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.”
Johnny:I was diagnosed with HIV when I was 17, and I kept it a big secret. Ididn’t come out to friends and most of my family because they weren’teducated about HIV. I didn’t have anyone to talk to who was likeme—young, Latino and positive. Right now, I’m an activist and outeverywhere but at home and in my neighborhood. I realize it makes a bigdifference not just to tell people you are fighting for them but toshare your own story because it touches them in a different way. Thatis the kind of activist I want to be.
Chardelle:For years after my diagnosis, I tried to live as much of a non-HIV lifeas possible: I disclosed to very few people, and I did not go onmedical treatment. And the social stigma was terrifying. What made youfinally start thinking about coming out with your status?
Johnny:Two years ago, my doctor took me to the Ryan White National YouthConference, and that was the first time I met young people like myselfwho were HIV positive. There was a lot of support, and I started tolearn about activism. I was very inspired. But I was still not tellingmy story.
Chardelle: Is that how you started exploring activism?
Johnny:Yes. And learning about it inspired me to come out publicly for thefirst time, in Denver. Last summer, I was a youth coordinator at theYouth Action Institute there, and I came out to a group of activists.
Chardelle: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 neededhelp. I went to an HIV counseling service and eventually volunteered inthe 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 thefirst few times, and I realized that I was being dishonest with myselfand with them. So I didn’t really get over my fear as much as I movedpast it—it became mandatory that I disclose because I could see howtransformative and helpful it was for them and for me. Helping othersmade me feel better and provided the framework for me to build a lifefor myself.
Johnny: Did you start to attend community meetings?
Chardelle:I started going to meetings and anything that had to do with HIV. Ididn’t understand it, and I didn’t go to disclose. I just went to plopmyself 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?
Chardelle:I’m always uncomfortable when I disclose in a new environment, but it’slike having a monkey on your back—I ask myself, “Who is going to livemy life, this monkey or me?” That way I can do what I want to dowithout 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.
Chardelle:The first place I called for help was in my own neighborhood, and I hadthought that that was the last thing I would ever do because I knew itwould invite someone coming up to me and saying, “I saw you coming outof that HIV clinic” and me having to explain. And I really dreadedthat. But I was tired of hiding. Getting rid of this fear helped me toget on with my life.
Johnny: Did anyone ever recognize you on the street?
Chardelle:Four years ago, I was coming out of my building when a neighbor camerunning across the street saying she had seen me on TV the nightbefore, and I knew it had to be related to AIDS. I knew she wasn’tcoming to kill me, but I was just leaving my house, and here was thissituation where I had to talk about my personal business. I understoodthat if I was public about my status that this might happen. So Iaccept it now and say, “This is where you start teaching.”
Wantadvice from someone with firsthand experience? willing to help othersafter years of survival? Sign up for the POZ mentor program atwww.poz.com to meet others, share experiences and get answers.
Eager to join local HIV activism, Johnny Guaylupo asks a veteran how he can conquer his fear of revealing his status