“I Am a Survivor!”
Guest Writer: Carlton R. Smith
For my second column, I was trying to think of a theme that would be of compelling interest to my new readership.
Then, I had an epiphany: how about sharing my story, my journey of being a longtime HIV survivor.
As of March of this year, I quietly celebrate 30 years of living with HIV. God and His amazing grace has made this milestone possible.
And simply put, I’ve always wanted to be an instrument of change. It’s been my strongest desire that my testimony would be as a shining light to help others who are living with the disease.
My personal journey began during the mid-80’s, as part of the disco scene of Studio 54, Better Days and the Garage. These were the glamorous New York City nightclubs during the height of the disco era where many people endeavored to escape the reality of the real world.
Like scores of other folk, I wanted to a part of the nightlife and the sexual freedom of that decade. I’d arrive around close to midnight and hear my favorite DJ beat those melodic sounds that linger in your memories as though it was yesterday. I’d groove to Grace Jones, Donna Summer, First Choice and Gloria Gaynor, among others.
Remember the songs “Slave to the Rhythm,” “Hot Stuff” and “I Will Survive?” I certainly do! And, I can vividly recall sweating up a storm, sucking on my favorite cocktails–and meeting hot dates that gave you “service” in the bathroom stalls! It all reminds me of that “Basic Instinct”movie scene, the one in which Sharon Stone and her girlfriend Roxy ushers the Michael Douglas character into the men’s room stall to “carry on” inside the club.
Yes, those are some of my memories of the mid and late 80’s. And, who would’ve thought that a little four-letter word (AIDS) would be an epidemic that would take the lives of millions of people across the globe?
Therefore, my life’s journey starts the day I found out my HIV status. I was a twenty-three-year-old Same-gender-loving (SGL) man with the expectation of entering the Air Force. I’d visited the local recruiting station, and signed up for what I’d hoped was going to be a great opportunity to expand my educational background after finishing college.
However, I received a letter from the military recruiting station’s medical office requiring me to immediately come in for a follow up. It never dawned on me that my test results would be at issue.
I remember that chilly morning in March. At the medical office, I learned that I had acquired AIDS, and had that my life expectancy was only between five months to five years. And, I was truly devastated by the comments from the doctor who said that my “promiscuous lifestyle” and prior sexually-transmitted diseases were responsible for the infection.
Like many other men during that time, I didn’t have any information about HIV/AIDS. Feeling angry, confused and suicidal, I asked myself, “What kind of future will I have?” I felt as if I’d fallen into a deep abyss, without a parachute. I didn’t know what would become of my life.
Fortunately, because of my strong spiritual background, I realized that suicide just wasn’t an option. The only thing for certain was that the Universe (God) had my back. My unshakeable faith in God and prayer got me through this dilemma, along with the positive support I received from many people who themselves were infected/affected by the epidemic.
Moreover, I just couldn’t get over the hypocrisy the so-called Black churches were spouting to tithe-offering individuals who love God as much as other fellow Christians. This judgmental attack is why churches are behind the curve on HIV/AIDS prevention. This promotes ignorance and stigma. Once again, I had to bounce back and know for myself that God is Love.
Even though I saw death all around me, I didn’t succumb to the illnesses that plagued many of my associates and friends. I had the will and the power to survive!! This was the result of many years of process and sharing my stories about living with HIV to many groups.
And, having a HERO (Health Education Resource Organization) buddy give me support enabled me to soldier on. The information and resources I obtained through the support of others empowered me to become an advocate and a leader. I found strength in discussing my status as “Heaven In View” (HIV)–and encouraging others to do the same. Meeting esteemed individuals including A. Cornelius Baker (National Association of People with AIDS, NAPWA), Bishop Cheeks (Inner Life Ministries) and Marlon Riggs (director of the film “Tongues Untied”) also was empowering.
All of this assisted me in bolstering my self-identity and self-esteem to later establish a purpose of survival in a culture where Black men and women were being accosted by media outlets for the high incidences of HIV/AIDS. This “scarlet letter” of affliction had penetrated the inner circle of the Black community.
Through advocacy groups, Black SGL men and some Black women made a declaration to fight against HIV/AIDS in their communities. As a result, these minority leader activists created a purpose for community-based organizations whose main purpose was to disseminate information about prevention and treatment during the third wave of the epidemic. These national and local organizations (National Minority AIDS Council, NAPWA, etc.) created the groundwork for many to raise their voices.
Not being called a victim of the epidemic became the cornerstone of empowering many individuals living with HIV/AIDS. The death of Ryan White was the impetus for Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Legislation, the largest Federal program focused exclusively on providing HIV care and treatment services to people living with HIV. White was diagnosed with AIDS following a blood transfusion in December 1984. He later died from the disease.
Today, I have become that advocate, policy maker and community leader/ stakeholder for many individuals across the country. As an activist, a champion, and a fighter, I’m one who dared to care for the community and give himself to that community.
Being stigmatized gradually guided me to my passion to keep myself healthy. It is the love of God that has sustained me and allows me to serve humanity with divine purpose.
His Royal Highness,
Carlton R. Smith has advocated on LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS issues for many years, placing emphasis on the African American LGBTQ community– specifically men who have sex with men (MSM). Mr. Smith has served on various committees providing leadership and outreach, and continues to represent the needs of LGBTQ individuals at the local, state and federal levels.
Carlton’s resume is both substantive and stellar: currently, he is the Executive Director and one of the founding members of The Center for Black Equity-Baltimore (formerly Baltimore Black Pride, Inc.), now in its 14th year of operation. Also, he is a member of the JHU CFAR community participatory advisory board at the John Hopkins University Center for AIDS Research.
As well, Carlton serves as community co-chair of the GBISGLRT Response Team (convened by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene), and is one of the co-founders of “Sankofa” Community Conversations on Black Same-Gender Loving Men, established in 2014.
Carlton also is a former member of Maryland Moving Forward Network, National Minority AIDS Council, National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition (membership chair/member of its executive committee), and was Vice-Chairman of the Greater Baltimore HIV Health Planning Council.
And, Mr. Smith is an ordained deacon with Unity Fellowship Church of Baltimore. You can connect with and follow Carlton on Facebook at Carltonraysmith; on Twitter: @BmoreBlackpride, @Duchess_WitTea; on Instagram and Vine, Baltimore Black Pride.