Justin B. Terry-Smith Courageously Turns the Camera on Himself to Keep Others from Being Infected
by Dann Dulin
“I want to broadcast my personal business to the world to help others.”
—Activist Justin B. Terry-Smith on POZIAM Radio
This powerful statement is certainly a twist on Billie Holiday’s classic blues ballad, “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” Unlike the song, Justin, who is HIV-positive, invites others to share his personal life through his videoblog. It airs on his Web site, which is a moving journal of his HIV adventures. He’ll take his camera into the doctor’s office to show what he goes through for a checkup: T-cell counts, viral loads, etc. Sometimes it’s not pretty.
“Why?” I ask as we sit over lunch at his “own personal Cheers,” Annie’s Steakhouse, near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. He earnestly replies, “To educate people, raise awareness, and encourage them to think twice about having unprotected sex. I want to show them that being HIV-positive is not a piece of cake.”
The videoblogger pioneer is a decorated Air Force veteran. What lies behind the video camera is a typical guy who lives with his husband of six years, Dr. Philip Terry, in Laurel, Maryland. Justin is a legal assistant for the IRS and attends classes at Ashford University, where he’ll soon receive his degree in political science. Atypically, he occasionally writes for the Black AIDS Institute newsletter and has appeared on LOGO’s HIV+Me. He also volunteers for Whitman Walker Clinic and the National Black Justice Coalition.
What partly drives Justin to help others is the loss of his friends to AIDS. “I’m at the point where I’m done counting!” he emotes emphatically. “Many of them I think about all the time.” When Justin was “growing up gay” he had four close friends: Mike, Antonio, Vaughn, and Leon. “When we were younger we didn’t have a care in the world and would go out together all the time. When we started hitting our late teens we all went our separate ways. Mike went on to college and did very well for himself; we keep in contact to this day. Antonio and Vaughn were very close and they stayed in the D.C. area. Antonio went on to join the workforce and is doing well. Sadly, a couple of years ago we lost Vaughn to AIDS.”
Justin and Leon became boyfriends when Justin was released from the military, though they kept the relationship a secret. “He never wanted anyone to know because many of his friends didn’t approve. After we stopped dating we didn’t see each other that often. Then a couple of years later I got a phone call informing me that Leon was dead. It tore me up,” he sighs. “I cried a lot for him and it hurts to think about him even to this day.”
At Leon’s funeral, Justin gazed upon him in the casket and touched him one last time.
“He never told me his age and I hated that. I would always try to trick him into telling me but it never worked,” he says. “When someone handed me a program my heart dropped when I saw the dates: 1981–2007. He was just two years younger than me! I cried during the entire funeral and more after that. But, the one thing that really made me mad was that nobody wanted to address the real issue—Leon had died of AIDS.”
In 2005, Justin was diagnosed with HIV and admits that substance abuse played a large part in acquiring the virus. “I wouldn’t be positive right now if I hadn’t been drinking and using drugs so much. I was using them both to numb the pain of being alone. I remember one night I was drunk and brought a guy home from a club. The next morning I woke up naked, my clothes were strewn all around the room, and my apartment door was wide open with the keys still in the door.” He chews on his house salad topped with Italian vinaigrette. “I didn’t use condoms all the time. When you’re drunk or high you may not think about them.”
Justin pauses and then shifts topics, touching on the AIDS prevention ad campaigns. “I think the message has gotten lost. We all know that we should use condoms…,” he says in a matter-of-fact way, then forcefully punches out the words in a tired drone, “yes, yes, yes! But these young people aren’t really paying attention. They need to see it up close and personal. They need someone who has HIV to get in their face and show them it’s not a walk in the park.” Justin believes in teaching kids right from the get-go, so much so that he recently completed a children’s book, I Have A Secret, which will be published this month. It’s about a boy who learns to live with HIV.
After Justin’s diagnosis he continued to drink and use drugs. His family and friends had to intervene, including his husband, Philip. At one point Philip said to Justin, “It’s either going to be the drugs or me.” That was Justin’s Rubicon; he chose Philip. “With everyone’s help I’ve learned what’s healthy for me. I don’t do drugs anymore and I don’t indulge in alcohol the way I used to,” he notes. “I started to jog to keep my cholesterol down, began eating veggie wraps daily, and in the morning I have a banana with my meds. When I get home from work, my husband makes me a fantastic dinner, usually with plenty of greens.”
“I’ve also cut down on red meat, as well, and I steer clear of things with cholesterol,” he says, biting into his Annie’s Ultimate Bacon, Lettuce & Tomato Sandwich with a wink, appending, “Today’s food is unusual for me.” Justin offers that he also drinks antioxidant juices, enjoys miso soup, and that, nowadays, green tea with ginseng is his drink of choice.
Conversing with Justin and viewing his videos, it’s very apparent that good health is central to his character. He partakes in alternative therapies that include massage, a home-based yoga program, and acupuncture. “Acupuncture gives me such a release. I love it!” He beams a full luminescent smile that soon turns somber. “When I first went on drugs I was so scared what the side effects might be. My first regime, which was Reyataz, Norvir and Truvada, nothing really happened until the first week was over and then my eyes turned yellow. I was embarrassed about it, stayed away from my family, and wore sunglasses. But the worst was yet to come,” he says. “At that time I worked as a medical technician at a dialysis unit in Baltimore, Maryland. One afternoon I thought I was going to pass gas and little did I know, it was diarrhea. I went home and had to tell my boss what had happened. She was sympathetic and supportive. I was so embarrassed because here I was helping some of the patients with this same issue. From then on, I made sure that I had an extra pair of scrubs and underwear with me all the time!”
As Justin tells this story there’s no hush-hush in his voice. That’s what is engaging about him. He chalks up human behavior, well, as human behavior and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. He doesn’t have to be so revealing. This honesty is what sets him apart and the trendsetter has parlayed that into videoblogging in an effort to save lives.
At thirty-one, nearly six years after being diagnosed, Justin is healthy. “My T cells are decent, but I want them better,” he enforces, adding that he needs to exercise more, too. “I have hypercholesterolemia which is an inherited genetic disorder. This gives me double the risk of having a heart attack and with my HIV meds it’s even higher, so it’s important I stay healthy.”
As lunch winds down, Justin surges. “I want to voice my opinion on the new-found research on the Truvada pill that [might] prevent someone from being infected with HIV. Yes, technology has given us this one pill that will lower your chances, but this doesn’t mean you should go around having unprotected sex. This is not the morning after pill.” He looks away briefly then continues. “The new medications work wonders but your body was not meant to fight off a virus for the remainder of its life. You can live with HIV a long time but why not live without it? Would you rather use a condom or would you rather take four or more pills a day to stay alive?” he says with a stern, quizzical look. “And even then, you can die of complications, not from the virus itself.”
Not fully satisfied with his earlier answer about the motivation behind his videoblogging, I press on. “When I get an e-mail from a fifteen-year-old asking, ‘What do I do, I’m HIV positive?’ I feel bad for him, but I also let him know that there’s life to be lived and you have to live for you—now. Don’t let HIV rule you, you have to rule it,” he states. “On the other side, when I get an e-mail saying, ‘Thank you Justin for helping me through this,’ I know I’m doing my job of helping others.” He takes a short breath and says steadfastly, “I will continue until the day I die.”
Just in time! Click on www.justinbsmith.com.
Photos © Don Harris Photographics, LLC. All rights reserved. For more information, log on to http://donharris.viewbook.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed Suzanne “Africa” Engo for the April issue.