Scarlet Letter "A"
A College Campus AIDS Advocate Speaks Out
I would like to share three stories, more specifically, one story involving three people: Billy, Danny, and Chris. Similarities? All three were college students. They were all gay men. And they were young, very young and living with HIV.
I must confess I don't know much about Billy other than he grew up on a farm and majored in Biology. He also enjoyed writing poetry, and after graduation he applied to a graduate program in Creative Writing. Billy knew he didn't have the best qualifications for the program because, as a Biology major, he'd only taken a few English classes. Nonetheless he had often been told his poetry was "pretty good," so he was hopeful. Much to Billy's delight, I would imagine, he was not only accepted into the program but awarded a fellowship as well.
When Billy met his professors and fellow graduate students, he confided in a select few. "I have AIDS," I imagine Billy stating. "Not only that, I've had it for several years now and quite honestly I don't know if I'll be around long enough to complete my Ph.D." Despite this realization, or perhaps because of it, Billy focused solely on his studies and his writing. He did little, if anything, to draw attention to his seropositive status. So when he grew sick a mere four months after his arrival and stopped attending classes, most of his professors and fellow students didn't know why. Indeed, it was only right before Billy died -- a few days before the dawning of spring -- that most people found out.
While Danny was in college, he seemed content. He joined the Black Student Union and was elected President for two years. He pledged a fraternity and was elected its President as well. He was the student selected to break ground for the university's multi-million dollar Black Culture Center. Danny was arguably one of the more well-known, well-respected students on his campus. But Danny had a secret. He was gay, and he found it extremely difficult to reconcile this fact with the person he wanted to be.
At some point in his academic life, probably his junior year, Danny tested positive for HIV. He told no one. Instead, he withdrew from the university, transferring to another school a few hundred miles away. When Danny felt comfortable, he told his mother and sister about his diagnosis. They offered their support. Not long after, Danny told his partner about his status and suggested he be tested. When Danny's partner learned he was also positive, he became convinced that Danny had "given him" the disease. He retaliated by beating Danny with a skillet.
One night, Danny received a phone call around midnight. After a brief conversation, he borrowed his sister's car and disappeared into the night. By sunrise, he hadn't returned. A few days later, the police found the abandoned car on the side of a highway. There were blood stains in the driver's seat.
Weeks passed; months passed. In a large city with a police force well-versed in missing person's cases, the mystery of Danny's disappearance could not be solved. Finally, a year and a half after he vanished, two hikers and their young children discovered a skull in the woods six miles from where the car had been abandoned. It was Danny's. His murder remains unsolved.
During my undergraduate years, I experienced a growing awareness of self, including the realization that I am gay. As I came out, I was intrigued by the seemingly nonplussed reactions of my close friends and family. While some of them were surprised, others were not. Regardless of their reactions, they all accepted me without reserve. I have always cherished that sense of acceptance.
I graduated from college a few weeks after my 21st birthday and began graduate school shortly thereafter. I had no qualms about being openly-gay in graduate school and experienced few, if any, negative repercussions. Halfway through my Masters coursework, I tested positive for HIV. As I sat in the student health center, pretending to listen to the doctor's counseling, I reflected on my life, particularly my undergraduate years, where people accepted me uninhibitedly. Since the people in my life had demonstrated their acceptance of me as an openly gay person, I figured they could accept me as an openly HIV-positive person. Thus, I knew I would tell others about my diagnosis; I just didn't know how or when.
Ironically, fifteen minutes later, I had an impromptu conversation with the president of the school's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) student organization, the Triangle Coalition (Tri-Co). I decided to come out as positive to Tri-Co in the hopes that they would realize that, despite our tendency to think otherwise, HIV is a real facet of our lives. A few days later, the editor of the school newspaper, recognizing me as an AIDS advocate in the campus community, requested a quote for a story she was writing on college students' attitudes towards HIV/AIDS. I informed her that I'd tested positive a few days before. After embracing me, my editor friend stepped back, then asked if she could make me the focal point of her story. I said yes.
Consequently, nine days after my diagnosis, the university community picked up the school newspaper expecting to peruse coverage of that weekend's football game. (This was, after all, Homecoming weekend at a Big 12 school.) Instead, the cover story was an in-depth explication of my HIV diagnosis. During the following weeks and months, I discussed HIV/AIDS issues with numerous classes and student organizations. To my surprise, countless strangers stopped to thank me for my frankness. In addition, several students informed me that reading the story had inspired them to get tested.
That's my part of the story.
Billy, Danny, and Chris. Differences? First, the admittedly biased way I told the story. You may have also guessed it by now, but just in case you haven't, you should know that the three of us attended the same university at the same time. The most striking difference to me is that two of them are dead and one is alive. Interestingly, the one who is alive is the one who, it could be argued, took the most palpable strides in speaking about HIV, the one who readily wore the scarlet letter "A." But that doesn't make him the hero of the three.
Art by Russell McGonagle
AIDS Advocacy on College Campuses
People have asked me, "Why did you do it? Why would you choose to reveal the intimate details of your health status to the university community?" In retrospect, receiving a positive diagnosis was a surprise for me. I hadn't been that shocked since 1980 when I learned Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. But in addition to the surprise, I viewed my diagnosis as a prime opportunity to:
Confront the apathy. On my campus, efforts at HIV prevention and education were largely overlooked. People simply did not want to contemplate the issues. One of the primary reasons for my openness was the desire for people to consider the ramifications of their lackluster attitudes towards HIV/AIDS. I knew I could do this by putting the proverbial face on the disease.
Break the silence. No one talked about it. For instance, when Billy Vance died, nothing was done; not in the immediate sense anyway. I remember walking through the English Department, hearing people discuss their upcoming comprehensive exams and the like. Not a word about the fact that one of our own had died. I'll never understand how those individuals could treat death so cavalierly.
Counter the ignorance. It amazed me, as I undertook my speaking tour, how many students didn't know how HIV is contracted and spread; how many of them viewed AIDS as a "gay disease," and this almost three decades into the pandemic. Speaking out provided me the opportunity to correct the misinformation and prejudice, and, as previously stated, it galvanized some students to seek testing.
Top 10 Things You Can Do to Fight HIV/AIDS at Your College or University
Get tested. Everyone has an HIV status. You should know yours. How can you be comfortable not knowing?
Integrate HIV/AIDS issues into your classes. Write about it in English. In your Sociology and Women's Studies classes, discuss why women are disproportionately infected. Bring it up. Yell out "WHEN ARE WE GONNA TALK ABOUT AIDS?!" Sit back down and see what happens (and please, drop me a line and let me know.)
Students should get tested. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, college-aged adults have one of the most prevalent instances of HIV infection in the U.S.
Beware of AIDS propaganda. How many times have you attended a "red ribbon" event where an HIV-positive person materializes as the talking head, then disappears, never to be heard from again.
Get tested. Make sure your school provides venues for students, faculty, and staff to get tested. Not only that, work to break the mold of HIV testing. For instance, I went back to my school a few months ago to visit friends. While there, I learned that students are not obligated to go to the health center for testing. They can be tested in their residence halls and fraternity and sorority houses as well. In addition, the school's Black Culture Center, Women's Center and GLBT Resource Center have teamed up to offer monthly testing. During the month I visited, the Women's Center had run out of tests, providing sixty in one day.
Volunteer at the ASO of your choice. AIDS service organizations are always on the lookout for good volunteers. Spend some time at one and bring the knowledge back to your school via a program or training.
Get tested. It's easy.
Protect yourself. HIV/AIDS is preventable. You don't want it.
Get tested. It's free.
Move beyond the "red ribbon mentality." It's become a ritual for colleges and universities to present HIV/AIDS programs to commemorate World AIDS Day. At these programs, the audience proudly dons the ubiquitous red ribbons in a show of solidarity. Then, when the program concludes, they promptly discard them. This blasé, here today, gone tomorrow attitude is indicative of the "red ribbon mentality." Might I suggest you do the unexpected by moving beyond this mentality. Coordinate a program that does not coincide with World AIDS Day or rely on disposable symbols to convey empathy. Realize that people living with HIV/AIDS live with the disease 365 days a year. Develop programs and curriculum to reflect this. By doing so, you may find that beyond the red ribbon lies the true call to activism.
I'm considering returning to school next fall. In doing so, I inevitably think of the trinity Billy, Danny, and I created. Moreover, I can't help thinking we weren't the only ones; that at a university with a student population numbering over 20,000, there would have to have been more than three HIV-infected people. I'll never know who the others were, nor is there any particular reason why I should.
But I knew Billy and Danny. They weren't just faces in the crowd. Danny once sat in my living room watching music videos. For four months, I passed Billy in the hallways of the English Department. He died on my 23rd birthday. Because of this inextricable link I feel to Billy and Danny, they remain in my thoughts. For me, this story never ends.
Editor's Note: Chris Bell died in December 2009.