Heart and Soul
In a New Documentary, Four Youth Affected by HIV Open Their Hearts and Bare Their Souls
by Chip Alfred
Photos Courtesy Border2Border Entertainment
Our youth should be a time for self-discovery and dreaming about the future. Now imagine what it’s like to be a young person with your whole life in front of you, then your world is turned upside down by a positive HIV test result? How do you rediscover yourself? What becomes of those dreams? That’s what a new film, Positive Youth, explores, chronicling the stories of young adults from four different cities and each individual’s unique coming of age transition.
The seed for Positive Youth was planted at a meeting between actor/producer Charlie David, thirty-two, and programming executives at Logo TV. David proposed a project around HIV/AIDS focusing on youth “because it’s something that needs to be talked about.” Once he got the green light, he admits, “Frankly, it scared me. I wasn’t sure I would be able to find young subjects who would be willing to share with me and forty-five million people in the U.S.”
David soon realized his trepidation was well-founded. Searching for a diverse young group of people affected by HIV was no easy task. He
reached out to HIV-positive friends, who described their concerns about disclosure in their personal lives let alone revealing their status on television.
Naturally, it can be even more daunting for a young person. “The stigma is very different for youth,” he asserts. “There’s such a fear of difference in our society as a whole, but with youth there is so much pressure to fit in, to be liked, to be accepted, and to be loved, hopefully.”
David, who lives in Montreal, looked to AIDS service organizations to find subjects for his project. At YouthCO in Vancouver, he met Jesse, the organization’s twenty-five-year-old executive director who agreed to appear in the movie and connected him to Rakiya, an eighteen-year-old woman from Victoria, British Columbia. The filmmaker found Austin, twenty-seven, through a Phoenix AIDS organization. Chris, a twenty-four-
year-old from Orlando, was discovered through his video diary on YouTube. All three young men in the film are gay; Rakiya is the sole heterosexual. Despite David’s efforts to recruit young straight men for his movie, none of those leads panned out. “There’s still a stigma that this is a gay white man’s disease,” he explains.
Once the four subjects were selected, David’s company, Border2Border Entertainment, in collaboration with Logo TV and Canadian broadcast partner OUTtv, started production. Jesse, Rakiya, Austin and Chris are from various walks of life, but their journeys follow parallel paths.
For athletic, clean-cut Jesse Brown, diagnosed at twenty, reducing stress in his life was paramount—which began with disclosure to his family. “Hiding things is so toxic,” he declares. Sharing the news with his parents and his older sister was difficult, but they have stood by him every step of the way. Cautiously, Brown re-enters the dating pool. “For young people, so much of their interaction doesn’t start face to face. People make very quick judgments based on a dating Web site profile,” says David. “If those stats include a positive status, more often than not there’s a rejection and not even a handout.” Fortunately, Brown clicks with a guy who says, “We all should be able to be with who we want to be with and love who we want to love regardless of their HIV status.”
Austin Head, a flashy, flamboyant gay club performer, agrees. Head, who “went into shock” when he learned his HIV status, says, “Dating has become a struggle.” But he’s adamant about not letting HIV control his destiny. “It’s not going to stop me from dating who I want or living how I
want to live.” Dubbed “the MacGyver of the gay scene” for his futuristic and over-the-top costumes, he leans on his close circle of friends for support and lives life to the fullest. “We all have a limited time on earth,” he says. “All we have is our experiences.”
At eighteen, Rakiya Larkin’s had more than her share of life experience—forced to grow up fast to take care of her HIV-positive single mother and her younger brother. Larkin, who is HIV-negative, becomes involved with an HIV-positive guy who she calls “one of the best things that happened to me.” The young woman says the relationship with her boyfriend gives her a better understanding of the challenges her mother faces. As a result, the two women have become closer than ever. “When she feels pain, I share it,” the selfless teen says about her mom. “When she cries, I feel it.”
Chris Brooks doesn’t share a similar rapport with his mother. Unemployed for a year and living under her roof, he’s told everyone close to him about his HIV status except his mom—fearing “that would bring the whole house down.” Unable to rely on family, Brooks developed his support system on-line. Sitting in front of his Webcam, Brooks creates YouTube videos, sharing his life lessons, offering advice, and communicating with people in similar situations. “Knowing that I am helping someone with my story helps me to cope myself.” This candid young man treasures his
spirituality and refuses to wallow in self-pity. “There’s no point of acting like life is over,” he says. “It’s still beginning.” Brooks, who has no health insurance, is not on a regimen of HIV medications because he can’t afford to pay for his treatment. According to Florida law, he isn’t eligible for government assistance because he’s not sick enough—yet. In order to qualify for Medicaid, the state’s requirements include having a T-cell count under 200 and an opportunistic infection. Head, who also can’t afford HIV medications, was accepted into a clinical trial for a drug not yet approved by the FDA. If the medication receives FDA approval, continuing his current regimen would cost about $1,500 a month—a price he will likely not be able to pay. “It’s blatant that something is wrong with this picture that we’re having people get that sick before we help them,” the filmmaker remarks.
San Francisco AIDS Foundation President Neil Giuliano, who appears in the motion picture as an expert commentator, emphasizes it’s crucial that people like Brooks and Head aren’t falling through the cracks in our healthcare system. “We must do a better job of linking people to care as soon as they are diagnosed…Access to care should be a basic right, not a privilege.”
Positive Youth, which premiered on Logo TV in May and is being screened at film festivals and educational institutions, aims to convey two messages. “If you’re HIV-negative, take this as a note of caution, protect yourself, and look to those who are positive within our community with empathy,” David suggests. “For those who are watching who are HIV-positive, we’re sending a message of hope. There’s a beautiful future ahead of you.”
The DVD can be purchased on Amazon.com.
Chip Alfred, A&U’s Editor at Large, interviewed R&B singer Keri Hilson for the August cover story.