Sadly, in 2020, many Black gay boys are experiencing similar traumas because of continued racial disparities among students who have access to comprehensive sex education that includes LGBTQ+ perspectives, information on HIV prevention, and consent. They still have to resort to social media, peers, or experimentation to find answers, often with dire consequences. And even in the abstinence-only states, abstaining only applies to presumed heterosexual teens, to prevent teen pregnancy or horrible sexual diseases. Any sex outside of adult marriage is considered abominable, sinful, a literal kiss of death.
Though I found the courage to affirm my sexuality, meeting Black gay mentors in Durham, North Carolina, where I attended Duke, it was common to hear—sometimes monthly—that another Black gay man I knew had died. In the late 80s, Marlon Riggs’s film Tongues Untied was met with legislative rebuke and banned on some PBS networks. Black men who dared to demonstrate the mantra of the film: Black Men Loving Black Men was considered THE Revolutionary Act. Seeing the film and meeting Riggs in 1990, hearing Magic Johnson announce that he’d contracted HIV in 1991 from unprotected sex with women, to the gasps and disgust of Black peers, further closeted me. I’d come out of a queer closet to enter one where I could only exist as a sexless being, void of any capacity for healthy desire or a potential relationship.
By 1994, my mentor Marlon Riggs had died of AIDS. In 1995, another mentor, Black gay poet Essex Hemphill, died. The efforts for these men to create spaces of affirmation seemed to fall short against the reality that being Black and gay was, quite literally, considered a death sentence. So why care at all? In my early 20s, I loved hard and clumsily and played safe most of the time. By the time I was 26 I had contracted AIDS and was told I might only have a year to live.
So why does any of this matter in 2020, me still here seeming to thrive and surely alive to tell the story? It matters because today is World AIDS Day and I have never shared this story with my Teach For America community. It matters because a senior leader at TFA once told me that HIV education in our schools was “not our lane” and that I didn’t need to attend conferences about the disproportionate rate of Black gay and bisexual men still contracting HIV, the fastest-growing population of them, high school and college-aged. It matters because I’ve lived to tell the story to students I taught, who had the most kind and curious questions, and who thanked and hugged me after, assured that it was safe to do so, for sharing my own story so they might protect themselves and love the people already infected in their lives. It matters because we can’t say “One Day All Kids” and ignore a disease that some of our students live with, many of whom were born HIV positive and are terrified of anyone finding out.
So today, I want to tell my truth because the fight for educational equity means I show up as my full authentic self so that our kids can also do the same. I speak my truth because we can’t serve kids we do not know and who don’t feel affirmed in who they are. I’m hopeful that we can begin to talk about the need for age-appropriate, LGBTQ+ inclusive, comprehensive sexual health education that has been proven to save lives.
I’m Tim’m West. I’ve been HIV positive for nearly 22 years; and I proudly lead Teach For America’s LGBTQ+ Community Initiative. I lead alongside many Teach For America alumni, staff, corps members, and students we serve who also live with HIV. What would it mean for our lives to fully matter? This is my brave challenge to each of you today. How can you show up so that each of us have daily reminders that our lives are worth fighting for?