POZ is lucky to have had LeRoy Whitfield (1969–2005) as a senior editor from 2000 to 2001, and I am lucky to have edited him. LeRoy was a tall, striking man with a raspy “Quiet Storm” voice and an aura about him that seemed lit from within. Few people wrote as eloquently about being young, gifted and black—and same-gender loving and HIV positive.
But LeRoy’s gift was greater, even, than that. As an editor, I’ve pored through the work of hundreds of writers, reams of copy in which subjects, verbs and punctuation marks were basically where they were supposed to be. But LeRoy understood that to write was to live. To read him was to feel the world through his skin. When he wrote about the warmth of Jamaica and the rapturous experience of having a man step to him and tell him how beautiful he was—hell, I felt like I had gotten my groove back.
I don’t recall LeRoy making every deadline. And a conversation with him, especially about writing, was never a short one. But in the final analysis, he was always worth the wait. At Vibe (where I worked between stints at POZ), I edited a feature LeRoy wrote on Hetrick Martin, the first high school created for gay (predominantly black and Latino) teens. And I assigned him to write a feature on Nikko Briteramos, the young HIV positive college athlete who’d been jailed for putting women at risk of infection. When LeRoy moved from personal essays to longer investigative pieces, I could tell it was a different kind of exercise for him. But it worked, because LeRoy was his subjects. He was the black and Latino kids who’d fled from families that condemned them, who lip-synched Destiny’s Child at the prom while same-sex teen couples got their freak on. He was the handsome young man grappling with the fear—and consequences—of disclosing his HIV status.
A couple of months before he died, I ran into LeRoy at a Pathmark in Harlem and was surprised to see how frail he looked. He had made a controversial decision not to go on HIV meds (see our tribute to him on page 39) and was beginning to experience kidney problems. Then, a month before he died, we rode the A train uptown together. He said some of his friends in the AIDS community, angry at his decision, had abandoned him. Of course, we had The Talk. I tried to reason through his concerns about side effects, lipo, adherence. It was naive of me. He had had this conversation countless times.
When he died, on October 9, of kidney failure and pneumonia, I couldn’t help thinking I could have done more, and mourning the writer he might yet have become. LeRoy wrote with his heart and all his senses. He wasn’t afraid to douse the page with his convictions or his vulnerability. And even though, as his editor, I sometimes gave him a hard time and felt like I was teaching him, in reality, it was the other way around.