After recently coming out as living with HIV — in a stirring personal essay — celebrity hairstylist, model, and Black trans advocate Gracie Cartier is ready to keep living her best life. No matter how much hard work it takes.
Cartier discovered she was HIV-positive in 2003, when she was 24 years old and living in Philadelphia. But she waited nearly two decades to go public with the information. A lot of that had to do with her own personal stigmas around the diagnosis. At first, Cartier thought her poz status was a death sentence. She thought it meant she couldn’t have goals, dreams, or happiness. Now she knows just how wrong she was.
Two years after being diagnosed, Cartier moved to New York City to enroll in the Aveda Institute to continue her training as a hairstylist. From there she headed to Atlanta and then Los Angeles, rising in the ranks of celebrity hairstylists. Cartier has worked with stars like Jada Pinkett Smith, Tia and Tamera Mowry, Alicia Silverstone, and Danai Gurira, and even received a Daytime Emmy nomination for her work on the talk show The Real in 2015.
Today, Cartier is surrounded by a loving chosen family, who support her and cheer her on no matter what. But they have a lot to celebrate. Cartier is healthy and living a full life, and she just started hosting a talk show called Transcend on +Life, an HIV-focused digital platform launched by poz journalist Karl Schmid.
“Any opportunity that I get to live in the fullest expression of myself and reach the highest potential, they truly cheer me on,” she says of her friends. “They know how hard and how rough my journey has been, so they just do nothing but celebrate and hold that sacred space for me to just be all the extensions of me — the good, the bad, the ugly, the hurt, the healing, the happy. They hold space for it all. And I’m so grateful for them.”
But it’s not just her chosen family cheering her on; Cartier’s biggest supporter is herself. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, it wasn’t until her mom pointed out how happy and healthy she is that she realized the truth.
Cartier will never forget that day. “My mother was just like, ‘You know, I’m just so happy. I’m just so proud of you. You’re going after your dreams. You’re happy. You’re healthy.’” Cartier responded by reminding her mom that she’s living with HIV. Her mom didn’t skip a beat.
“She said, ‘What does that have to do with anything? You are healthy, you’re breathing, you’re walking. You’re living your existence. And you’re following your path and doing all the things that you said you wanted to do.’”
That’s when it hit her. “It’s not like I’m bedridden or not able to continue living. And when she said that to me, it was like a light bulb went on inside of my head. The fact that I get to get up every day and take my medicine and do what I need to do and work out, and even if I’m doing my makeup and doing my hair, that’s all a part of a healthy routine.” Now Cartier wants others living with HIV to know they too can be happy, healthy, and confident.
For Cartier, gaining that confidence meant getting past the idea that “no one’s ever going to love you, no one’s going to want to be with someone who’s positive, if your job finds out, they’re not going to want to have you. It was just all of these toxic, unhealthy stories and lies that I was telling myself. And what you feel within yourself, you radiate that out into the world. So if I’m sitting here telling myself, ‘No one’s going to love me. I’m not going to have any job opportunities,’ then the universe is going to reflect that back to you and you’ll experience that.”
That’s a lesson Cartier admits she has to remind herself of and she still has to challenge her own stigmas about HIV.
“It’s something that never ends,” she muses. “It just doesn’t. Now, because I came out this year and disclosed my status, it doesn’t mean that it all just went away like that. Personally, I feel that’s when the work really begins.”
Photo by Joey James Saleh, Hair by Stanley Robinson
In order to do that work, she has to be completely open with who she is and to learn to face those difficult parts of herself so that she can learn to love them. “It is the affirmation, it is continuing to face those parts of yourself that you always wanted to tuck away, and I think now the fact that I came out, it’s easier for me to believe the beautiful, positive things about myself than it is the negative.”
She sees others coming out about their positive status as a huge asset, and she brings up Pose star Billy Porter, who also recently came out about living with HIV. “I’m just so happy,” she says. “I’m just so proud of him, I stand in solidarity and support with him.”
She also knows that with Porter’s large platform, he can reach even more people who need to hear that they can be both HIV-positive and successful. “The reality of it is that we live in a celebrity-driven culture,” she says. “So someone who is at the height of his success and has the platform that he has, he has the power to reach more, to be heard by more, and to be seen by more.”
But Cartier doesn’t think being public about being positive is for everyone. In fact, if someone were to ask when the time is right for them to come out with that status, she’d tell them to be “patient with themselves. To be kind and gentle with themselves. And to know and to understand that we all have our own unique journey.”
She continues, “I believe that not everyone is meant to be out in public about this, I do. I think sometimes when seeing or hearing others share their story, it sometimes puts this pressure on you.”
Cartier encourages people living with HIV to do what feels right for them.
“In your own time when you’re ready to share, share. If you don’t want to share, that’s fine also,” she says. “But in the meantime, just really nurture and pour as much as love and support into yourself that you can when you’re alone.”
That’s what’s really important. In spite of all the inner and outer turmoil that comes from being a Black trans woman living with HIV, Cartier loves herself and her life, and wants that for others as well.
“I still got to live a good life. I still was able to thrive in spite of the inner turmoil I was living in. And now looking at it, it’s like, You were still pushing through. You were still making your dream happen. You were still living the life that you always dreamt of,” she says. “I’ve always been hopeful. And I think that that’s part of my testimony… I’m just hopeful in people realizing that regardless of whatever developments happen that you are still able to live your best life.”
(Photography by Martin Salgo except where noted
Makeup: Ernesto Casillas
Hair: Gracie Cartier except where noted
Stylist: Melvin Sanders)