All Grown Up With HIV
by Cristina González
Lafayette Sanders, 24, West Philadelphia,
Having found power in disclosure and self-advocacy, musician Lafayette has found a new life. Now that he has broken down his own stereotypes about HIV, Lafayette is trying to help other people do the same.
I was in the doctor’s office. I was 13; it was a few months after my mother passed away. My grandmother took me for a checkup, and I was then told about me being HIV positive. My grandmother knew what I didn’t: My mom died of HIV, HIV that she passed along to me. They told me, and I took the meds but didn’t learn anything about HIV. At that age, I had no idea about the stigma or life spans. Having to take medications was like taking vitamins: You don’t know what it’s for, you just do it ’cause it’s good for you.
And then high school hit. I started to hang around kids my age, and everybody was talking about sex, and HIV came up in the picture. I wanted to tell them I was positive, but I didn’t know that much about it to tell and to be able to defend myself. I didn’t want to be looked at as different. So I didn’t disclose. There were so many feelings, and I was so angry for so long. It took me a long time to get over the anger at my mom—that she didn’t tell me herself, when we were so close and shared everything, and then to find out this big thing and to deal with it on my own. I was angry at her, God, myself, everybody. And then there was my grandmother. My grandmother was the primary guardian to my sister and me after my mother passed. My sister, who is not HIV positive, was too young to remember my mother’s death. My grandmother, who is a sweet and caring woman but also very traditional, put me in a box of fear. She made me believe that disclosing my status would change how people treated me, how they looked at me. It wasn’t true, to me—I knew someday people would understand and accept me for me.
When I was maybe 17 or 18, I woke up every day thinking about HIV and [I wanted to make it go away, to pretend it wasn’t there] so I stopped taking medication. I would hide it, pretend. I was young and irresponsible. And I was having sex.
The turning point came with my last two girlfriends. I disclosed to [the first one] right off the bat. Still we were reckless and irresponsible, and she got pregnant. She had a miscarriage, and to this day she’s negative. Second relationship, almost the same thing. She had an abortion. I was sitting in an abortion clinic, and I thought, “How the hell did I end up here? I’m reckless, and the people I’m with are reckless.” That was my wake-up call, the moment of “You have to get your shit together.”
I hooked up with iChoose2live [a youth organization designed to encourage self-esteem and awareness about HIV and other issues]. I thank God for everyone He has placed in and out of my life. He uses who He chooses when He chooses. If it weren’t for me meeting [hip-hop artist] Lee Mekhai at a show in Philly, I wouldn’t have found out about iChoose2live and the founder Shenille Melton. That opened a lot of doors for me as far as reaching the youth.
Since I had already taken a course for certification in HIV Peer Education through Philadelphia FIGHT’s program, Project TEACH, I thought about disclosing my status. For 10 years, my grandmother was the voice discouraging me from disclosing. I was secluded. She drilled into me that disclosing was not safe, that “the neighbors are gonna look at you this way, no one is gonna look at you the same way or accept you.” But as I began to educate myself about the virus, how it works and what it does, I began to lose the fear of disclosing. Then after I linked up with iChoose2live, I came out in a big way through interviews and the work [I did with that group].
My grandmother kicked me out when I told her I would be doing an open interview about me being positive with The Philadelphia Inquirer, which [was published] on September 13, 2010. [At that time,] I had no job, no money, I was struggling. But a lot of positive things came from my disclosure. People emailed me to thank me for being honest about my HIV status. I was intrigued and blessed that my story could help others. I started speaking to groups at the children’s hospital. Kids looked up to me.
I’ve learned that kids in public schools aren’t being taught what they really need to know. HIV is that disease that’s swept under the rug; no one talks about it. And youth are spreading [the virus] because they’re uneducated, misinformed and not being reached out to enough. I honestly think there should be mandatory classes in all middle schools through college for educating about HIV/AIDS [and other sexually transmitted infections].
Positive people my age need to be out there. You can’t have a 48-year-old man talking to kids about this. No one listens. You need someone like me, someone who is living with [HIV]—then it becomes more real. It’s a great feeling to be able to do that. And that’s just me! One person. Imagine if everyone was doing it, if everyone got together. We may not be able to stop this pandemic, but we can inform, educate and empower, and we can slow down the rates of HIV transmission.
I would like to write a book about my life living with HIV and just my life in general. I know my story and experiences within these past 24 years can help educate, empower and change other people’s lives—people of all ages. My story will heal lives all over and most importantly let everyone know the power of God. He’s the only reason why I’m still alive and healthy.
I’m looking forward to the future, staying healthy and changing people’s lives.
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