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A street mural with a large red AIDS ribbon.

We Need to Keep Talking About HIV With Our Students

I speak my truth because age-appropriate, LGBTQ+-inclusive, comprehensive sexual health education has been proven to save lives.

December 1, 2020
Tim'm West

Tim'm West

Tim'm West

Tim'm West

As a kid born in the 70s and raised primarily in Arkansas, I was a skeptic for the first seventeen years of my life. Growing up Black and the second son of a Black evangelical preacher who also served in Vietnam and was a basketball and football coach meant lots of messaging about how to be a strong Black man in a white racist world.

And while I am thankful for that affirmation, it meant little against the backdrop of shame for something I didn’t ask for, a feeling I could not change for all the self-badgering rebuke I could muster: I am as queer as I am Black and have been for as long as I can remember. My skepticism was grounded by a daily fight for self-affirmation at home, church, and school that regularly reminded me that homosexuality was an abomination. Waking each day meant convincing myself that everyone might be wrong about me; and signaled that they might too be wrong about other things: a woman’s place, the superiority of whiteness, that everyone is even given bootstraps to pull.

Queerness for me was not about sex, for there was little awareness about the birds and bees beyond playground whispering of bad or nasty words we weren’t supposed to know or talk about as kids but did. And even when we did finally discuss reproduction in the sixth grade, the compulsive heteronormativity of those lessons was lost on me. I was being reminded that the only way I mattered was through my ability to marry a woman and sexually reproduce. It wasn’t about love or feelings. God forbid that sex be about pleasure, and even if it was, it was only intended for opposite-sex couples.

Tim'm West (pictured here as a 10th grade student).

I went through high school with zero understanding or affirmation of my naturally adolescent attraction to other boys. And because half of the girls in my small-town senior class already had a child or were pregnant before graduation, it didn’t seem that the lack of comprehensive sexual health education served any of us well. 

There was a pivotal moment in high school that marked the most disaffirming moment I experienced: a presentation about AIDS that was essentially framed as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), back when it was commonly believed in Taylor, Arkansas, that AIDS was a plague sent by God to kill homosexuals. As if that wasn’t enough, the health class, which featured a grim reaper-ish video with gay white men holding hands at a pride parade, then the flash to hospital beds and emaciated bodies, was further weaponized to scare me straight.

The teacher showing the film, who I had trusted to be a little open-minded, motioned that she was going to puke at the scene of the men holding hands. She said it was nasty. I felt nasty. That night I tried to kill myself. 

What teachers say matters. 

Like the failed attempt at suicide, I tried to be heterosexual to prove myself “normal," but it didn’t work. When I finally did have my first sexual experience with another guy,  I was raped. I didn’t realize it at the time, not knowing what to expect, and with no conversations about consent or knowledge of anything beyond same-sex crushes and a desire to be affirmed in a moment of passion in a homophobic world. Not knowing when to say “no” or “stop” when you aren’t sure what’s supposed to happen is a most tragic confusion that is fed by our lack of education and denial.

“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.”

Tim'm West

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?

Tim'm West

Tim'm West is the senior managing director for Teach For America’s LGBTQ+ Community Initiative where he works to advance a more intersectional movement for educational equity. Throughout his career as an educator, artist, and activist, Tim'm has advocated for LGBTQ+ youth and safer and braver classrooms through what he has for years called #BraveEducation. Working alongside a diverse number of partner organizations, Tim’m builds strategic relationships to ensure all students receive a quality education.

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