Meeting Jacques Agbobly feels like greeting an old friend. Within minutes, his cheerful attitude and chattiness turn him into an open book. Dressed in patterned shorts and shirt that show off a unique fashion taste, the 16-year-old youth from Chicago raves about everything from the beautiful Los Angeles weather to his love for Demi Lovato. That comes as no surprise, since Agbobly has made his first trip to L.A. to participate in the city’s Pride celebration from a prime location on top of the Colin Higgins Foundation float.
Earlier this year, Agbobly received the 14th Annual Youth Courage Award from the Colin Higgins Foundation for his outstanding HIV and LGBT advocacy. He did so in the face of frequent bullying due to his skin color, foreign accent, and sexual orientation. Colin Higgins, who the award is named after, is best known as the screenwriter of the classic film Harold and Maude and as the writer and director of 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Like the characters in these films, the Colin Higgins Foundation’s Youth Courage Award recipients have endured overwhelming hardships, yet have handled themselves with the utmost grace and dignity in spite of these challenges. In addition to earning a grant of $10,000, Agbobly received an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles to participate in Pride, as well as a trip to the Creating Change Conference with other LGBT leaders across the United States.
Agbobly beams as he admits that the Youth Courage Award is his biggest accomplishment to date. "I'm really proud of this because it not only allows me to share my story, but also inspire youth activists out there who want to be doing great things," he tells HIV Plus. However, the award is only the latest in the long list of amazing feats Agbobly has accomplished.
Born in Togo, Africa, Agbobly's first major challenge was moving to America in order to seek better educational opportunities for his siblings and himself, as well as better treatment for an HIV-positive family member. When he was just three years old, his mother left him with extended family, so that she could prepare a new life for them in the U.S. For Agbobly, the chance of getting to know his mother again when he came to America at the age of nine "was just amazing for me." Agbobly admits that it's hard living so far away from the rest of his family, since "when something bad happens, [I’m] unable to afford a ticket to go back and go visit [my] family." Despite the distance, he says his family supports each other from afar, and thanks to Skype, they have been able to see each other thrive and grow.
After arriving in the U.S. in the middle of summer, Agbobly watched a lot of television to try and pick up English. Although he became quickly fluent, the other kids at school made fun of his accent and skin color. Agbobly recounts one especially harrowing experience from this period of his life. A small group of students came up to him at lunch and asked him, "Are you gay?" However, since Agbobly was still learning English, he misheard, "Are you okay?" which he answered with a yes. As a follow-up question, the kids asked "Does your momma know that you're gay?" to which Agbobly also said yes since he again misheard "gay" as "okay." By the time the last bell rang, the small group of kids had spread the word and recruited more students to chase Agbobly home and beat him up.
"People bully you for weird reasons," Agbobly says calmly. "I responded to it in a very positive way, because I chose to look at the brighter side of things. I look at it as: they weren't educated about it. They were ignorant [about] 'being gay' and all of that."
As a result of this experience, Agbobly, who now identifies as gay, took it upon himself to be an advocate for other students who were being bullied. In addition, he also sought to teach the bullies that their actions were hurtful and to educate them about issues like those that affect the LGBT community, with which they might not be familiar or comfortable speaking about. In eighth grade, Agbobly mobilized his entire class to create an anti-bullying PSA, focused on discouraging the use of the word "gay" in a derogatory way. Not only was the PSA a major success at Agbobly' school, but it was also featured in Time Out Chicago.
Since then, Agbobly has not only continued to stand up for people in his own community, but he has also begun helping other young people around the world to become advocates as well. "I want people not to be bystanders. I want people to be upstanders," he asserts.
During a recent web seminar, a group of students in Italy asked Agbobly if he were ever scared to stand up for his beliefs. "Well, when it comes down to it, I feel like what I want to do is going to benefit someone's life, and it's going to save them," Agbobly responded at the time. "I'm going to continue to do what I'm doing and not let anyone get in my way. And as long as you're prepared to face obstacles, then you got it down."
In addition to standing up against bullying of LGBT youth, Agbobly is a very active advocate for the HIV and AIDS community. Years ago, he discovered that a person very close to him is HIV-positive. "Whenever I hit rock bottom, and I want to give up, this person's always been there for me to keep me going and keep motivating me," Agbobly says. "So when I found out that this person was HIV-positive, that struck me. I hadn't thought of losing this person and losing that relationship that we have."
In order to support this important person in his life, Agbobly decided to educate himself about the positive community and the stigmas surrounding the disease. Starting with his own school and community, Agbobly has made it his mission to increase awareness and knowledge about HIV and AIDS, especially among his peers. Every year, Agbobly spearheads events at the annual AIDS benefit held at his school to raise funds for a local community organization. This year, the benefit supported Children’s House, an agency that provides daycare for children whose families have been affected by HIV and AIDS, including Agbobly’ own family.
Recently, Agbobly has been able to take his message to a much larger audience. As an ambassador for National Youth HIV and AIDS Awareness Day, Agbobly now speaks to young people across America and hopes to show the world that there “are youth out there who care about this issue and who are doing things to help.” Ultimately, Agbobly believes that sharing stories and educating as many people as possible is the only way to eradicate stigma and discrimination.
“A lot of people who witness HIV witness it from someone else’s perspective. For example, I’m not the one who’s infected, but I’m affected because someone living close to me is infected,” Agbobly explains. “Hearing my perspective and sharing [my] personal story helps other people who are not HIV positive, so that they can start talking about the issue and…to be more open towards letting go of the stigma.”
Although he has already accomplished so much, Agbobly has even bigger plans for the future. Currently a student at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, Agbobly hopes to attend Parsons School of Design and enter into the fashion industry. In college, he hopes to start clubs and organizations to continue his work in HIV and AIDS advocacy. One of his ultimate goals is to establish a non-profit organization to provide shelter and aid for homeless LGBT youth in Chicago.
When asked about what drives him to keep reaching out to others and setting bigger goals for himself, Agbobly cites his personal experience with bullying and the encouragement he receives from the HIV-positive role model in his life. Most of all, says Agbobly, “Doing all these things, doing all these projects…[it] has to do with figuring out who I want to be, what I want to do in this world, how I want to contribute to a better world.”