The first World AIDS Day was observed on December 1, 1988. That year, more than 28,000 people died from AIDS-related causes. I was 12, probably somewhere in Philadelphia dancing and lip-synching to Paula Abdul, blissfully unaware that the epidemic would later alter my life in significant ways. The only HIV prevention that seemed to exist back then for young gay boys like me, were vocal demands to not get AIDS. As we mark the 30th Anniversary of World AIDS Day, the number of annual HIV-related deaths has dropped tremendously to around 6,500. While science has made strides in expanding HIV prevention, systematic stigma and shame continue to prohibit folks from leading safe and healthy lives, especially youth of color.
In many ways, the crack epidemic was the equalizer in our neighborhood. My mother had friends who were lawyers, blue collar workers, and business executives – all of whom were addicts. I watched them come and go as our one-room apartment became a revolving door. I never paid them much attention, choosing to retreat to the sounds of Paula Abdul, Janet, or Donna Summers. That all changed when Miss Tina walked in.
Miss Tina was Black, tall, muscular, and unapologetic about her sometimes revealing five o’clock shadow. Instead of studying for school tests, I studied Miss Tina. I’d ask her questions about her nail color and shoes, but what I desperately wanted to know was how to beat up the boys who called me “faggot” at school.
One night, I woke up to urgent whispers and cries from Miss Tina. “I think you need to go to the hospital,” I heard my mother say. I peeked through the sheet dividing our one-room apartment and saw Miss Tina’s bloodied and swollen face. I wanted to ask what happened, but even then, I knew. She got beat up for being herself, just like I got beat up at school.
As I grew older, Miss Tina and I developed our own friendship. We talked about the night that she showed up bloody in our apartment. She told me about the many times she showed up bloody somewhere. We talked about how she endured. She told me to never do drugs or get AIDS. She made me promise. I promised.
In 1996, Miss Tina died of AIDS complications. There was no wailing, no explicit mourning. People spoke about her death as matter of fact. I can’t say I blame them. By that time, there were an estimated 23 million people living with HIV worldwide. Trauma and shame meant many of us didn’t talk with our families about AIDS or death. Back then, demands to never get AIDS was the only HIV prevention there was to give young gay boys like myself.
It has been more than 20 years since Miss Tina’s passing, and I’ve been living with HIV for more than 10 of those years. Looking back, I now know that I didn’t break Miss Tina’s promise. She wasn’t really asking me to promise to abstain: She was telling me to live. Tina knew, even before I had officially “come out” to her, that I was in need of direction and helpful hints that could, and would, eventually save my life.
Now I have the privilege of providing LGBTQ youth the same direction and guidance that she once gifted me. I’m launching the first-ever National council of youth activists living with HIV, called Engaging Communities around HIV Organizing (ECHO), focused on combating rampant HIV stigma. We must end laws and policies which criminalize people living with HIV, and make sure every young person living with HIV is cared for and valued.
Today, I am older than Tina was when she died. Effective treatment and care have helped to make HIV a survivable diagnosis. We now even have PrEP, the daily pill that helps to prevent HIV infection. It all would seem like science fiction to Miss Tina and the little boy she unknowingly saved.