HIV found me in 2010. I had just turned 22, in the prime of my life. People told me I was “the hottest thing to hit the gay scene in Jackson, Mississippi.” I was going to Hind Community College in Raymond, MS and I rarely came home to visit, but this particular weekend was different.
I met a guy, who we will simply call “Jay.” We hit it off from the start. He showed a kind of interest in me I wasn’t getting from others — and he had money, which made it more satisfying. Over the course of the weekend, we hung out and got to know each other, but unfortunately I had to return to campus for school. He made me promise to see him next weekend, and I did. As the weekend arrived, I made my way to Jackson and visited him late Friday night. We talked for hours about everything. I knew he was special.
Six months later, I had contracted HIV — I wish I knew to ask then what I know to ask now.
As a black gay man living with HIV in the south, it’s hard to find a community that shares my experiences, or the very least talk about them. But in late January, I was lucky enough to be part of an immersive theatre experience, sponsored by ViiV Healthcare that not only wowed audiences in Jackson, but supported my community’s efforts to educate people about HIV.
The immersive experience was called As Much as I Can, and it was part of ViiV Healthcare’s ACCELERATE! Initiative, a four-year $10 million commitment to fund innovative projects that support the health and well-being of Black gay men in Baltimore, Maryland and Jackson, Mississippi, two cities hardest hit by HIV.
Written and produced by Harley and Company and directed by James Walsh, the initiative was designed to facilitate a perceptual shift in attitudes and beliefs related to the lived experience of men living with or vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. The ultimate goal is that this perception shift will provide a foundation for individual and community change in Baltimore and Jackson.
Courtesy of ViiV Healthcare
I was privileged to follow the cast and creative team during their stop in Jackson, and the experience resonated with me deeply. Coming into it, I had no idea what to expect. In the end, it had an astronomical impact on my life and changed my perspective on how the stories of Black gay men living with HIV are often ignored.
As a healthcare worker, I work with individuals who are deeply impacted by HIV. Often times, we as healthcare workers are told to bottle our emotions up, but that’s hard to do when you are constantly watching your life play out in front of your eyes. My friend, project coordinator of My Brother’s Keeper, Cedric Sturdevant, played “Pastor” in the show during its stop in Jackson (Carltaise Ransom took on the role in Baltimore).
“Running into people who came to the show, it’s overwhelming to them,” Sturdevant says to Plus. “It’s like, wow, this is something more people need to see. This was reality. This makes you think, they left wondering what more they can do, we gotta do better. For Jackson, it was mind-blowing. We gotta reach our hands out to our community, to our guys, and help them, to give them hope and let them know everything is going to be ok if we work together.”
The show was based on community listening sessions in both cities, where men shared stories of their lives, which were then used as the basis for many of the show’s scenes and interactions. After being split into groups, audiences saw the lives of four Black men and one Black straight woman unfold through various perspectives around the HIV experience. The principal cast was played PJ Johnnie, Tim Craig, Cory Gibson, Brent Whiteside, and Monique Scott.
As an audience member, I explored their complex relationships to faith, family, community, friends and themselves, as well as their disruptions, dreams, disappointments and resiliencies relating to a new HIV diagnoses.
For individuals living with HIV, myself included, the stigma can be more harmful than the virus itself. Increasing the visibility of HIV in our communities and making it a familiar face everyone can relate to is exactly what ViiV Healthcare has done with this experience. Their new approach shines a light on the prevailing stigma toward Black gay and bisexual men, the HIV community, the desire to be accepted for who we are, and the need for communities to raise their voices to address an epidemic that endures.
ViiV Healthcare took a chance by supporting this experience and in doing so, created a life-changing opportunity not only for the cast, but the communities as well. It has ignited a perception shift that will drive individual and community change. This I know for a fact.
Now if you’re still with me, let’s get back to “Jay..."
We were seeing each other for six months and had yet to have our first sexual encounter. Being on campus, sex was not likely to happen, so we made plans to take our relationship to another level. I had everything planned out.
One night, I got to his house around 7:45 when it was starting to get dark. After escorting me into the living room, he gave me a kiss like he hadn’t seen me in years. Things got heated and we decide to cool it until later on. We watched a movie on Netflix and cuddled — we were Netflix and Chilling before it was a thing. Then, we went to bed (well, air mattress, and to think I never had seen his bed!).
He laid me down and gave me a deep tissue massage, then began to remove my clothes. I stopped and ran into the living room to grab a handful of condoms and lube out of my overnight bag. I placed one on him. Here's where the deception came into play.
In the midst of him pleasuring me, the condom broke and I felt something warm inside of me, and at that moment I knew he had ejaculated. I asked if he did, and his reply haunted me for nearly 5 years: "Yeah I thought you wanted me to keep going.” At that moment my faith, my trust in men, were broken. I wouldn't find out my status until three months, and four HIV tests, later.
When I returned to campus, my mom called to say I had received a letter from the Health Department stating they wanted me to come in for more testing because my recent test was inconclusive. Within that year they ran several tests: The first was positive, the second was negative, the third was positive, and the last test, which was sent to DC, was negative. They ended up sending me away with a “clean bill of health.” It wasn't until 2013 I found out I was actually HIV-positive.
I never had unprotected sex, and because I was dating someone, I never asked the one magical question about his status. My life changed.
I used to look at HIV as a curse, but God gave me my redemption in the form of an apology. Years later, I saw him coincidentally when we were both picking up medicine from the clinic. He apologized, which made me realize, in a weird way, we were experiencing the same kind of pain. That’s what made me forgive him.
A week later, I found out he was killed. Someone beat and robbed him, leaving him on the side of the street.
I know this may sound weird, but I believe God kept him around long enough to apologize for what he did to me. I look at it as a gift. The whole thing opened my eyes and allowed me to share this story with you. Isn’t that a blessing?
Today I work for a wonderful company that has taught me so much and allows me opportunities to help others going through what I went through. I take so much pride in knowing I am exactly what my organization’s name is: I am My Brother’s Keeper.
My Brother’s Keeper allows me to stay connected to my community and to continue to be a voice we need. We recently expanded our clinic, which now serves over 200 poz patients. We offer many things for the community, whether you are HIV-positive or not, lesbian, transgender or bisexual, we make it our mission to serve and meet them where they are.
My participation in AMAIC was very much focused on gathering information and perspectives from the cast, crew and audience. But what I got was so much more gratifying.
The voice of Black gay men became loud and clear as I stood and watched each face throughout the performances/scenes day by day. I received a warm feeling that came over me as I watched their reactions and heard their voices. They saw the virus as one “thing” coming into the experience, but by the end they saw it as something else. We are not — nor ever were — our “status.” In other words, we don’t live with the virus; it lives with us.
In this world, in our communities, and in our families, it is our job as a whole to do as much as we can, not to just end the epidemic but to embrace, encourage and most importantly LOVE those around us who are living with HIV and fighting the battle alone.
That is truly as much as we can do.
Tommy Brown is a reality TV producer, script concept writer, and HIV activist based in Jackson, Mississippi. He is also a project coordinator for the Health Relationships Study at My Brother's Keeper.