Corey Johnson made history this year when he was elected New York City Council Speaker, becoming the second most powerful elected official (behind the mayor) of the nation’s largest metropolis — and the most powerful elected LGBTQ official in the country who’s out about living with HIV.
The 36-year-old is fully aware of the impact he’s making. Last fall, Johnson was presented with the Larry Kramer Activism Award by GMHC, for his visibility and efforts to include queer and HIV initiatives in the public narrative. But 14 years ago, the now-proud politician didn’t exactly see himself as a trailblazer.
“I was 22 years old when I was diagnosed and I lost my health insurance shortly after,” he reflects. “I remember feeling shame and living with fear and anxiety. Today, I am healthy. I have good health insurance and stability that keeps me free from worrying about whether I can afford both my rent and my medicine. I am at a place where I do not live in shame, and I hope to help others with HIV just like I was helped.”
Johnson sees political ramifications of the epidemic, saying, “HIV has warped into a disease of poverty, primarily affecting lower income people of color.”
“When wealthy and famous people like Rock Hudson, Magic Johnson, and Freddie Mercury were diagnosed with HIV or died from AIDS, there was so much more attention on the disease and those suffering from it,” he argues, contrasting that with the current situation. “Today, it can feel like you’re forgotten.”
As a council member, Johnson vows to use his position to help others. He knows he stands “on the shoulders of all the brave men and women who came before me. I do this in honor of the ones who put their lives and body on the line which, in the end, when I found out I was positive, is why I had access to life- saving medication.”
Times are changing, including the social perception of HIV itself, argues Johnson, who says, even as a high-ranking politician, his status has “never once been raised in any kind of negative political attack.” But he also recognizes, “how lucky I am to live in a city where being HIV-positive isn’t the stigma it is elsewhere, and I’m proud to be as public as possible about my status to reduce that stigma everywhere.”
A lot of that enlightenment comes from Johnson’s own compassion, which he admits wasn’t always so strong — especially when he was newly diagnosed. Looking back, he says he would have done things differently.
“After I seroconverted, I was so angry and disappointed in myself for a very long time and that self-loathing fueled my abuse of drugs and alcohol,” he says. “It was an awful cycle that took a long time to break. If I had known then the kind of rich and fulfilling personal and professional life in store for me, I think I could have avoided a lot of that self-destructive behavior.”
Johnson’s experience with drug abuse and a lack of access to healthcare led him to become a staunch activist in both spheres. Ultimately, he knows his political position comes with great responsibility. “I have and will continue to use my position to advocate for all New Yorkers who need a voice, especially those living with HIV,” he declares.
“This year’s midterm election really opened up a wealth of opportunities for New York City, New York State, and our country for 2019,” he adds. “I hope that the Democratic-controlled state government in Albany can advance a sweeping progressive agenda that will improve the lives of tens of millions of New Yorkers. I hope that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives will serve as a desperately needed check on Trump’s ongoing assault on the best of our country, including its vicious attempts to erase the trans community out of existence.”
Still, he quips, “This year, like every year, I of course want to meet Lady Gaga.”