When it comes to HIV, the truth will often set you free… and when it comes to HIV/AIDS activism and awareness, the world needs more individuals like Justin B. Terry-Smith. The charming and smart 31-year old has been involved in gay activism since 1999. A U.S. Air Force Veteran, Smith lives in Laurel, Maryland with his husband Phillip. Through the years, he has worked with and for such GLBT organizations as the National Black Justice Coalition, Human Rights Campaign, Equality Maryland, Us Helping Us, People Into Living Incorporated, and others. He is very active and visible in the universal Leather community, owning the Title of Mr. Maryland Leather 2010. Smith has recently written a new book entitled “I Have a Secret”, which tells the affecting story about an HIV-positive boy who opens up about his status to his friend. It’s a children’s book that adults can appreciate as well. Smith says of his book, “I wrote a children’s book. The book is for children, but anyone can relate to it. There is nothing harder for a child then keeping a secret. In this heartwarming tale, a young boy is forced to keep a secret from his friends and schoolmates. The need to tell someone– anyone– becomes so great that he almost loses his best friend. Finally, after talking to someone, he is given the chance to share his secret. His life is forever changed, as are those around him. This book does have to do with HIV/AIDS, and it should be used to educate.” Using his own personal life and experiences to educate others (Justin himself was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1996.), the activist has been interviewed and profiled by print magazines, websites, and radio shows. He also produces his own online video blog, “Justin’s HIV Journal“, where his entries offer the reader a mixture of personal stories, news, and clinical facts. Some of his entries include “Magic Johnson Still Has HIV” and “HIV Denialists and Dissidents“. The tireless activist spoke with me about his new book and his work with HIV/AIDS awareness:
JR: Hi, Justin! Congratulations on the release of the book. So, what made you decide to write a children’s book?
JR: What was the biggest challenge in seeing “I Have a Secret“ come to life– to go from an idea to a finalized project?
JS: I honestly I had it easy with “I Have a Secret“. I was on the train coming from IML (International Mr. Leather) in 2010– the year I ran for IML with my husband– and we ran into another couple from IML. Thomas Rosengren was one of the twosome that I met. We had a great conversation on the train about writing. He mentioned that he wrote children’s books, and I had mentioned that I wanted to write a children’s book about HIV/AIDS. He gave me his card and that was it. After 4 months of writing up a manuscript, I submitted it to Creative House International Press in Austin, Texas. I was quickly approved by their committee. Then they had to find an illustrator… and they found Jay Youngblood, who is an excellent illustrator. After months of tweaking, I was published in April 2011.
JR: Wow! So, how has the reaction been so far?
JS: The reaction has been great so far. My family and friends have bought the book and always have supported me in my endeavors for HIV/AIDS education. I was surprised that both “The Washington Blade” and “Metro Weekly”, two major newspapers in the Washington, DC area, posted stories about the book. The book is being bought to different libraries and has made it to South Africa via my brother and friend Jaco Lourens.
JR: That’s terrific. Now, you may remember that back in 2002, Sesame Workshop announced that an HIV-positive character, Kami, would be introduced to “Takalani Sesame“, the South African version of the show “Sesame Street“. This idea was considered important for an area where AIDS was been particularly rampant. The HIV+ character’s name, Kami, is derived from “Kamogelo“, which means “acceptance” or “welcome” in Setswana. When it was speculated that there would be an American version of the character for American TV, some right-wing politicians vigorously opposed the idea… which of course defeated the whole purpose of the character helping to decrease stigma. Some people get very touchy when approaching this subject with children. Have we made progresses since 2002 in this department?
JS: I do remember Kami from “Takakani Sesame“. When I first saw that they were going to have a puppet that has HIV, I thought “Wonderful! Thank you so much. This is exactly how we can get through to children about HIV/AIDS. What a great idea to decrease HIV stigma. This would definitely stay in the minds of children for their lifetime.” When I saw that right-wing politicians opposed the idea of an American version I thought, “No wonder!” People who do not open their minds to the benefits of something different to educate and even open the minds of children and adults are ignorant. I’ve run into a lot of people who don’t quite understand what we as HIV/AIDS- infected people have to go through. It amazes me that their “morals and ethics” tell them that this is not a good idea; these are the same “morals and ethics” that bring them into sex scandals and financial woes. Kami is a symbol for people to look up and relate to. People who do not understand that need to open their eyes to the fact that we are dying of HIV/AIDS… and that we need to protect our future. Not just in America, but the world.
JR: Who is, in your opinion, are some unsung heroes in the fight against HIV and AIDS… besides yourself, of course?!
JS: WOW ! Honestly, I can think of so many. But I will only name a few. Christopher Barnhill is a young man that lives near me in the DC area. He was born with HIV and continues to education others. He work for Metro Teen AIDS which does a lot of good work with the youth here in the DC area. Robert Breining is another. He created POZIAM Radio in which he educates by interviewing people like himself that are HIV-positive. He also interviews advocates and activist who are against HIV stigma. Another is Chandler Bearden, Mr. ATL Eagle 2010, who has always been a great brother to talk to when I’m down and does so much work for his organization M.I.S.T.E.R in Atlanta, GA. My brothers Rik Newton Treadway, Mr. Maryland Leather 2009; and Alex Lemaire, Mr. Maryland Leather 2011, are two amazing men. Rik has become a great producer of a leather weekend called Chesapeake Leather Awareness Pride, better known as CLAP. Alex has raised a lot of money for SPEAK (Suicide Prevention Education Awareness for Kids), and he has done a phenomenal job as this years Mr. Maryland Leather.
JR: I agree! Now, what‘s the biggest challenge that HIV+ people face on a daily basis? Specifically, what’s the biggest challenge for children living with HIV?
JS: In my opinion, the biggest challenge on a daily basis depends on how comfortable you are with having HIV. Let me explain: There are people are newly infected whose biggest problem is the thought of dying. There are some people who have had the disease where it is not on their minds at all because they have become so routine in knowing how to take care of themselves. It becomes second nature to them. I think the biggest challenge to a lot of us is waiting (and waiting…) on a cure. For children, I think it maybe it’s acceptance, because they want to be accepted by their peers. I think all of us can remember as children that all we wanted to be was accepted for who we are. For HIV-positive children, I think we can say the same: being accepted for who they are and not being ostracized for what they have. Also, remembering to take meds if you’re on them can become challenging to some. I know that I personally had no routine in taking my meds for a long time, but now with the help of my husband I’m able to remember when I need to take them at the same time everyday.
JR: Lately in the news, there have been some talk about advances: a vaccine, taking medication prophylactically to prevent infection, and new forms of barriers for safer sex that are more appealing than condoms. How do you feel about these new advances?
JS: Let me say this: The prophylactic you might be taking about is the Truvada pill, which I am currently on. This does NOT prevent HIV infection. It ONLY lowers the chance of being infected. This should not be an excuse to not use condoms. People need to know that there is a chance you can catch Gonorrhea, Hepatitis or Syphilis. These diseases are NOT stopped by the Truvada pill.
JR: Have you ever gotten a negative reaction from people with regard to your HIV/AIDS activism or your openness about your status?
JS: OHHH YEAH….. You know, I’ve been really nice to people, but I do hear a lot of things that are said about me, and sometimes it hurts… but you have to let it roll off your back and keep it moving. I get comments on my Youtube channel and e-mails calling me a faggot and that I deserve to be infected with HIV. The very first comment I got was, “So you got poked with a dirty dick, so what?” There are a lot of negative people out there, even in the gay community itself. I choose not to affiliate or associate myself with tem. I know I have my own challenges and my own burdens to bear, like HIV and sometimes alcoholism… but those are mine to bear. I chose not to be negative about it.
JR: That‘s a healthy attitude. It‘s good advice for ALL of us! Now, let’s say that someone just finds out today that they test positive for HIV. What’s the first thing you’d want to tell them?
JS: GO SEE A DOCTOR! I get this question a lot, but the only thing I can recommend is to go see a doctor– but go see one that you feel you can be upfront and honest with. Get a doctor that you can trust and you feel comfortable with. You need to find out your T-Cell counts, viral load, and to see if you test positive for anything else besides HIV. Sometimes STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) come in packs. A lot of people that are diagnosed with HIV do not see a doctor and they go on like nothing is wrong with them health wise. I grew up with 5 friends in the gay lifestyle and now there are only three of us left. The other two denied HIV existed, and by the time they were in the hospital it was too late.
JR: That’s a shame. But we are lucky that there are dedicated individuals like yourself that work to fight HIV. Thanks so much, Justin! Now, where can we go to buy the book?!
JS: Hey Jed, its always a pleasure. You can buy the book online at http://www.CreativeHousePress.com. The book will also be available on Amazon.com soon. Also, let me mention that there is a sale going on right now:Since it is Creative House Press’ 5 year Anniversary, they are having a sale through July 4th. All books are at 25% retail price plus flat rate shipping in the USA for $6.00. The Coupon Code is “5years”.