Abraham House-El was on top on the world back in the day -- driving a new sports car, living in a fancy apartment, and making big money working for a Fortune 500 company.
Then he crashed and burned on drugs, including alcohol. He became addicted and ended up in and out of prison.
It was in a downstate Illinois prison where he came across Positively Aware. Surrounded by people living with HIV, he said he picked up a new message about his out-of-control life: empowerment.
When he was released, he returned to Chicago and called TPAN, the publisher of Positively Aware, to learn more about the epidemic and recovery. After graduating from TPAN's TEAM program (Treatment Education Advocacy [now Adherence] Management), he was asked if he could mentor someone. So, he joined the Buddy Program.
House-El came back to TPAN on Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, September 27, to speak to the agency's "Hero" event for gay men's health. "Discover how you can be a hero to yourself," the event publicity trumpeted.
"Taking on a buddy allowed me to become a better person and allowed me to be a selfless person and help others," House-El told the audience of primarily men. "I learned how to pull myself up by my bootstraps and give back and help people. Not only am I dealing with my own issues and struggles, but I'm learning how, in spite of it all, to be a selfless individual and give back to others. Can you learn to be a model of selflessness and service? I had to learn that for me a hero is someone that simply does the right thing at the right time for the right reason."
House-El had gone from being a volunteer to joining the TPAN staff as its volunteer coordinator and earning a college degree. He left the organization for a time, but then, "TPAN called me and said, 'Hey, Abraham, we just got this multi-million dollar grant from SAMHSA [Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration]. It's a grant for African American MSM (men who have sex with men). Can you come back, start the program?' Even though coming back here meant taking a decrease in my salary, it was the right thing for the right reason."
After getting POWER (Positive Outcomes for Wellness, Education, and Recovery program) off the ground and running smoothly for several years, he left to work with veterans as a program coordinator through Featherfist, an organization that provides a variety of programs to help empower homeless people, in addition to housing. (POWER operated with partner Heartland Human Services, also located in Chicago.)
Many of the men -- 60% -- have been incarcerated and 20 to 30% of them have been recently released. "And the doors for them are shut," said House-El, "just like the doors for me were continuously being shut. And I try to find ways to show them where there are doors that are open."
"We're just trying to convey that we're all superheroes inside," said Kevin Bernal, TPAN's Peer Health Navigator and coordinator of its Total Care Portal program. He headed up the agency's staff committee that organized the Hero event. "We have those [comic book heroes] and we have the everyday heroes inside."
He pointed to support group members and other men sitting in the audience who participate in TPAN programs, including HOTTER (Healthy Outcomes Through Treatment, Empowerment, and Recovery), a program for young African American men and transgender women vulnerable to HIV and mental health problems, or already living with the virus.
Coming together to share support in the face of stigma is heroic.
"I just want to be who I am," said social worker and LGBT activist Tammy Belifa Jonathan, 25, a HOTTER participant from Nigeria who's seeking asylum in the U.S. Some states in Nigeria allow execution as punishment for homosexuality. Even those who help LGBT individuals, including parents who don't "report" a child's homosexuality, can be imprisoned, he said.
"You have to fight to be who you are," said Jonathan. "Who am I really? Why should my life be based on what people say?"
"I am better [than what anti-gay proponents say I am]. I am gay. I am human first. My sexuality doesn't define who I am. It takes more -- it takes a lot to be you," he told the audience.
Meeting LGBT advocates from the U.S. who were living with HIV, "proudly and confidently," helped crystalized the oppression he experienced in his country.
"You've been told that you ... are ... evil. They tell you that you're the devil. You will just internalize what's been told to you and you will feel that you are less than others," he said.
He called TPAN his second home and is also active in his church.
"Why should God bring me into this world if he knew that I was going to be gay and live with HIV? I'm made perfect," he said. "God doesn't make mistakes."
He said he came to understand homophobia as "being about their issues."
"I just want to be true to myself. If I don't talk about it who's going to talk about it?" he asked. His gay friends in Nigeria, he said, don't have that option.
At the same time, he believes that self-acceptance is important. "Everyone is not going to be your friend," he said. "You can choose to be happy, or you can choose to be sad. Love yourself. Because if I don't love myself, nobody can love me."
As the day ended, music played. David Bowie sang out, "Oh, we can be heroes."