forget that the H stands for "human"? How can we expect youth to ask for help if they have been taught to conceal their pain?
I have always said young people are truly the most resilient people alive. They are growing so fast. They're literally on the brink of adulthood, and in this digital age they have access to so much information at the tap of their finger.
So telling my story is about much more than just HIV education and awareness. It is the first step for many toward healing and addressing an epidemic of silence. As we continue to address HIV prevention, I hope we can remember the humanity that links us all, regardless of our HIV status. We all want to be seen, and we all deserve to be seen, flaws and all. The moment we start talking to each other about what's really happening in our lives -- without fear, shame, and judgment -- is the moment we can start healing and see the value in ourselves and each other, making better informed and healthier decisions.