Bronx, New York
Q: “I want to be an activist, but I’m afraid to disclose my status in my neighborhood. What can I do?”
Chardelle Imani Lassiter
Brooklyn, New York
A: “When you disclose, that’s when you can start teaching others.”
I was diagnosed with HIV when I was 17, and I kept it a big secret. I
didn’t come out to friends and most of my family because they weren’t
educated about HIV. I didn’t have anyone to talk to who was like
me—young, Latino and positive. Right now, I’m an activist and out
everywhere but at home and in my neighborhood. I realize it makes a big
difference not just to tell people you are fighting for them but to
share your own story because it touches them in a different way. That
is the kind of activist I want to be.
For years after my diagnosis, I tried to live as much of a non-HIV life
as possible: I disclosed to very few people, and I did not go on
medical treatment. And the social stigma was terrifying. What made you
finally start thinking about coming out with your status?
Two years ago, my doctor took me to the Ryan White National Youth
Conference, and that was the first time I met young people like myself
who were HIV positive. There was a lot of support, and I started to
learn about activism. I was very inspired. But I was still not telling
Chardelle: Is that how you started exploring activism?
Yes. And learning about it inspired me to come out publicly for the
first time, in Denver. Last summer, I was a youth coordinator at the
Youth Action Institute there, and I came out to a group of activists.
In 1994, after my mate died and close friends had died of the disease,
I began to feel terrified and helpless. By 1996, I realized I needed
help. I went to an HIV counseling service and eventually volunteered in
the office. People slowly began asking me to speak to their groups,
which is how I became an activist. But I didn’t disclose my status the
first few times, and I realized that I was being dishonest with myself
and with them. So I didn’t really get over my fear as much as I moved
past it—it became mandatory that I disclose because I could see how
transformative and helpful it was for them and for me. Helping others
made me feel better and provided the framework for me to build a life
Johnny: Did you start to attend community meetings?
I started going to meetings and anything that had to do with HIV. I
didn’t understand it, and I didn’t go to disclose. I just went to plop
myself in the middle of the madness. I thought: “If I can sit here,
I’ll absorb it, and eventually it will make sense.” And I did learn.
Johnny: What’s it like for you now?
I’m always uncomfortable when I disclose in a new environment, but it’s
like having a monkey on your back—I ask myself, “Who is going to live
my life, this monkey or me?” That way I can do what I want to do
without being stuck in fear.
Johnny: My other big fear is coming out here in the Bronx. I want to become active and do public speaking here.
The first place I called for help was in my own neighborhood, and I had
thought that that was the last thing I would ever do because I knew it
would invite someone coming up to me and saying, “I saw you coming out
of that HIV clinic” and me having to explain. And I really dreaded
that. But I was tired of hiding. Getting rid of this fear helped me to
get on with my life.
Johnny: Did anyone ever recognize you on the street?
Four years ago, I was coming out of my building when a neighbor came
running across the street saying she had seen me on TV the night
before, and I knew it had to be related to AIDS. I knew she wasn’t
coming to kill me, but I was just leaving my house, and here was this
situation where I had to talk about my personal business. I understood
that if I was public about my status that this might happen. So I
accept it now and say, “This is where you start teaching.”
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