I am fairly certain that I became an activist and community organizer sometime shortly after leaving the womb. In fifth grade I organized the students in my classroom at the Longfellow International School of Fine Arts in Minneapolis to boycott McDonald’s until they stopped using ozone depleting Styrofoam containers. At 17, while a senior in high school, I co-founded the Minneapolis district wide safe schools program Out4Good. By the time I was in college, I was working the national organizing circuit and organizing with other radical queer youth on issues of importance to us as young folks. At 20, I was co-chair of the National Queer Student Coalition, and by 21 I had firmly established queer street cred as an activist. I came out of the closet with a roar and a high kick and adopted my new queer identity with fearlessness and little hesitation.
I tested positive for HIV when I was barely out of college, and, based on my previous incarnation as an organizer, one would think that I would have pinned on a red ribbon, adopted this new identity, and added HIV rights to my roster of causes.
Not even close.
HIV took me by surprise, caught me off guard, and for the first time in my life, I turned inward to deal with a life situation instead of looking outward to my friends and community. I was terrified that I would now face the rejection from friends, family, and community that I hadn't experienced when I came out as gay. I'd heard the whispers in the club about this or that individual that wasn't “clean.” I was already queer and a man of color, I'd grown up poor in the Midwest, I didn't want or need another “difference” in my life. HIV, for the first time, shut me down, closed me off, and forced me to find a new way to deal with something life had thrown in my path.
I had always been a writer of scathing opinion, but it was spoken word poetry that took me from pain to celebration in relationship to my HIV status.
I have written exactly one poem about being HIV positive.
It wasn’t writing about HIV that helped me come to peace with my HIV status. It was performing pieces that dissected and reexamined love, life, politics, sex, race, and beauty as an openly HIV positive performance artist that lifted me out of shame and fear and into acceptance and living. There is a permission on the stage to be brave, to put on and pull off masks, and to reveal the hidden. The stage has given artists the strength to be more of themselves, it is a two way mirror, a glass dressing room, and a place of open secrets and revelation. It gave me the strength to find the power in being positive.
Don't get me wrong, reading that first poem at Latino Pride in Fall 2010 in front of a standing room only crowd was absolutely stupefying. I broke down crying at least three times during the reading, but when I was done, the roar from the crowd blew away any fear that remained.
By claiming my identity, through poetry and performance, of being positive in front of often times unsuspecting audience members, I have watched faces consume my body, my face, my presence and watched it force aside their notions of what an HIV positive person looks like, acts like, lives like. By telling my story and living it through performance, I have seen others connect with pieces that touch on their own life stories and find resonance with me across the positive divide. And I have been touched by and lifted up by the many individuals that afterwards have come to me and sometimes whispered and sometimes cried and sometimes plainly stated that they too live with HIV and never though to have that part of their lives brought, unexpectedly and unashamedly, into a performance space that wasn't specifically about people living with this disease. By living openly and performing my truth, it has given my family permission to love me through the tough times living with HIV. By not being afraid of this disease, I have given those that love me to be fearless as well, and when I have been uncertain or afraid or in pain as happens now and again as part of the reality of being positive, my family and friends are now fearless for me. Courage breeds courage.
HIV is now a piece of life and, for me; it is a source of strength. No other illness comes with such stigma or is surrounded by quite the same level of fear and ignorance. Through the claiming of my life and presence as an HIV positive man and finding and creating love and acceptance of the wholeness of my person, I have found the strength to confront other parts of my life and this world that I want to be better, stronger, and healthier. By claiming my place in the world as an HIV positive person, I create space for others to do the same, and I change the face and the assumptions of who is living and thriving with HIV.
BRANDON LACY CAMPOS blogs at MyFeetOnlyWalkForward.