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By Free Jared
“Do I remember the person I was? No, I don’t think I do. Everything has gotten really foggy…The old me died when I found out that I was HIV+. The silence of my mom’s voice I will never forget. Being strapped to a gurney and escorted off campus in an ambulance I will never forget. Realization of sex addiction and depression soon followed. That’s when the secrets reached an all-time high. I need to let these secrets go so I can get back to the old me.”
—My journal, May 11, 2012 at 7:48PM PST
Growing up as a Christian, I was taught that God is “omnificent” (all knowing) and “omnipotent” (all powerful). Understanding this, I became resentful towards God for creating me to experience discrimination because of my sexuality, shame because of a sex addiction, and stigmatization because of an acquired chronic health condition at the age of 20. “Why me?” I would ask. “What did I do to deserve this? I was always such a good kid, and I’m a good person. This was not how my life was supposed to go. I am not supposed to be this type of person.”
This sentiment forced me into a life of shame and secrecy. It made it nearly impossible to build relationships with family and friends; it made it impossible to establish romantic relationships. It made it impossible to focus on school. Outwardly, I tried my best to present myself as confident, competent, and happy; on the inside, I was angry. I felt anxiety in social situations, had no drive, lost faith in myself, and had little desire to live.
“I came to terms with the fact that I created this public persona—this public illusion. It held me hostage; I couldn’t be a real person because I was too afraid of what my public would say. At that point, I had to do some dying & really accept the fact that this is who I am. I have to be who I am, & all of us have a right to be who we are. Whenever we submit our will to someone else’s opinion, a part of us dies.”
—Lauryn Hill, MTV Unplugged 2.0
Like Hill, I too had to do some dying as I had submitted myself to the will of a society that taught me who I am is wrong. Society taught me what it meant to “be a man,” to be strong, and successful. Measuring myself against the will of society, I had failed. Hiding the parts of me that were not seen as desirable seemed to be my only option.
The societal will that had previously affirmed my personhood had now become my enemy. Beginning to learn myself outside of the rigid expectations of society, I found that I had no idea who I was. The person I thought I was had “died.”
During a teambuilding activity, one of my friends described me as “strong.” Being at one of my low points, I did not understand how anyone could see me as such. My friend saw something in me that I could not see. Although hearing that I was strong was encouraging, it was not affirming until I knew myself to be strong. In order to discover the person I am today, I had to let go of the “old me.”
“Self-definition has been a responsibility I’ve wholeheartedly taken on as mine. It’s never a duty one should outsource. Of this responsibility, writer Audre Lorde said, ‘If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.’ Self-definition and self-determination is about the many varied decisions that we make to compose and journey toward ourselves, about the audacity and strength to proclaim, create, and evolve into who we know ourselves to be.”
—Janet Mock, Redefining Realness
For many years, I feared that sharing my story would lead to me being labeled by others. Heavily involved in activism, I campaigned for the rights of my community as a black queer man. However, my HIV status placed me into a new minority category that I did not have a lifetime to accept. Unlike other parts of my identity, my HIV status could easily be dismissed as a result of my personal failures and “poor choices.” In actuality, the real power to choose came after discovering my status: I had the choice to embrace my privacy or to share my story openly.
I understand the application of labels from society to be destructive. However, I have found that there is nothing more empowering than telling my own story.
I am a writer, educator, advocate, son, brother, uncle, cousin—an imperfect human being and friend. I also claim my blackness, sexuality, and HIV status as fiercely as the socially acceptable parts of myself; it is these seemingly unlovable parts that have allowed me to build rich, honest relationships with different types of people. As a multi-dimensional person, all parts of my identity create the person I am today. Owning my story in its entirety and living in my truth is how I affirm my personhood.
Continuing to live after the diagnosis, I realize that no part of me has “died:” my truth is that I have grown into my destiny.
I used to think, “I don’t understand when people say that they have ‘no regrets,’ because I have many.” Now I understand; I now have no regrets. I am honest about choices I have made, and I am proud of the person I am.
In an interview, journalist Clay Cane expands on these ideas stating, “That line by Zora Neal Hurston, ‘I am not tragically colored, I am not tragically negro’ resonates so strongly with me. It’s really been a line that I use for my everyday life; meaning that when it comes to my sexual orientation, there’s no tragedy in it. When you think of somebody who is LGBT, you think of a life of rejection, anguish, suffering, and all these kinds of things. I don’t feel that way. My life is a good life. I will not let my life be a tragedy. That’s not an option for me. So for me, I’m not ‘tragically’ gay. From the start, I decided that I’d just be who I am. Being open with who I am helped me. You can’t sit down with somebody and try to pull out the truth out of them when you are scared about your own truth.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
I initially wrote this for myself. Writing this for myself allowed me to write it honestly, without judgment. Since I began writing it, The Good Life has taken me on a journey from shame to self-love.
At the forefront of this piece is the undiscussed narrative of my public life. During my challenging times, I continued to live. In the midst of finding out my HIV status, I got out of bed every day and continued healthy habits such as personal grooming, healthy eating, and exercise. I continued to pursue my passions, such as social justice, community work, and supporting my peers. Against the backdrop of this essay, I am able to appreciate the work that I have done for the first time.
Upon completing this piece, I realized that it was meant to be shared. Shared stories of others are the reasons that I am still here today and have language to understand my own life. My decision to share my story began a process of disclosure to those who are closest to me. Each conversation was different, not all feedback was positive. Statements such as “no one is going to be happy that you are HIV+” attempted to silence The Good Life.
This piece represents healing from trauma and learning to love ourselves fully. Of this, artist and activist Kim Katrin Milan states, “Learning to talk about these things in ways that are loving is an important practice…It’s important that we think about what disability and chronic illness look like and create spaces where those things do not have to apologized for or ‘photo-shopped out,’ but instead that they actually get to be part and parcel of the ways in which people occupy space—that we are invited to look and to be present in a loving, honoring way.”
Thank you to those who have empowered me by telling their stories. Thank you to those who have knowingly and unknowingly been my support system throughout the years. Let’s continue this path toward wellness by embracing change, showing ourselves love & care, and celebrating our stories.