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See Me: Derrick Cobb

Derrick is one of the homeless youths pictured in the photo book and exhibition See Me: Picturing New York’s Homeless Youth, with photographs by Alex Radkin with essays by Taz Tagore of the Reciprocity Foundation. Below is an essay describing Derrick Cobb. To see more photos from this moving and useful project, click here. To buy the book click here.

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When you meet Derrick Cobb, the first word that comes to mind is “regal.”  He stands well over 6 feet tall, his body is beautifully sculpted, and he moves through space in the manner of a dancer.  Derrick aspired to stardom and knew how to play the part. But Adam and I sensed that like so many other homeless youth, Derrick was trying very hard to look “powerful” on the outside in order to cover up what lies deep within.

There are nearly 20,000 homeless and runaway youth in New York City on any given night. Nearly 40 percent of these young people identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Very few youth will reveal what led them to the streets, even after months of intense counseling. To survive on the streets of New York City, homeless youth put on a mask and keep it securely fastened. Taking it off feels too dangerous. What if you show someone who you really are and they take advantage of you?

Derrick kept his mask in place as he went out for countless auditions and go-sees.  He was hired to dance at the Alvin Ailey theater in Manhattan. He played the part of a fearless, powerful dancer. He won a modeling contract with 7 for All Mankind and played the part of a sexy, sweat-drenched man. The ad campaign was a huge success. Derek was working out six days a week, eating well, and having a blast in New York City. He wore his mask with confidence and nobody challenged him to take it off.

But as Derrick’s mask began to fall away, we learned how extraordinary he was.  He had been kicked out of the house at 16 by a homophobic stepfather and was taken in by an older gay man. Derrick was young and naive and trusted this man. Later that year, his “trusted partner" gathered a group of men together who drugged and beat Derrick. They raped him repeatedly until he was unconscious and bleeding. On that night, he contracted HIV. He was just 17 years old.

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Violence toward young gay men is far too prevalent.  Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena are well-known victims of homophobic hate crimes. But gay teens are taken advantage of each night on New York City’s piers and in similar places across the country. Nearly one-third of HIV diagnoses in the gay population are in men under 24 years old. Countless studies have proven a link between HIV infection and violence. So many homeless youth contract HIV not because they are ignorant of the disease, but because they are powerless and voiceless.  

Derrick timidly went to the police station after the rape. The police wouldn’t record the incident as a crime — telling Derrick that “this is what gay men do to each other.” When he was tested in an HIV clinic outside his group home, Derrick punched the nurse and ran out after she disclosed his positive status. That day, he put on the “I’m OK and don’t need anyone” mask and vowed not to take it off. His mask helped him survive.  It helped him to apply for shelter and find work.  To show up with a smile at aditions and go-sees. But the mask was growing too small for Derrick. He had to find a way to take it off.

There were two people who gently saw beneath Derrick’s mask. His niece, then 6 years old, visited him in the psych ward after he attempted suicide in 2011. She wiped the tears from his face and kissed his forehead. From that moment on, Derrick vowed never to try to kill himself again. His niece was an angel. He had to turn his life around for her.

And Dr. Walker. Derrick’s physician was a constant presence in his life since Derrick was 18. Dr. Walker celebrated Derrick’s health victories but asked him to deal with the emotional side of the illness. Derrick was still pretending not to have HIV. And Dr. Walker knew that his mask would eventually have to come off.  

For Derrick, the process of disclosing his positive status has taken years. In 2010, CBS-Logo — a TV station targeting LGBT viewers — asked to interview Derrick.  To our great surprise, Derrick looked into the camera and explained that his stepfather kicked him out for being gay and that his mother didn’t stop him from leaving. Afterward, his emotions floated to the surface — his eyes were wet, and his cheeks twitched with sadness. He had briefly taken off his mask. But then he put it right back on.
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Two years later, Derrick disclosed his HIV status to Adam and me at Reciprocity.  He thought deeply about Dr. Walker’s proposal and decided to put his name forward for an HIV awareness campaign. He was terrified of what his family and friends would say once they knew he was HIV-positive. But Derrick was beginning to sense that he wouldn’t be able to achieve the success he desired until he took off his mask. He was rejected for the campaign because he looked too healthy. For the first time, I saw Derrick get angry. “For me, HIV isn’t a death sentence,” he said. “HIV has taught me how to live fully, each and every day.”

Each morning, Derrick shakes off the tranquilizers that are part of his HIV meds.  He races to the dance studio and the gym, feeling that he has to work twice as hard as other New York City dancers. “Dancing has never let me down,” he said. But at Reciprocity, he is learning to invest in the other parts of his life too. Derrick is terrified of intimacy since the gang rape. He avoids dating. He wishes for a life partner and children but has few role models to show him the way. His work at Reciprocity is to find balance between his professional and his personal lives. To fully heal from his past, he cannot isolate himself from others.

Last year Derrick cut a new record. It was different from his first single. He sang openly about his past. The lyrics were about loss and anger and grief. It was the first time that his personal life and his professional goals merged. The music was incredibly powerful.

Derrick, now 25, lives at True Colors, the residence created by Cyndi Lauper for HIV-positive and gay youth. He is applying to college for a four-year degree in music and dance. His record will be released in 2015. At the release party, he will talk openly about being HIV-positive for the first time. He is mentoring other LGBT youth. He is learning how to open up and grow closer to friends and lovers.

Slowly, Derrick is learning to let the world see all of him — the beautiful parts that dance and spin, and the tender parts that get broken by life but eventually heal.

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