Sometimes people ask me how I find the courage to be out as a Black gay man and HIV/AIDS activist. These days it's just who I am. I have great self-esteem, but that hasn't always been true. Developing a sense of my own self-worth hasn't been easy. And becoming infected with HIV is part of the price I've paid for not having it earlier.
Growing up Black and gay in Maryland was very difficult. My big brother, Jared, had been popular in middle school; I rode on his coattails. But by high school, Jared had moved away to live with my mother and stepfather; I stayed with my father. Now that I was alone, people talked about me. I tried to fit in, but that didn't help. I was called faggot a lot, and it hurt.
I knew I was gay, but I had no positive outlets and nobody to talk to. I didn't feel that I could tell my school counselors. I didn't have many friends because I was so scared about what they might see in me or tell others. During gym I was very careful, ensuring that my locker wasn't near anyone else's. Sometimes I would get into trouble because I didn't want to change in front of the other guys. One year I got a C in physical education because I didn't want to change into my gym clothes.
At home I was told that gay people were going to hell. I often wondered if my parents knew that I was gay. I grew up in a very religious household -- my father was a deacon. Churchgoing was required, but the services didn't move me. Fortunately, my minister never preached against homosexuality. Still, I stayed at war with myself, wanting to purge this "disease" called homosexuality. In school and in my neighborhood, I heard that who I was and what I stood for was wrong. I often contemplated killing myself.
When I think of the most tragic parts of my life, hearing such homophobic messages ranks with learning that I was HIV-positive, and it contributed to my low self-esteem. Deep inside I was dying, and even though I tried to act strong, the pressures got to me. Afraid of being called faggot or sissy -- and not realizing the ramifications for others or myself -- I began living a lie and dating a very sweet girlfriend. I battled my sexuality and sexual identification, unaware that impersonating others would lower my sense of self-worth.
I came out as bisexual at Frostburg State University in Maryland because I thought it was better than being gay. Again, I had a girlfriend. My roommate and some of my dorm mates didn't like my bisexuality. My roommate allowed a certain baseball player to enter our room, choke and beat me, and call me derogatory names. Fortunately, I had enough self-esteem to call the cops. He was arrested.
Nevertheless, my grades slipped and I flunked out of first semester. I started drinking a lot and doing a little cocaine. I lived with my father again for a very hot minute, but we argued all the time, so I moved out. I nose-dived into the club scene and found new friends. Many had been through similar experiences, had low self-esteem and engaged in risky behavior, whether unprotected sex, excessive drinking or drugs. I wanted to feel the love and acceptance that I should have felt while growing up. Sadly, I found it too late: I was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2006. Unfortunately, I wasn't alone; six of my friends also tested positive. Only three of us are living today. I think of my friends often -- living and deceased -- as I consider how much life has changed.
Today I feel so much better about myself. My father and mother have been the most powerful people in my life. Today they accept me and the fact that I am gay and HIV-positive, and I am grateful for their supportive presence in my life. Three years ago I met a beautiful man. Even though I feared that no one would ever want me again, I found the courage to be honest with him about my HIV status. He loved me anyway and breathed life into my spirit by opening my mind and soul.
As I started feeling better about myself, I stopped engaging in risky behaviors. I also started eating right, taking classes again, treating people more respectfully and exercising a little. With each change, my self-esteem improved. I also launched Justin's HIV Journal. I feel really good about all the people it helps: the scared 19-year-old I took to the clinic, the newly diagnosed 21-year-old who needed AIDS services, the 42-year-old who reached out because he needed a friend.
All of these changes gave me strength, and now, standing at 5 feet 6, I feel 10 feet tall.
And that beautiful man? We were married in 2009. Love conquers all, including HIV.
Believe in yourself, stay strong and love yourself.