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. 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.”

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