Kahlib Barton is an activist and advocate who has worked with AIDS United, All the TEA (Teach, Empower, Advocate); the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC); and even addressed Washington, D.C., lawmakers about young people and HIV. It’s hard to believe he is only 26 years old. It’s harder to believe when you realize the NMAC Youth Scholar overcame homelessness, depression, drug use, domestic violence, and an HIV diagnosis when he was barely out of his teens.
“My experience with HIV started abruptly and early at only 19 years old,” Barton says. “Most [people] would think that this would be a pivotal moment for me, somewhat of a make or break, but I made the choice not to deal with my status,” he admits. “Being in rural Texas made it very difficult to get into care, so I figured I would just live whatever life I had left.”
He was basically waiting to die—until he moved to Denver, Colorado, and gained a support network of friends and mentors, who helped him get into care. By that time, Barton acknowledges, “My struggle was far from over—having experienced homelessness and intimate partner violence after my relocation—but it was the persistence in love from my chosen family that helped me reach stability.”
Barton stresses the importance of finding your own support system, especially for those most ostracized in this country, like himself, a gay black man from the rural South. That certainly didn’t happen overnight (or in his home town), and he says he struggled to let go of the negative messaging of his youth and to love himself. It took time, but the support of others was key in his healing process. “They—my support system—wrapped their arms around me and refused to allow me to settle into my self-loathing. Without them I would not be virally suppressed.”
After a year in Denver, Barton was under a doctor’s care and actively working with AIDS United and All the TEA. He was chosen to be part of NMAC’s Youth Initiative, a leadership development program cosponsored by ViiV Healthcare, Magic Johnson Foundation, and Advocates for Youth.
Barton put his time as a NMAC Youth Scholar to good use and was the first to get the city of Denver to recognize National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day (sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). After hearing about the special day at the 2015 United States Conference on AIDS, he immediately worked with TEA to petition the city to create a proclamation supporting the day.
“We were surprised at how quickly and enthusiastically the mayor responded,” Barton told Plus magazine when he was recognized as one of 2016’s Most Amazing HIV-Positive People. “The proclamation was signed within a week.”
At that time, Barton told Plus “my goal has become to never have another young person in the South have an experience parallel to mine. I believe the only way we can achieve this goal is prioritizing the most marginalized and exposing every system of oppression.”
Soon Barton was invited by NMAC to Washington, D.C., for a briefing to inform Congress about HIV among young people. He was the first person he knew to address lawmakers directly. That experience so influenced Barton that he relocated permanently to D.C. and became an elected official with Young Black Gay Men’s Leadership Initiative, working on issues affecting black and Latino gay, queer, bi, and trans men — including HIV, homelessness, and professional development.
Now Barton works with organizations like National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition and the True Colors Fund, and he says addressing intersectional issues is vital to ending the alarming disparities around people of color and HIV. For example, he wants to see more focus on combatting femmephobia. “We have to address the stigma of feminization in the black community,” he says, which can often lead young gay, bi, and trans black youths to homelessness. “If an individual does not have housing, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to prioritize their health.”
Stigma and fear are the biggest enemies we need to fight when it comes to HIV in this country, says Barton—and he advises those who have just been diagnosed to never give up hope. “Feeling hopeless and alone is something I had to come to terms with, being that I chose to deal with my diagnosis in isolation initially. Those moments when I was at my lowest were the moments that I was most appreciative of the small victories in my life. I had to remind myself that things may not get easier, but these challenges would make me stronger.”