This Positive Life: Christopher Quarles Creates a Ballroom Family and Succeeds in the Big City
Christopher Quarles tested HIV positive after he noticed that the person with whom he was in a relationship was dodging questions about HIV status. Now, after being positive for almost five years, and undetectable for three, Christopher works as a community health specialist and makes HIV prevention his 24-hour-a-day/seven-day-a-week job.
Christopher left his home in South Carolina because of a broken family dynamic, but knows a lot about making his own family structure. He is a member of the House of Khan in New York City's vibrant ballroom scene, and walks runway under the guidance of his mentor, Luna. He came to Manhattan barely able to afford the subway, but now enjoys an independent life with friends around him and his dog always by his side.
Can you start by describing how you found out that you were HIV positive?
Well, I found out that I was HIV positive back in November of 2008. It was a year after coming out, and it happened really fast. I didn't even expect for this to happen to me, because I was dating someone I really trusted for a year and some change. And, I don't know, it just seems that everything started to go downhill, because we started getting into these arguments. I wanted to move out. He told my parents that I'm gay. I had to deal with that and then a few months down the line, I found out in November that I was positive and I didn't even know how to take it. I found out two days after Thanksgiving.
Was it a routine testing?
It was a "reassuring" test. I wanted to be sure, because I had a feeling that something wasn't right.
Right. And you said that this was in 2008, so you were 20 at the time?
I was 19.
So when you first heard that you were positive, what was the first feeling that came to mind?
The first feeling that came to mind was ... nothing. I thought absolutely nothing. No, wait, I take that back. I thought I was on a Real World episode, because the way that it was given to me, I don't know, I just had no reaction. I actually didn't have any reaction until last year.
You were diagnosed in 2008 and it didn't really hit you until 2012?
It hit me, but it hit me like -- OK, this is a wake-up call. Like, get yourself together. Stop trusting in everyone. Focus on yourself. So, that was what I did. I had a few people help me out through the stages of getting to where I'm at now. But, it was an OK experience. For some reason, I was listening to this song and it made me go back to that time when I was diagnosed, and it was like all those tears that I wanted to cry after being the only one that was dealing with this, and I don't have that much support. It was a relief. Like, OK, I made it this far -- I've done so much in the past four years that I'm able to just let this out. Because I don't know where these tears are coming from! But, they just came out of nowhere.
Before you were diagnosed, you said you had a feeling and that's what led you to get tested. Did you realize that you were at risk for HIV at the time? Was it something that was on your mind?
It didn't hit my mind until the day me and my ex had sex. It was the whole interaction. I'll give a brief description of how it happened. OK, we were having sex. And we really didn't use condoms like that. But he never ejaculated inside of me -- that was never the case. So, the specific day, we were trying new positions, things that I was still new at, because I was still new to the whole being gay and everything. So, I did this new position, and I guess I was doing it well, and he nutted inside of me and his whole facial expression -- and I still remember this after five years, and it's so crazy -- his reaction was "Wow, I nutted in you," and I was like, "But you're OK, right?"
"Oh yeah, I'm fine."
But, the day after, I was looking back on that moment, and I was like, "For you to be someone who says you love me, when you nutted in me, it was like you were nervous." And it wasn't just any type of regular nervous, because he knew that I was OK. It was like, "OK, wow, I really think I infected you." After it had been taught that, "Oh well, he's positive, look out for him, just watch out for yourself." I asked the question, if he was, and he gave me the answer that, no, he wasn't. So, I went with that answer, instead of having him go get tested; I was just very gullible at that age.
As your story tells, you know who you got HIV from.
Yeah, I know exactly where it came from.
Have you spoken to him about it?
We've had the conversation and every time we have the conversation, it's always an argument. He uses this famous line, "Oh, I'll get my results." Or, "I'll get my mother to show you my results." Or, "I'm gonna get my results and I'm gonna give them to my mom and she's gonna call you." But, it's like, hold on, you're older than me. You're going on 28, 29. Why is your mother involved in you getting an HIV test? And, if it was that serious, you could just show me the results. I'm still waiting to see the results. I still haven't seen them. And the last argument we got into was last year, because I did a spotlight story on me being in the ballroom scene and me living with HIV, and my experience -- I explained that I was with this person, he made me feel this way, and I came to find out it was a completely different story. Things twisted, things turned and I ended up being the hurt one at the end of the situation.
There was a ball down there a few years ago called D-Up and my car was down there. I guess my friends seen it and they went back and showed him the post and he saw the whole thing on the back and he said, "Who are you talking about, in the picture?" And I said, "Well, it was you." I have no reason to lie about it, I know it was you. I was not sleeping with anyone else; it was you. I just wanted you to admit to it. If you had admitted it to me, I would have been fine with it. But the fact that you are still going around, tricking other people, making it seem that you are HIV negative when you're not, it doesn't sit well with me, because I don't want anyone else to fall head over heels for you like I did. And I know that this still happens to this day, because he's still a hot commodity. But, it's like, I don't understand, he'll just use that, and it doesn't sit well with me, but I've learned to just let it go, because it's not about you anymore, it's about me.
And you're working on yourself.
Right, so it's like, I don't even stress it. The only time I talk about it is when I have interviews like this. It's more so I'm just disgusted by it than anything else.
Who was the first person that you told about your diagnosis?
The first person I told was my best friend Stacy, and Stacy told his boyfriend Tommy. Those were the first two that actually knew. I actually spoke to my mom about it and I didn't like the reaction I got. It made me kinda like put a shield up against her, as well. Because the fact that you're like, "I don't have time to talk about this," and I'm your child, really hurt me. Until this day, we still don't really talk about it, but you tell my "family" and the whole town that, "Oh, well, he's living with AIDS." After you've had the explanation and you know what I'm going through, how things are going, but you still look at it as "AIDS." It really shows me people's education and it shows me how much people want to know and learn about it.
Down South is just, I don't know. Maybe that's the reason I'm so distant from my family and I'm here in New York, because I feel like I have no support and I will never have support. Even four or five years now and they're still not supportive. I'm doing well, and they're still not supportive. I don't understand.
When you say "down South," where are you from?
South Carolina. I moved to New York from North Carolina in 2010.
Where is your relationship with your family now? Is it at the same point as when you disclosed?
It's gotten worse. It's to the point now where, yeah, I tell my mother some words. I felt bad at first, but then I don't feel bad. Like, you know, I've done the reaching out, the apologizing for things that I did as a child, that as adults we should learn to let go. But the fact that you're still holding onto it and you're holding it over my head, I don't have time for that. I don't want to be in a depressed state, because I really care about my family. I love my family. I was always the one to try to keep everything together, because my family's known for arguing. They're known for all that bickering and stuff. And I just didn't -- I got along with everyone. My mom, she just puts stuff in people's heads and I'm just not willing to entertain that anymore.
Are you in a relationship right now?
I'm not in a "relationship," but I'm in a "mutual understanding" situation.
Yeah, it's complicated. How has having HIV affected your mindset around approaching relationships and your sex life?
So, I've had some very weird experiences with this. I've dated four people since I've been in New York, and I'm on the fifth guy right now. These are dates, people I'm interested in, but of course I've had sex with people -- random people -- just for the hookup. But, the first four individuals, it was kind of creepy, because they all said the same thing as it ended. I was never the one to break the relationship off, because I actually thought the relationship was going well. They knew my status. They knew I was open with it. They were very supportive of me being open and the work that I'm in, but it's like, I guess they were intimidated by how strong-minded I was about being focused, about being able to reach the next level of my career, being able to reach the next level of my education. And, I don't know, I guess they just wanted to run away, because basically it was always "I'm not ready for this," but five months down the line, you're dating someone who is clearly below your level of interest and it just has me looking at you like -- wow!
Well, I think that there's a big difference between dating someone who's positive and someone who's in the community and out with it and telling their story. People get really intimidated by that.
I actually talked to one of my exes. It's crazy that you would actually bring that up, because one of my exes did tell me that. He said, "You had such a focus and I didn't want to be a distraction." But, like I explained, if you were a distraction, you would've been pushed to the side, but you weren't. You were someone actually helping me. You were that comfort I needed when I came home. Because most of the time, I don't like being by myself. I love to have a friend over. You know, someone that I like just to come over, just to put a smile on my face.
It all boils down to me living here by myself. At the end of the day, when I go home, it's just me and my dog. Sometimes, that can be kind of depressing. I like having people around. That support is like, wow, "Why would you just up and leave?" None of them ever said that it was based around HIV, but that's always one of my first assumptions, when it comes to that. But I try not to do that, because when you assume things, it always leads to a bad case. I try to stay positive with that.
What do you think about the attitudes among young gay men of color around HIV that you've encountered? You've dated four people, but have there been people who have been like, "No, I don't ..."
That's uneducated. It's like, the first thing, how I frame the question. I let them speak about their experiences, let them talk about it and then when the HIV comes in, that's when I ask questions. I'm not one to be like, "Oh, we've been talking for three days, so I'm HIV positive, just want to let you know that." I won't even have sex with you if we're having a conversation, getting to know each other.
If it's a random hookup, I explain, "Oh, I'm HIV positive, make sure you wrap it up." They're OK with it. It's just the ones where we're in relationships. They always have these bad experiences with people who don't say anything and it's always around that -- the "trusting" part. It's like, "Oh, I dated this person and they didn't tell me their status until after we had sex." I, for one, I'll let you get to know me first. I'll let you get to know the outer part before I let you know my body. I'll have conversations with you. I'll see where your head's at, you know. If the conversation comes up at dinner, then we'll talk about it. I'll let you in on my story. But most people in the ballroom community and in the LGBT community know my story; it's just that now, when it comes to ballroom, I really don't date in ballroom, because all four of my relationships came from ballroom. The one I'm in now came from outside ballroom, and I actually like how it's going.
Tell me a little bit about your background and the neighborhood you grew up in. Just tell us a little bit about where you grew up and what it was like, especially coming out in that environment.
Coming out -- whoo! So, I grew up in Greenwood, S.C., in a suburban neighborhood -- very quiet. The population was majority white, but I had no problem with that. There was no racism, none of that stuff, everyone got along. I love my neighborhood. My mother's a preacher -- well, a pastor. I grew up in the church mostly all of my life, but I was more so the singer. I was into anything that was musical -- show choir, all-state chorus -- I did all that good stuff.
Growing up, I didn't really have a good relationship with my mom. My mother and my father separated when I was 3, and my father now lives in Miami. We haven't spoken to each other since I was 13. He hits me up every now and then on Facebook, but I feel like, if he wanted to reach out, he would've reached out to me then, not just at different high points of me growing up. He hit me up when I was 16, he hit me up when I was 18, he hit me up when I graduated, he hit me up when I turned 21, but OK, what about the in-betweens? That's more of the stuff I was stuck on.
With my mom and my stepfather, I guess it was more so she couldn't accept what my father put her through. She looks at it like, he got away with it. But you know there's always two sides to every story. So when I found out both sides, you know the way she treated me, it's like she took all her anger out that she felt for my father on me, which put me in the seat of being the black sheep of the family, because I was the nice one. I didn't really cause any trouble or anything, only when I was in school, because it was like, at home, things were so strict you couldn't do anything. You couldn't even breathe. If you breathed the wrong way, you were on punishment, or you got your ass beat. That right there, I just got sick of it.
All my frustration went into running track, being involved in any kind of activity that involved not being at home. When I went to college, I picked a college that was in a whole other state, literally 700 miles away from home, and I made sure that I was not going to go back home. The plan before I graduated -- and my brother knew this well -- was to move away and focus on myself and not family, because we don't have to hear that "no" anymore, or "no" to everything; it's always negative inputs. Family is like, down the line. But I had a fun experience growing up. I had a lot of friends, and I still keep in touch with them. But when it comes to family, I really don't even reach out to them like that.
What has your health been like since your diagnosis?
My health has actually been good. I've been undetectable for the past three years. The first year was a struggle, because I was on a medication by the name of Atripla [efavirenz/tenofovir/FTC], and it wasn't one of my favorites. I didn't like it. I didn't like the side effects. I dealt with that for like two years, actually two and a half years, and then I moved here and Complera [rilpivirine/tenofovir/FTC] came out. I've been on that, no sickness or any of that. Now, all of a sudden, in the middle of the heat -- I have a cold! It makes no sense! And I'm so upset. But I'm gonna get past that. Health wise, everything is great. I'm not complaining one bit. I just want to get rid of this cold.
Do you have a good relationship with your doctor?
Yes, I actually love my doctor. I'm able to talk to her about anything that's going on in my life health wise, any of the risks that I've taken, and I've never really been open like that with a doctor before. So, this is actually a big step for me.
You said that you're taking Complera. Do you access your meds through private insurance, Medicaid, ADAP, out of pocket?
What's that process like? Is it easy?
It's a very easy process. The people call me for the initial shipping it out, and then I pick it up from my doctor on Mondays.
Do you know your CD4 count?
My CD4 count is 1,124. Which is really good.
That's really great! Do you do anything else for yourself to keep healthy?
I work out three times a week. I'm trying to make it an everyday thing, but it's really hard when you have a dog at home, when you have a responsibility. He's like my baby. And that's something that keeps me healthy, too. Because when it comes to the depression, because everyone goes through it, I can say that I suffer from it from time to time, being alone. But my dog makes me happy, when we go out for walks; he loves the park. He's full of energy and loves attention to the point where it can be annoying, but it's the love that counts.
Tell us about the work you do now. You were talking about being very ambitious, so just kind of share that with us.
So, to give a little history: I was influenced on being in prevention through my gay father, Luna. He is an amazing person and someone that I look up to, cherish, love. He holds a very high stage in my life. I'm very proud of him being in my life. He introduced me to a few places -- Harlem United, I started up there just as a regular peer doing office work, learning how to manage my skills, getting into the professional field. I also went into the stages of change and Mpowerment, which were prevention interventions that dealt with HIV prevention, lowering your risk of contracting HIV. I loved the fact that you work with youth. I took this first job at APICHA, and basically did HIV testing, outreach, spoke to a lot of people. I love interacting with others. I love to be the center of attention -- that's what my friends call me.
I did that for almost a year, and now I am actually over an intervention that I was once a part of called Mpowerment. We call it The Mix at Harlem United, and it's a really, really good intervention and I love my peers. Because you get to actually pick who you want to be in your intervention and you actually train them, and put them on a level to where they can take this to the next stage of their career, whether they want to be in prevention, or if they just want the knowledge to pass on to their friends. Right now, the work that I'm in, I actually like it. I'm a community health specialist, and I love the team.
You were talking about your gay father, Luna. And you were talking about dating in the ball scene. Can you talk about your involvement in the ball scene and if that interacts with being HIV positive in any way?
So, my inspiration: He's been in the scene since he was 14. He was diagnosed at the age of 14 with AIDS and he is a very strong individual. He's been in the ballroom scene -- can't remember what houses he was in, I think it was Pendavis -- you know, he comes from that, back when it first started. Back when there was Paris is Burning, all that good stuff. Luna, he is now the overall Father of the House of Khan, and I also am a Khan. I was actually brought there not through him, but through one of my ex-friends, ex-sisters I will say, and she introduced me to him.
What really caught my attention was he told me how beautiful I was. He was like, "You're gorgeous. Have you ever thought about modeling?" And I was like, "No." At that point, I was really insecure about myself. We had more side conversations, and he really helped me build my character to let me know that I have a look. And that I am dark and lovely, that's what he calls me; I am his "dark and lovely baby."
Ballroom scene? I will say it's not the majority of the ballroom scene that got me here; it's really just him. I love being a part of the ballroom scene, because it's a great way to relieve stress. I come up with these different ideas when it comes to walking the category that I walk, and I walk runway, which is European Runway. And it just takes extravagant affects, and I just love to walk, most of the time. It's a stress reliever. My walk is my main focus. I could care less about the affect and how the image looks, I just care about the walk. So, that's basically it. I really, really liked it like two years ago, but now, the way it's going, I'm not really entertained by it. I go out every now and then, but it's more like the "kiki" scene, rather than the mainstream now.
Overall, you can talk about both being at Harlem United and being in the "kiki" scene, but what has being in your community as a young man of color taught you?
Being in the ballroom scene and this community has taught me that you can really influence a lot of people. By that one card that I did two years ago, I influenced a lot of people to the point where my card is completely sold out. [As part of his days in the ballroom scene, Christopher produced a postcard about the persona and name he carries while doing runway -- Afrika Khan. It was produced and distributed by Gay Men's Health Crisis, and is one of their most successful postcards to date.] Like, there are no more cards. Honestly, I can't even find that card to put in my collection. It can be overwhelming, because there are so many people who you can inspire and they won't even let you know that you inspired them until months and months down the line.
That's been happening to me lately. I have some people who hit me up on Facebook like, "Your story and what you do really helped me out with what I'm going through." And a lot of people always say that like, "You came out of nowhere -- literally, out of nowhere -- and look what you've accomplished in the past three years." Stuff that I've been struggling to get myself into, but like I explain to people, it's about the connection, meeting new people, it's about expressing yourself, letting people know what you want to do, not just sitting there and pondering and plotting what you want to do; it's about actually physically getting out there and doing it, and that's exactly what I did. There were days when I would go up and down Manhattan with one Metrocard swipe just to get back home, and I'm able to get all that stuff done. I came up here determined not to fail, and I'm still that way -- I refuse to fail at anything.
What do you think are the biggest issues in the HIV community today and what do you think people can do to change the situation?
Right now, it's the generation that's coming up; they have no education. And they don't want the education. It's so sad, because you have leaders who have come up in the field, and it's like they get to a certain point where it's like, "Well, I've done enough to get my name in this and I'm going to let it go." Prevention is a 24/7 job. I've learned that. I deal with things outside of work. It's not work-related, but I still deal with stuff that has to do with prevention. And it's like, people with the generation that I'm supposed to be in, they're not taking it seriously anymore. It's like everyone's on a different path, and you have people who look up to you and they're young. If you don't give these people the right education and the right knowledge about what to look out for and what to say about certain things, how can you accomplish something? You can't come in, do a half job, then leave. You have to complete it. And I'm about completing it.
Everyone has their ups and downs, their mood swings, but it's all about dedication to the work, and I'm extremely dedicated. But it's like the generation that's coming up ... it's kinda awkward. Because you sit there and listen to some of the things they say, and how they look at people who are HIV positive and the nicknames and the things they say, it's just like ... wow. If they only knew.
How do you think having HIV has changed you?
Having HIV has made me more mature. I've become an extremely stronger person than I was before. At one point, I was a little weak-minded individual. But I'm able to think for myself, maintain my own life. There are a few things -- I'm a work in progress, still working, still growing -- there's growth every day, when it comes to me. But it's actually changed a lot.
I'm very grateful for things that have happened to me, and very humble. There's no other way I can say it. I'm very grateful and blessed to be where I'm at. I'm here in NYC -- from a small town to this big area full of different populations and different boroughs and trains, and all this stuff is so new to me. But I live my life like I'm down South. I just go to work and go home now. It's amazing living in New York, to actually say that I live here, and I'm doing work that's actually something to remember and to put a stamp on.
What advice would you give to someone who was just diagnosed as HIV positive?
Take a deep breath. And know that your life is not over. It hurts me when they find out and then they go into depression -- it's normal to go into depression, but it's not normal when you stay in that depression. Take that, what you just heard. Take care of yourself. Take it as a lesson learned, like, "OK, now it's time for me to clean my act up. Now it's time for me to focus on me." That's when you focus on yourself; focus on you and nothing else.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.