In My HIV Journey, Aaron Laxton takes YouTube viewers along for the ride of his life
by Chip Alfred
The Fantastic Journey is a little-known 1970s television series about people shipwrecked on a mysterious island and unable to escape. Aaron Laxton, thirty-three, was not even born when the series premiered. Though he probably has never seen or heard of the show, his series of videos share some striking similarities to the TV drama. Laxton records his path of discovery in an unfamiliar world—dealing with the challenges of living with HIV, sometimes feeling alone, lost or unable to escape the stigma and discrimination that come with the territory. Now, eighteen months after the project began, My HIV Journey has offered help to more than 250,000 people in 171 countries hoping to find their way to acceptance and understanding.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Laxton says, “I didn’t know that we were poor until other kids told us.” The child of substance abusers, he ended up spending virtually his entire childhood and adolescence in the Missouri foster care system. Before being removed from his biological family at age three, he learned one of the most important lessons of his life from his mom. “No one can ever treat you like less than a person,” she said, arming him for his future as an activist—not just for HIV, but for social justice as well. Reflecting on his boyhood being shuffled from one foster home to another, Laxton describes the sexual abuse he encountered in a matter-of-fact tone. “The first time it happened I was about six or seven, and it continued “all along the way.” The abuse may be over, but the scars remain. “Being a victim of sexual abuse, it’s very hard to open up to another person. Your emotional side gets shut down.” As a teen, Laxton stood up to one of his abusers—a youth pastor—testifying against the man, who eventually landed in prison for his actions. As an adult, he’s become an advocate for reform in the foster care system to prevent other children from experiencing what he did.
At eighteen, Laxton aged out of foster care and enlisted in the Army because he “didn’t have any other options.” Serving his country in Korea and Fort Campbell, Kentucky, he was continually harassed because he was gay. Eventually, he realized he had two choices. “I could sit by and allow these injustices to go on, or I could stand up.” He disclosed that he was gay and was honorably discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He calls this “a pivotal moment for me—sacrificing something yourself for something greater than you are.”
After the Army, Laxton returned to St. Louis and enrolled at the University of Missouri. Describing himself as “always sexually active,” he engaged in risky behavior most of his adult life. Safe sex was not usually on the menu, and recreational drug use was. “Every drug out there, I’ve pretty much done it,” he admits. “The recipe was there. It was the perfect blueprint for what was going to happen.” On his blog he writes: “June 6, 2011. I received news that would forever change my life; I tested positive for HIV. In the days that followed I decided to share my story in an attempt to help others. I am a student, activist and advocate and I am out to change the world.”
When he received his diagnosis, Laxton recalls “feeling numb” and to this day has never shed a tear about his status. Within a few days, he recorded his first video, and has been pumping them out about twice a week ever since. His intention is to continue producing the videos for the rest of his life. “At first there were a lot of unknowns. I wanted to capture that journey and share it with others.” The content of the videos varies depending on the events of the day. Mostly informative and optimistic, the themes run the gamut—dealing with addiction, stigma, HIV criminalization, what it feels like when you’re first diagnosed, and what to do once you find out, among others. In each video—unscripted, unrehearsed and unedited—he is passionate, articulate and focused. “What’s unique about my videos is I share everything—the good, the bad, the ugly.”
But Laxton isn’t just talking about changing the world; he’s out there doing it. He serves as an advisor on a global panel on protocol for clinical drug trials. He is a public speaker who hardly ever turns down an invitation to share his story and never receives an honorarium. He protested in front of the White House (covered on media outlets worldwide) during the 2012 International AIDS Conference holding a sign that read, “I am HIV +.” “I wanted people to know that it’s okay to be positive.” He serves on a task force addressing Missouri’s HIV criminalization laws—among the strictest in the nation. In the state of Missouri, Laxton claims he can be charged with a felony for having safe sexual contact with his HIV-negative boyfriend. The statute clearly states that the use of a condom is not a defense. “In the eyes of the law, people who are HIV-positive are being criminalized and stigmatized,” declares Laxton. He refers to the laws in Missouri and more than thirty other states, mostly enacted in the early years of the pandemic, as “draconian and barbaric.”
This seemingly ubiquitous activist, who never thinks he’s doing enough, advises others affected by HIV to get their own house in order before trying to help others, and to be authentic and persistent. “Find a way to tell your story, and if you do that, we as a movement will continue in the right direction. We have to demand equality and see ourselves as equal and stop allowing a virus to define who we are.” A survivor of an unquestionably traumatic childhood, today he is in good physical and mental health, and clean and sober, but he realizes: “I’m never going to be like everybody else.”
Aaron Laxton definitely isn’t like everybody else. This extraordinary young man has an uncanny ability to find the silver lining in every cloud. He believes we should all “do something positive” daily and he tags every one of his videos with this signature slogan. But above all else, he refuses to be a victim ever again. He doesn’t dwell on his own mortality, but he does contemplate the legacy he will ultimately leave behind. “At the end of my life whenever that may be, I want to be known as a person who effected change and made others’ lives better. If that has occurred, then I will know I’ve done something great.”
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist living in Philadelphia.