Pedro Zamora’s life was cut short when he died of AIDS complications at 22 in 1994. The first HIV-positive person on reality television, Zamora starred on The Real World: San Francisco. Now the activist and educator is posthumously honored by the Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship. Created by the National AIDS Memorial Grove, the Zamora scholarship spotlights young activists as they pick up his mantle in fighting the HIV epidemic.
The Memorial Grove, which became a federally-designated national memorial in 1996 thanks to Congressional legislation signed by then-President Bill Clinton, receives major funding from Wells Fargo and Gilead Sciences for the scholarship program.
Since 2009, it has awarded a total of $200,000 in college scholarships to nearly 60 young leaders working in the fight against HIV—many who are living with HIV themselves.
Meet four of them:
Granada Hills, Calif.
At 23, Kelly Gluckman was in a monogamous relationship—until she found out she was poz.
“It was shocking and devastating.” She recalls demanding, “Who are you having sex with?”
But after some serious soul-searching, eventually she realized, “I can sit here and place blame... but at the end of the day, I knew that my sexual health was my responsibility.”
Gluckman was raised by “very liberal” parents who taught her to protect herself from sexually-transmitted infections. She also attended Los Angeles Unified School District, which had a comprehensive sex ed program.
Gluckman now shares her story to dispel myths, stereotypes, and stigma around HIV, and to let others know that this virus doesn’t discriminate—even when you’re young, white, straight, and in love.
A life-changing coincidence set Gluckman on the path to activism. A cousin introduced her to a mutual acquaintance who happened to be HIV activist Marvelyn Brown, the author of The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful, and (HIV) Positive.
“My cousin connected me with Marvelyn and we talked on the phone for like an hour the first time. We just connected so deeply… I read her book, and I’m like, ‘I want to do that.’”
Now 31 years old, Gluckman recently graduated from University of California, Los Angeles, and has become an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
South Central Los Angeles
“I’m straight by the way,” Nestor Rogel quips, knowing if you’re Latino, and poz, people assume you must be gay or bi.
His wit hides past struggles. Born with HIV, Rogel discovered his status at 13 after a caseworker clumsily disclosed, thinking he already knew.
“It was heartbreaking,” he recalls, “I straight up stopped thinking I was a person anymore... I really thought I was a monster.”
Stigma, ignorance, and parents who he says weren’t “the most responsible people,” only made staying on his meds harder.
Then his mother passed away from AIDS-related complications and Rogel fell into a deep depression. After he attempted suicide, his family sent him to stay with relatives in El Salvador.
“I thought I knew what struggle was, coming from South Central,” Rogel says. “But there I realized the worst day in my life was an average day in someone else’s.” That’s when Rogel “started trying to put myself back together” and got involved in activism, working with the Student Global AIDS Campaign.
He recently graduated from college and works as an HIV prevention specialist for Altamed in East L.A. Although he’s straight, he started the group Queer in Compton. Rogel is involved with the South Central Healin Artz Space, a writing workshop “aimed at telling our stories about our neighborhood, from us and by us.” He’s also part of a local initiative to bring back the old South Central Farm to combat the area’s poverty and lack of green spaces.
Los Angeles, Calif.
Being disowned by his family for being pansexual turned HIV-negative Alexander “Xander” Pacach into an activist. “As someone who has experienced family rejection and homelessness—factors that could lead to sexual behaviors that carry the highest risk of HIV transmission, I knew it was important to get involved in my community and support those who have limited or no access to sexual health education and other resources,” explains Pacach.
He’s also fighting stigma, arguing that “HIV is the only chronic illness that... people are shamed for living with it, regardless of their circumstances.”
The 28-year-old has worked with the Risk Reduction Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles as a health educator for the LIFE project, and was selected as a youth scholar by both the United States Conference on AIDS and the NMAC’s Youth Initiative to End HIV/AIDS in America.
Pacach also created a YouTube series, Closeted Conversations, because he believes in fostering communication between generations. “HIV has been around for over 30 years. That’s a long time,” says Pacach. “The sooner we engage young people, then they can have those conversations with their friends, siblings, and their future kids. Young people [need] understanding mentors that support their sexual health.”
The budding filmmaker, adds, “I am very passionate about sharing the stories, experiences, and perspectives from minority communities that challenge social norms and taboos.”
After a conversation with a former partner gave him a feeling he might be poz, Antwan Matthews went in for a test, just days before his 20th birthday. It wasn’t his first time at a clinic: Matthews says his parents had been very proactive when it came to sexual health and they routinely took him and his siblings for STI screenings.
By the time his test came back positive, Matthews had already decided not to let HIV ruin his life.
“I wanted to approach my diagnosis as if I had another chance to redirect my life,” explains Matthews, now 25. “I knew I had power in reaching a larger audience if I stayed proactive and worked strategically to advocate for youth and people of color.”
He advises young people who learn they are positive to “not look at the new stage in your life as if you failed, but take this opportunity to better yourself…. You have to take control of your narrative and change pity to excellence.”
Matthews urges those who are not poz to get involved too. “Become involved, learn more about the innovative approaches that are available to decrease HIV… do research on prevention measures such as PrEP to stay HIV-negative.”
Matthews, who founded the nonprofit Peer HEALTH Educator, was also featured on PBS’s Southern Remedy, which explores issues around healthier living in Mississippi. When he finishes his medical degree, Matthews hopes to work in health policy, to “make sure people of color have an opportunity for healthier living, housing, and services for mental health.”