The Rookie:
Johnny Guaylupo
Bronx, New York
Diagnosed 1998

Q: “I want to be an activist, but I’m afraid to disclose my status in my neighborhood. What can I do?”

The Veteran:
Chardelle Imani Lassiter
Brooklyn, New York
Diagnosed 1988

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. 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.

Chardelle: 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?

Johnny: 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 my story.

Chardelle: Is that how you started exploring activism?

Johnny: 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.

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 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 for myself.

Johnny: Did you start to attend community meetings?

Chardelle: 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?

Chardelle: 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.  

Chardelle: 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?

Chardelle: 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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