I was nine years old when I first heard the word AIDS. My friend and I were playing on a dirty mattress outside of my housing project building. My friend's mother must have seen us from her 5th floor window, because she came storming downstairs yelling, "Get the hell off of that mattress! It might have AIDS!"
I didn't know what AIDS was -- I had never heard of it, I didn't know what it looked like, but from the venom seeping through her voice, I understood that it wasn't something I wanted to have. I immediately went upstairs, washed myself in a hot shower, and prayed that I didn't have AIDS. Even now as I relay this story I can still hear her voice -- laced with so much stigma, ignorance, and malice. Although, I would concede, that the pervasive shortsightedness around HIV isn't the same as yesteryear, the stigma and discrimination today is still just as palpable. And as someone who has family members and friends who are HIV positive, I am particularly defensive over people's perceptions of HIV.
Years after the dirty mattress incident, I had an aunt and uncle die of complications of living with AIDS. I still remember the way my mother talked about her sister-in-law dying from an illness no one knew the name of -- she would later find out that my aunt died of AIDS. I remember the sadness on my mother's face when she came to my apartment this past summer to ask if I had slacks that she could bury her brother in, he has just been diagnosed with AIDS earlier this year. Alongside these personal stories, I read the bleak statistics every year signifying an escalating rate of HIV infection among Black men who have sex with men, particularly young Black gay men ages 18-24. These stories and statistics are the motivating factors that have driven my resolve to help create an AIDS free generation. On this World AIDS Day, it's with this resolve, that I examine the crucible of resilience that drives my prevention work.
On this World AIDS Day, I think about the HIV positive young man I met outside of a mobile testing van who shared with me that he was positive, and then asked, "Do I look HIV positive?" I remember looking at him, dumbfounded, I was all of 20 years old, and I had just started my new job as a temporary HIV Prevention Associate at an AIDS service organization in Brooklyn. I snapped back at him and asked, "What the hell are you talking about?" I've never been particularly sensitive to myopic questions. I reminded him that being HIV positive doesn't come with a face, but asking silly questions would generate a smart-ass response. I think about this young man often; the way he nervously asked me that question, and how hostile I had been to him. I hope he reads this, remembers me, and know that I'm profoundly sorry. At 25 years old, I have come to understand the fear that compelled him to ask that question.
I remember the 21-year-old young man I counseled after he tested positive during his first HIV test, and told me that he had only had sex one time. He was tear-eyed and confused. We spoke for an hour. Our conversation at one point welcomed laughter, which made me hopeful that he wouldn't drown in the emotional swelling that often comes with being HIV positive. I never saw him again, but I think about him every day. I honor him and the names of those who never made it onto the fabric of an AIDS quilt, and whose family and friends long-buried them in secret.
Today I reflect on the HIV positive men who not only shared their status with me, but who have also trusted me enough to be intimate with me. The way that people strip them of their sexuality and beauty, because they're paralyzed with the fear of having to navigate sex with an HIV positive person. They don't know what they're missing out on.
On this World AIDS Day, I celebrate the beauty of Black gay men -- the architecture of our creativity, the resilience we show in the face of adversity, the loyalty we offer those who are good to us. I think about the influential Black gay men who have succumb to this virus - the fabulous Sylvester, the talented Alvin Ailey, the gifted Marlon Riggs. I celebrate the clinicians and researchers who have disabused themselves of the notion that being Black and gay are precursors to HIV, and who understand that our lives are not to be romanticized through minute sexual pathologies. Above all, I celebrate the conventional and shared mission of the Black gay men who deign to use their brilliance and galvanize in service to the men who struggles they share.
I am often asked why I am committed to reducing sexual health disparities among such a limited subset of the population. My friends often caution me against working in a field that is not financially rewarding or particularly gratifying. Their concerns, however well intentioned, do little to dissuade me from the greater concerns I have over what is happening to the community to which we are all very much connected to. Admittedly, I never reveal the true motivation for my work in this field, which is greatly motivated by fear. Cloaked underneath my confidence and determination is an element of fear that intensifies every time a family member or friend is diagnosed with HIV. This fear is a motivating force behind my HIV prevention and advocacy work. However, my greatest fear is that other young gay men of color will, for even one moment, allow themselves to forget that their lives matter. Out of this conviction grows a powerful force -- a combination of logic and emotion - that has convinced me that not only am I my brother's keeper, but that I am my brother. I must do for him what I would hope someone would do for me.