After Being Diagnosed in the Army, the Reverend Stacey Latimer Created a Line of Defense and Dedicated Himself to the Epidemic
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Alina Oswald
A native of Greenville, South Carolina and a Holmes Bible College alumnus, Stacey was ordained in 2005. Now fifty-three, he was recently appointed Bishop-designate. On World AIDS Day this year, he’ll be consecrated. As Auxiliary Bishop, he will be charged with keeping the epidemic at the forefront in communities of color, while connecting faith leaders and ministries, on a national level to resources in their own communities to the needs of the people.
In 2010 Pastor Latimer founded the non-denominational ministry, Love Alive International Sanctuary of Praise Worship Center (LAISP), in New York City. A constant inspiration for Stacey has been Rev. Jesse Jackson [A&U, November 2000] and Rev. Al Sharpton.
Despite his being diagnosed HIV-positive in 1987 when he was twenty-four, he kept racking up accomplishments. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell offers that one factor of being successful is investing 10,000 hours towards your goal. Latimer has succeeded way beyond that.
He’s lived, worked, and volunteered in the field of HIV for nearly thirty years. That journey meant facing stigma and homophobia, attempting suicide, and being a test subject for the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. (“It’s one of the ways to get a second opinion on my healthcare and a way that I give back to the fight for life. Research is a part of not only my medical team, but my critical support system as well.”)
Serving in the U.S. Army from 1985 to 1991, in 2012, Stacey was inducted into the New York State Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame. That same year he was also presented with the President’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Drum Majors for Service Award.
Latimer currently chairs the MSM committee on the New York State Prevention Planning Group, serves as a pastoral care representative in the Brooklyn AIDS Task Force, and is director of New York City Faith in Action for HIV/AIDS. He also serves as Director of Outreach for Watchful Eye, a community-based organization located in Brooklyn whose goal is uniting elected officials, clergy, and community leaders in the fight against HIV and AIDS.
Earlier last year Stacey was invited to the White House, along with nearly 150 other African-American and Caribbean faith leaders, for a Day of Prayer.
Stacey also writes (he contributed to The Journal of HIV/AIDS & Social Services: “Lessons Learned: Building the Capacity of Community-Based Organizations and Health Departments Implementing HIV Interventions in African American Communities”), has been a guest on radio shows, and has appeared on television news programs as well.
On Stacey’s downtime he says he “mostly relaxes at my home.” If he’s feeling low, he’ll consult a therapist, pray, sing, take a walk, maybe watch an episode of his all time favorite sitcom, Sanford and Son, or “sometimes I bring other people in to lift me up.”
Dann Dulin: What does HIV and AIDS mean to you?
Rev. Stacey Latimer: When I hear those acronyms what comes to mind is “a blessing packaged inside a curse.” Why? HIV is the very thing that I was told would kill me quickly by medical professionals June of 1987. The diagnosis has carried me through a process that has shook, broke, and quickened me to life anew. Though I have to admit there are times when I hear the acronyms and I think of lives in deep struggle. For most of us who’ve been diagnosed, there’s a great struggle before a great life comes. It’s almost as if HIV comes as the instrument that crushes the grapes (life) so that fine wine (life) may be served (lived).
How many people have you lost in the AIDS epidemic?
Over the last thirty-three years I’ve lost nine close people to AIDS. I have lost count of other friends, colleagues, and acquaintances whose lives were snatched away and consumed by the deadly effect of AIDS complications. The loss has been so tremendous that there are times I feel I can’t attend another funeral for the sake of my own sanity.
When did you first hear the word “AIDS”?
In 1981 when I was a freshman at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina, a time when I had just started to explore life outside parental controls. Life’s vision was promising and I had great plans. This was also a time that I, and most people of color, didn’t think much of HIV or AIDS. Our nation’s health authorities presented this disease to the world as a white gay male disease. Therefore it was assumed there should have been no concern for other demographics of the population. Now the “gay” part is just something we have never dealt with as a people very well. So the mixture of denial and non-white compatibility, along with other factors that contribute to our high disproportionate number of health disparities, made black people prime targets for HIV infection.
Tell us about your experience of being diagnosed.
I received my diagnosis while on active duty in the Armed Forces. After donating blood, I was notified of my HIV status by certified letter from the American Red Cross. My commander was the first person I consulted. She proved to be a great support during this horrifying time. She personally took me over to the infirmary to see the physician. Here is where I was told that my days were numbered, less than 200 days to be exact. From there, arrangements were made to send me to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for assessment and staging. There were no medications at that time. AZT was just being tested, and its side effects were too severe.
How did you get through this traumatic period?
Without my commander, I would have been lost. My commander was very helpful with getting me to and through the proper channels for notification and disclosure. Unlike civilians, disclosure to anyone close to you or any of your sex partners, along with receiving medical attention, was not an option. It was Army protocol. It was an embarrassing time. I felt so ashamed. As I look back I’m so thankful for how the military handled the situation. They literally saved my life. Had I been a civilian, I would have probably become a statistic. God was really taking care of me and like a fool I was fighting him tooth and nail for a minute.
How did you maintain your stamina and health while in the military?
My commander and I developed a plan to maintain my normal routine. I was allowed to continue my job assignment. I didn’t want to be sitting somewhere depressed and waiting on death. All was going well and then my commander was replaced with the “Grim Reaper.”
The “Grim Reaper”?
My new commander was a young, white, arrogant, West Pointer who had issues with me from day one. My previous commander allowed me to miss physical training at 5 a.m., due to my depression and difficulty sleeping. The deal was that I had to pass my physical training tests, which I did.
After the new commander took charge things drastically changed. Early one morning around 5:07 a.m. I was awakened to a voice screaming over the top of me, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” “You are not special!” “Get your ass up and get in my formation now, soldier!”
This type of harassment from my commander continued in various capacities for about two weeks.
What happened after two weeks?
I had to get away from that maniac! I packed a few things and checked into Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Once I arrived at the hospital and explained to the authorities in the Infectious Diseases Department what was going on, they intervened. My commander was notified about my whereabouts. A psychologist, psychiatrist, infectious disease specialist, and myself made a conference call to him. His derogatory statements and threats toward me during that notification caused the hospital to authorize my reassignment to Walter Reed Army Medical Center for my care and well being. It’s sad to know that almost twenty-nine years later some of that same harassment exists in the Armed Forces today.
What ensued while you were at Walter Reed?
I was placed on a ward already stigmatized and known as the “AIDS Ward.” This ward was initially used for the terminally ill who were able to care for themselves. Over time, it overflowed with HIV and AIDS patients. We clung to life and formed strong bonds amongst ourselves. HIV stigma caused people to be separated from their families, friends, and colleagues. In many cases, families had been notified and mothers, fathers, siblings, and ministers were unresponsive to the sick and the dying. There were even physicians and nurses that would not engage us. So much was unknown and unpredictable at the time. There was still fear that the virus was airborne.
How did you deal with the profound rejection?
I, and it seems the others, made the best of a bad situation as we continued life there in the ward. I have to admit that even in the midst of our despair there were some times filled with great laughter and fun. It was here that I was afforded the blessed opportunity of sitting with the sick, being the messenger of last words, and holding the hands of a few friends as they made transition. It was here at Walter Reed Medical Center that my HIV/AIDS ministry was born.
At this time there were no viable medications. How did you care for yourself?
Mental health became my first line of defense. Since the first week of my diagnosis, mental hygiene has been a major factor in keeping me on track. I believe as a people, if we would rid ourselves of the untruths surrounding mental health, we could take advantage of a resource that would resolve so many of our ills.
What have you learned from your challenging experiences?
My journey has taught me something profound: No matter who you are, one of the most challenging tasks that any individual will face along the way is authentically being who they are without fear or regret.
HIV became the instrument by which so many opportunities for growth and transformation became available. This knowledge has given me what I needed to learn to love and respect all of who I am as a person, as a man.
What have you found is the most essential component in this fight?
Treatment. Treatment is prevention. HIV is one hundred-percent preventable if proper prevention methods and best practices are followed. As for a person who is HIV, adequate healthcare and proper drug regimen adherence will suppress the level of the virus in the bloodstream. Consistency in such responsible behavior over time drastically reduces an HIV-infected person’s chance of transmitting HIV to someone else.
Your life is devoted to the AIDS community….
I made a promise to God at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that if he allowed me to survive I wanted him to use me to make a difference. I remember what those early days were like. I know people need support. I also know how much hate is within the community, blocking access to important lifesaving and life-changing resources, as so many people are still dying in catastrophic proportions unnecessarily. Every life is worth saving. Black Lives Matter!
For more information about Love Alive International Sanctuary of Praise Worship Center, log on to: www.laisanctuaryofpraise.org.
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U.