Living the Questions
BY Tyler Helms
November 22 2010 5:10 PM ET
COMMENTARY: As World AIDS Day approaches, I’m fielding requests for school speeches, journal entries, and perspective from an HIV-positive person. I have found it hard to articulate the impact this disease has and why. My words are often taken out of context; my answers are never “right.” But in a recent question and answer session at a high school near Boston, one young student wanted to know whether my answers even matter and, more importantly, how those answers are used.
I should preface this by saying the school in question is no ordinary school. Walnut Hill School for the Arts is a boarding school with students from 14 different countries, each there by choice, not obligation. They have sought out this school because they have talent — to dance, sing, perform, but on a different level. Young George Li, the famous child pianist, is among the group of roughly 300 unique individuals. Poet Elizabeth Bishop was an alum of Walnut Hill, once an all-girls preparatory school. The school can best be described as a cross between Harry Potter’s Hogwarts and Glee; the magic, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. By nature, the maturity level of these students is above average and the school's tolerance an environmental necessity we could all learn to live by.
I was asked there because of a student’s involvement with the AIDS Action Committee and the Boston AIDS Walk — the student sought me out after reading one of these columns.
There is no shortage of material for me to cover at these appearances, so I decided to treat my talk at Walnut Hill Arts as a dry run for my planned World AIDS Day column and outreach. I showed a rough cut of my World AIDS Day video with coworkers, clients, Real Housewife Jill Zarin, and Michael J. Fox looking on. It's a reflection of my year since coming out as HIV-positive, a personal journey commemorated by a public anniversary. I cried, almost without noticing, upon hearing myself say, “A part of me died the day I was diagnosed.” I'd finally realized just how true that is.
As I sat in the auditorium, I glanced at the questions about to be asked of me. Naturally, there is nothing off limits. One stood out: “Why didn’t you use a condom?” I wound up answering the question honestly and simply. I didn’t use a condom because I was in the moment, I trusted the other person, and yes, I thought it would feel better. Those words make me cringe today.
The assembly ended and I went back to New York, moved by those students and the Multicultural AIDS Coalition of Boston, and reenergized by the impact of one conversation. But it wasn’t until I received an e-mail from one of those students that I realized the true value of that visit. The student referenced my answer about using a condom. It was a short note, and it ended with an affirmative question: “It really doesn’t matter why you didn’t wear a condom, and it only matters if we are looking to judge you. Right?” I've been conflicted about my response for four days now.