By Thomas Davis | April 4, 2016
HRC Youth Ambassador
I haven’t always been an outspoken young man. I learned to be outspoken when I was diagnosed with HIV.
After the counselor told me, “Your test is positive,” I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted examples. I wanted to hear stories from people like me. But there was not a lot of representation from young Black men going through this.
I thought, “Okay. I need to be the example. I am not afraid to share this.” So I started to tell my story among my friends and in my community.
A man I know with the Human Rights Campaign saw a video I’d made. He passed it on to some other HRC people, and they sponsored my attendance at one of HRC’s national conferences. I was able to tell my story there.
Today, being an advocate is really important to me. My ability to do this has come from people believing in me and giving me the opportunity to speak up. I appreciate the different mentors who’ve guided me along the way and been there to listen. Of course, my story is still unfolding.
My peers are aware of HIV. Men of color know they need to be concerned. In fact, they’re so used to hearing it that sometimes it just becomes another “blah blah blah” message.
For example, I went to an event recently that was part of the House and Ballroom community. Most of the members are gay men and transgender women of color. A lot of the feeling at this event was, “If he isn’t going to mention condoms, I’m not going to either.” Even though they know about HIV and understand it’s a risk, it’s really difficult for people to bring it up.
People aren’t always entirely clear about what is or isn’t risky. Some think if you’re on PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), you don’t have to worry about HIV or any other STD. I hear people say Magic Johnson was cured.
People hear something, but they don’t always look deeper. The stories get passed around and there isn’t a lot of fact checking.
There have been some troubling recent reports sharing some deeply disturbing data. If current trends continue, 1 in 2 Black men who have sex with men (MSM) will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime (and 1 in 4 Latino MSM). This is so bleak. It’s so hard to hear.
What should our response be? When I talk to young Black men, I don’t just give this information. I give them solutions. There are tools we all have to prevent this from happening.
My emphasis is that these numbers are projections of what will happen if we don’t change what we’re doing. That’s the important focus—we must change what we’re doing.
I don’t think it helps when people hear the message, “We’re doomed!” We have choices about where this epidemic will go. We need to empower and encourage people to make the choices that will turn these trends around. When we engage people in this process, they will come up with the answers that work in their own communities—they will offer the blueprint for real and meaningful solutions.
I’ve learned a lot by speaking up, telling my story and listening to others’ stories. I believe this act of listening is the most important step people working in HIV prevention and health promotion can take.
A lot of grants are focused on specific communities at risk—the House and Ballroom community, for example. But in all honesty, the majority of people working in health care or the HIV prevention field have never had a real conversation with anyone in that community. How can you know the real issues if you haven’t had the real conversation?
We all need to hear more from the people we’re trying to serve. And that means we need to hear about the issues that are at the top of their list of concerns. For us, it might be HIV prevention. For them, it might be, “Where am I going to sleep tonight? Where is my next meal coming from? Where can I get a job?”
For a lot of youth, these are the up-front issues in their lives. HIV prevention takes a back seat.
I want us to meet youth where they’re at, and help them get to a place where they can address their sexual health concerns holistically—as one part of all the important elements affecting their overall health.
One of the most important things communities can do to promote HIV prevention and turn these trends around is open up doors. Bring the people who have information into your schools, churches and community programs. Encourage them to talk with youth.
Right now, I’m working with this wonderful group of girls who are dancers in my studio. They’re doing a special dance program with me marking National Youth HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. They’re 13. And they have questions about HIV.
I spoke to the parents of the girls and said, “I need to have some conversations with these girls. We need to talk about HIV, and about the questions they have, and the things they’re seeing at school among their peers.” The parents were wonderful—they’re like, “Yes, our daughters need to hear this information and know about this!”
Every week, these girls come in for rehearsals. We dance, and then we spend some time talking about HIV. I answer their questions. They talk with me and with each other about some of the things going on among their friends. HIV has become so much more real to them. And it’s all because their parents were willing to open that door, let us have those conversations, and allow them to become more informed.
My experience with HIV has shown me that if I want to see a change in the world, I need to start with myself. I think there’s a good chance that’s true for all of us. So let’s do it—let’s change what we’re doing and end this epidemic.
Thomas Davis is a dancer, dance teacher, choreographer and actor. He is also a nationally-recognized HIV advocate. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.