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From Madonna to Hollywood: Coming Out and Learning to Thrive With HIV

From Madonna to Hollywood: Coming Out and Learning to Thrive With HIV

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At his first costume fitting, Wilborn says, he discovered “a part of me that is a flamboyant man. I love my maleness. I’m very good in my man, but there’s a side of me that is very tuned in to his female.” But fear of being stigmatized as feminine, as queeny or flamboyant, and his own internalized phobia, “the part of me that’s still battling with ‘I don’t really want to be fully known as this thing,’ ” he says, “is doing all this extra conversation in the wardrobe room and, oh, my God, it’s so overwhelming.… It was such bullshit, it was so funny.” He took the high heels home to break them in and learn to walk in them, and it helped him face his own homophobia, Wilborn says. “All these years what I’ve been petrified of is the pointing finger going, ‘He’s a faggot, he’s one of them.’ So I’m like, OK, dude, you got to face this—and this person you’re about to step into has no shame on the game at all.

So the 6-foot, 2-inch Wilborn headed to Larchmont, an affluent area of Los Angeles filled with high-end boutiques and cafés, and put on those super-high heels and trotted around, to see what it felt like to at least walk in Glenda’s shoes. Wilborn says it was the beginning of “me getting right with my sexuality” and “coming around to fully embrace, to love all that I am.”

A month and a half later, Wilborn, now a life coach and motivational speaker as well as the author of the memoir Front & Center: How I Learned to Live There and the workbook I Am Empowered, got a text from his own life coach: In TV Guide, Mentalist executive producer Daniel Cerone, who also wrote the episode, “did this three-quarters page ad with three paragraphs speaking full on my behalf with every single kind of wordage that one would pay for as an endorsement. You know, ‘We needed a force of nature and after a long search we got lucky and found Carlton Wilborn.’”  

Today Wilborn says those days of hiding his HIV status are long gone, and so are fears that standing in the cold in his underwear in front of hundreds of thousands of fans will send him into an immune spiral. “My health is absolutely fantastic,” he says. “My health is solidly strong. I mean, I’m on a cocktail and have been since around 2004. After a round of scrambling to find the right mix to keep me balanced, we happened upon this particular cocktail, and it has me undetected since 2004. Honestly, if I did not have to take meds every day, there is nothing to my physical being or my moods or anything that represents that I’m HIV-positive. I would not know that I’m HIV-positive.”

Wilborn is now all about living with love and courage and spirituality, examining the infinite possibilities that he never thought possible when he was a street-tough kid in Chicago giving disco lessons to the uptown kids and later as a young, sexually abused man, re-creating self-destructive patterns—including addictions to drugs and sex—instead of dealing with the ramifications of his abuse, which he talks about in Front & Center. He and the director of The Boarder are developing a scripted project inspired by his life story, and he’s starting a foundation this year called the We Are Gifts Foundation (GoFundMe.com/WeAreGifts), meant to empower sexually abused and HIV-positive youth. He hopes this year to mount the first full-day camp day, in which the kids will “use the different modalities of creativity to hone their voice.”

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