The Needle Prick Project: Jeffrey Tomlinson's Ultimate HIV Lesson

Tyler Curry profiles a newly diagnosed educator with HIV, who learned of his diagnosis in an unconventional space -- a bathhouse.

BY Tyler Curry

February 01 2013 5:42 AM ET

Jeffrey found out that he was positive in a Denver bathhouse, but he swears it isn’t like that…  Let’s start from the beginning.

Jeffrey Tomlinson grew up in the typical small-town Midwest. Kewanee, Ill. consisted of only 12,000 people and according to him, was about as diverse as a bag of rice.  Now, he considers Denver home; but he still recalls a misplaced idea of an “equal America” that he gathered while growing up in “Podunk, Illinois.” When it came the time to attend college, however, Jeffrey would soon have a little color spilt onto that crisp manila idea he had of America.

While attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, he struggled with the realization that not everyone started with the same crayons. Jeffrey learned about the distribution of resources and how it was grossly unjust. Majoring in Political Science, he began to drown in the regression analyses of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” So, he decided to be a part of the change.

“Being from a small town, I didn’t have an idea of how unequal our society was.” Jeffrey said. “Inequality seems to be the worst in the U.S education system, so I joined Teach for America because I realized that education was the best way to create change and close the achievement gap.”

He spent the next three years in Washington, D.C., working with the underserved and trying to create a small shift in the balance. While in the Teach for America program, he earned his Master’s in Education from American University. After that, he returned to Denver and continued teaching at a charter school. As is typical for the Y Generation, he quickly became bored with his current station in life. There is nothing quite like going back to where you started to make you want to go out and have an adventure, right?

Jeffrey landed a teaching role at a private school in the Dominican Republic.  During a two-year contract, he soaked up every last drop he could of the Latin world. He had always wanted to learn Spanish, and with a confessed affinity towards Latin men, he couldn’t have asked for better instructors. It was the adventure that he was looking for. As Jeffrey recounts his D.R. experience, his eyes flicker with a mix of excitement, fondness and just a dash of embarrassment. 

Nevertheless, even the best adventures must come to an end. After a torrid two years of spicy food, Latin lovers and English lessons, Jeffrey returned to Denver.  His new adventure would be a little more unexpected.

When he received a call from his new boyfriend who lived in L.A, the relationship was in the early stages to say the least. He called Jeffrey to deliver his negative test results and that he was looking forward to his visit the following week. With the buzz of new beginnings, Jeffrey walked himself to the local HIV clinic in Denver.  
When he arrived, he was greeted by his friend who was also the only person administering HIV testing that day. Because they were friends, the clinician had to direct Jeffrey to another testing site; the Denver bathhouse.

Hesitant but determined, Jeffrey schlepped across town to the local bathhouse. He walked down the hallway, trying to ignore the various indiscretions happening to the left and right. With his eyes fastened to his feet, he made it the free testing room. Only one thing kept going through his mind.

“Oh my god, if I had to find out that I was positive in some trashy Denver bath house, that would be just horrible.”

And it was. At first, he went numb. He was shocked that the person conducting his test was so curt. Jeffrey was left to syphon through the bombardment of emotions while the clinician rattled off the next steps—something about reporting his results, signing something and treatment. 

With a binder full of foreign papers and an address scribbled on a post-it, Jeffrey made it to his car and called his boyfriend in L.A.

“I just told him, ‘I got tested and actually came up positive so I will not be coming to see you for your birthday,’” said Jeffrey. “Then (my boyfriend) said, ‘You can’t let this change your life or stop you from what you want to do.’ But I just couldn’t.  In my mind, everything had gone black.”

And it stayed black for a few days. Although the specifics were hazy, he knew to call the Centers for Disease Control and make an appointment. So that’s what he did.

Whereas the testing clinician at the bathhouse was distant and unforgiving, the counselor at the CDC was kind, thorough and understanding.  He began to walk Jeffrey through all the components of managing his newfound permanent companion.  He talked about treatment options and explained what being HIV-positive meant, and more importantly, what it didn’t mean.  Then the counselor gave him a little piece of advice. 

Jeffrey recalls her saying, ““You have to choose how you are going to be for the rest of your life.  Are you going to choose to let this ruin your life and be depressed forever or are you going to choose to be happy and take the bumps and bruises as they come?”

This was just the paternal backhand he so desperately needed.  He was healthy, educated and had his whole life in front of him.  It was time to quit feeling sorry for himself and get back to helping people with real problems.

It would be foolish to assume that the nice man at the CDC was all it took to stop the nightmares and lift the weight of guilt that fell on his shoulders once he heard “You are” in connection with “positive.”  Jeffrey still struggles with the reality of his new role, and knows that he has a long road to travel.  A road, however, is better than a cul-de-sac, and he has found his direction again.  He might not have been able to give him a complete map, but a compass can prove to be quite handy when you need it.  For that, he will always be thankful.

Jeffrey is still working to right the wrongs of our country, one classroom at a time.  He now works for Uplift Education, one of the charter networks in Dallas.  He has moved beyond the focus of one classroom and now spends his time teaching the teachers on the best ways to educate their students. 

In the aftermath of becoming HIV positive, Jeffrey finds himself with a new mission.  He attended the San Francisco AIDS Foundation events for World AIDS Day and spoke about being positive for the first time in front of hundreds of people.  The experience left him awe-struck, as it was his first time being around people who were open about their HIV status.  This left a lasting mark and Jeffrey saw pieces of himself in the many others who spoke about their experiences with the disease.  Now Jeffrey is determined not to let the hard work of his predecessors who weren’t as lucky as he go to waste.  Which brings us to today.

“When I first found out about my status I didn’t know anybody else with HIV,” said Jeffrey.  “I wanted to get involved because I felt awful and alone and I know now that I don’t have to.  I don’t want others to go through what I did and that’s why I want to be open about my status today.”

Many of the people around him were concerned about his position with the charter school, but Jeffrey just sees his position as another opportunity to make a difference.

“It’s like coming out all over again.  I am always out when I teach because I want the gay kid in the class realize that they have nothing to be ashamed of and should be whoever they are.  I have always found that worth whatever risk I faced.  I realized I was in the closet with my HIV status, so this is my way of coming out and showing a newly positive HIV person that its ok to be who they are as well.”

Just like any shot, we fear the prick of the needle. But a conversation about what it means to be HIV positive today is just the medicine we need. 

Get pricked. Jeffrey Tomlinson did.

TYLER CURRY created The Needle Prick Project as an editorial campaign to elicit a candid and open conversation on what it means to be HIV positive today.  To learn more about The Needle Prick Project, visit Facebook.com/getpricked or follow Tyler Curry on twitter at @iamtylercurry.

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