Not long after DeMarquis Cobb started teaching algebra to eighth-graders last fall, he found himself solving a brutal equation. “Mr. Cobb,” one boy asked, “if I use a plastic bag [as a contraceptive], will it work against HIV?” The baby-faced Cobb, now 24, stared at his ragingly pubescent students, who get only abstinence-based sex education in their Alabama school. The state’s rampant stigma deters HIV positive people from seeking treatment; two out of five newly diagnosed patients there progress to AIDS within 60 days. Cobb then locked the classroom door, leaped atop an unoccupied desk and tutored the class in the factors of safe sex—factors he wishes he had mastered before testing HIV positive himself a year earlier, while a senior at Alabama State University.
In 2005, Cobb, nicknamed Quez, entered his fall semester as president of Kappa Alpha Psi, an African-American fraternity known nationally as a haven for pretty party boys. A member of the campus ROTC, he had taken a year off from his studies to train with the National Guard and planned to join the military after graduation. With his career path set, Cobb settled in for a semester of parties, girls and booze. “Sex was kind of my main focus, besides going to class,” he says. “And I played risky.”
His other, official duties as frat president included planning an HIV/AIDS awareness week, with a testing push. Most of his frat brothers wouldn’t get tested, saying they feared the results, so Cobb signed up, hoping others would follow. A week later, he got his own results. “I sat there, and I was like, ‘You know, I am positive, and there’s nothing I can do about it,’” he says. “So I left the office ’cause I had a physics test to take.”
Leaving the clinic, Cobb, a father of two girls, Makiya, now 3, and BreOnna, now 6 (both are negative), called his youngest daughter’s mother, Tameka Pounds (also negative), who had moved to Chicago with Makiya in 2004. “On the phone, he had to be strong because that’s the person he is, and he knew he had to take care of his family,” she says. “But he’s not the type to show a lot of emotion.” After taking the physics test, which he passed, Cobb headed home alone in his car and broke down in tears. That night he penned a poem: “I am a grown man and responsible for my own mistakes / The first one which was my little girl / Who is now and always will be the love of my life.” Cobb vowed to disclose to one family member or past partner every day for two weeks; the partners were all negative.
After graduating, he disclosed to his frat by posting his poem on his Myspace.com page for all to read. He still talks safe sex with his Kappa brothers, many of whom also have children. “What if you’re married and you have a kid who comes out HIV positive?” Cobb asks them. Despite the frat’s awareness week, he reports, HIV info and condom availability on campus remain low. “Here in Alabama, you don’t have people willing to speak up about HIV, especially people willing to say they have it,” Cobb adds. “Without knowledge, carelessness comes about.” After his Web disclosure crossed the campus, however, his classmates were awed, not outraged. “There really weren’t negative responses,” says fraternity brother Jason Munford. “Quez is someone I respect and look up to, a true individual. He would come to meetings where we were supposed to wear formal clothes in a T-shirt and a tie. When he got the virus, it was like, ‘No one is immune.’ ”
However, when he dropped by ROTC to check on the military’s HIV policy, he discovered that while he could still join the National Guard, he could not enlist. So he requested a medical discharge. When a friend told him about the job teaching math, he jumped at the steady paycheck. Cobb says he quickly bonded with his students, due in part to his youth, and that they frequently approach him with personal problems (many of his fellow teachers know his status, but the students do not). “As for sex and telling them what they shouldn’t do, well, they’ve already done it,” he explains. “I say, ‘OK, this is how you can protect yourself if you do do it.’”
Cobb is currently focusing on his kids and his job, not dating. “In college, there was a lot of pressure to always have the women,” he says. “But now, I feel like if a relationship comes along, fine.” A tattoo on his muscular calf may best capture his philosophy. It states the date of his diagnosis, 10-12-05, and is captioned whasnex. Says Cobb, “I don’t complain or argue. I just ask ‘What’s next?’”