I am often asked about my own HIV status and my response is “ does it matter?” like many of the people I have grown to love and work with at Athlete Ally - we do not place ourselves in boxes of straight, gay, bi, transgender or otherwise. We seek to end stereotypes and stigma around sexual orientation and gender identity. So on this world AIDs Day I do not want to discuss politics as usual, I want to talk about loving another human who happens to be living with HIV, and how he has transformed my world from the day he was placed behind bars. Yes the person is my brother from another mother who will serve the next 30 years of his life in jail because of HIV related crimes in Missouri.
Michael L. Johnson and I first meet in the summer of 2009 when I was the national team coach for the Maryland School boy/ girl wrestling team. The event happened to be at his high school , Warren Central High home of one of the best wrestling facilities and high school programs in the state of Indiana. Michael and I might have talked once, seeing as I was a coach and he was a teenager. It wouldn’t be until the summer of 2013 that I would even cross paths with him again, this time in Missouri at my best friend’s bachelor party. I had sent him a message on Jack’d, a gay dating and social networking app, about how proud I was of him being out as an athlete. Michael of course blew me off thinking I was one of the many men who would seek sex from him, not knowing my background in sports, or as an advocate to encourage communities to learn how we can make our campuses a better place.
Four months later I saw Michael again and this time it was because he was being charged with criminal reckless infection of HIV to another person and four other counts of reckless risk of infection. Now I have always held back about my own exposure to HIV, but in 2012 while in a relationship I discovered my partner was HIV positive and had contracted it while we had been in a relationship. I was faced with countless HIV test and doctors’ visits and thousands of dollars on a new medication called Truvada to try and keep myself for contracting the virus. I had so many evil things that went through my mind during this time that I wanted to do to my ex, I wanted him in jail, I wanted him to die and I wanted to kill everyone who he had sexual relationships with. I also remember that October 12th day when I first read Michaels story online. I broke down in tears and realized that I could have easily been him or my ex or any other male in his 20s that was sexual active. For the first time in a year my hate went to understanding and compassion because I was Michael; I was that young, confused, black, gay kid in my early 20s figuring out what I wanted in life and living in the back woods of community where homosexuality isn’t really celebrated. I was that athlete who men wanted to sleep with but never really understood me, yes I was Michael and Michael was me.
I spent the next few weeks calling friends and asking for advice to see if I should get involved with something that wasn’t in my wheel house. During that time I started to write Michael and to do the one thing that had gotten me through many days of depression and that was pray for him. We talked frequently about the Bible and faith, even telling him about my addiction to pain killers while in college as I tried to block out the pain of personal and self-hate, hoping our conversations would leave him feeling lifted up and encouraged despite his circumstances.
Michael and I grew closer by writing letters always ending with two simple reminders at the end of each “Loyalty above all else” and “ I love you”. These written words grew and phone calls followed as we started to chat about everything, mostly as I tried to keep his mind focused on other things like wrestling, the bond we share and his choice in men. By February 2014 I asked Michael to place me on his list to come visit and on my own credit card I flew out to Missouri to talk with him face to face and look this young man in the eye to see if I was going to spend the political and social capital that I could on him and his story.
Needless to say I am writing this today about Michael and our relationship to date, so I guess you can tell from that first visit we have become true friends and brothers. Michael’s HIV story is one filled with ups and downs, with stories that span from the ball room to an athlete who didn’t look for acceptance, but wanted respect for his craft. He attempted to live life as an openly gay black male in Missouri where his narrative was not his own, where his story is buried in falsehoods about HIV, and the criminalization of the virus.
We each have a personal story to tell about how HIV has affected us either directly or in directly. My story is one where a personal encounter allowed me to love and learn from someone who has HIV. I have learned that HIV is not a crime so long as each of us takes personal accountability for our own sexual health. I learned that HIV is preventable and that a one a day pill along with condom use greatly reduces the transmission of HIV and STIs. I also learned that an ally can love someone living with HIV as a friend, as a brother, and as a partner.
Since becoming friends with Michael, I have learned that some of my best friends are living with HIV and were once scared to tell me about it because of the stigma associated with it. We as an ally community must know that we all know or are connected to someone living with HIV and so on this Worlds Aids Day take a moment and think about what you can do to help end stigmatization around HIV and how we can end AIDS.
Remember loyalty above all else and if someone hasn’t said they love you today I just did!
Akil Patterson is the community Liaison for Athlete Ally the nation’s leading organization on ally and LGBT Rights in Sports.