And this AIDS memorial was the first ever that was built in Europe?!” I ask Marc, our tour guide from Barcelona Rainbow Tours.
“Yes Ruby. Dedicated in 2003 right here in Montjuïc Parc, the Catalonia section of Barcelona.” (Later I learn that Rainbow Tours is also offered in other major Euro cities, and that they strongly support Barcelona Checkpoint, which provides services for free HIV testing.)
Yes, kids, I am in España! Wandering around the Calles of Barcelona along with my L.A. pal, Greg Wilson. He works with In The Meantime Wellness Center, a multifaceted nonprofit that educates and empowers men and addresses mental health issues, HIV, and addiction, with a focus on the Black community. Greg’s responsibilities include community activism, leadership development, and health education.
What led Greg, thirty-five, to this position (he calls himself a “community bridge”) was his
own journey of living in a transitional program, which was provided by the LA LGBT Center. He was then twenty-three when he learned that he was HIV-positive. After making some life-altering changes, Greg gradually got back on his feet, grateful for The Center’s help. His cathartic experience compelled him to help others in the same crucial predicament.
After our four-hour enthusiastic and enlightening tour around the city, we warmly bid Marc farewell. Greg and I leisurely stroll back to Hotel Axel Two, where we’ve been camping out. “Hetero-friendly” is the moniker for the hotel. Catchy! The hotel collaborates with Stop SIDA (AIDS in Spanish), a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of STI’s since 1986. They donate one pound from each guest’s stay.
Sitting at a high intimate round table at the lobby window, Greg and I sip espressos we ordered from the hotel bar. We scan the pedestrians on Calle Calabria.
Ruby Comer: This is an uber-friendly, funky boutique hotel! [Greg nods earnestly.] So, what is your main concern right now with HIV?
Greg Wilson, Jr.: The rise in the number of people that we’re still losing to this disease. I believe it is due to fear and also the lack of education. We’d like to believe that because a lot more education is available and there are campaigns and commercials, that everyone must know about it. But that just is not true.
That is true! If you had to name one thing that you learned during your down days, what would you say?
I learned to fall in love…with me. [I get goosebumps.] I also tell people that I love them. We should not assume that tomorrow will always come. [The guy from the desk inquires if we need anything else. We tell him we are doing “bueno.”] As you know Ruby, my life took a positive turn when I found out that I was HIV-positive.
Yes. I do. In my work, I hear that quite a bit, especially…[He interrupts.]
I embraced my metamorphosis.
…and that’s what you called your book, Metamorphosis of a Heart!
Yes, thank you for bringing it up, Miss Comer! [He gently giggles.] It speaks to the changes one may endure in life. The heart represents emotions that come along with those life changes. Often enough people don’t share their stories of trial, tribulation and triumph. I wanted to share in hopes of inspiring others. There’s power in everybody’s story.
[I shake my head like a bobblehead.]
In my book you will hear me speak about a wide variety of things that are currently impacting our community, such as homelessness, sexual abuse, suicide, sexuality, acceptance, forgiveness, faith, being diagnosed with HIV and learning to live with it.
Our experiences aren’t meant to break us, they’re meant to truly set us free.
You interact a lot with youth. What would you say is the number-one reason young gay men get infected?
Longing to be loved and low self-esteem. I know how that feels. [He pauses.] Oftentimes, guys may compromise themselves, putting aside their values and/or lowering their standards in order to be wanted. The compromises may include not advocating for protection during sex and not asking the partner’s status. I believe the emptiness they feel adds to the risk of infection.
Makes perfect sense. What is the best tool to get them to protect themselves?
We need to make sure that most holistic programs and prevention [efforts] are supported in the communities that are most impacted. It is imperative that we assure that all resources and options for protection are accessible and not too hard to access. If it feels too complicated, people would much rather do without. If people feel judged, they’ll avoid those resources. We must stop assuming that one size fits all or that everyone will be in compliance with what is supposed to be the “Right Way.” With education and wellness programs, we have the opportunity to truly address and cater to the needs of our community.
How about some simple advice, hombre?
Ask questions! There’s no reason to be embarrassed about not knowing something.
HIV doesn’t define you. It takes time to learn that …and it isn’t always easy. The person that I contracted HIV from didn’t share his status with me. I could not imagine putting someone in that situation!
I know for some it’s a bit difficult to deal with the stigma and possible rejection of being HIV-positive. It requires strength…but it’s so worth it.
How so, Greg?
The caterpillar thought its life was over, until it became a butterfly. It discovered that life had just begun. [He recites as if his insights were a greeting card.] Ruby, I am out of my cocoon and truly embracing my Metamorphosis. [Greg beams a poised smile.]
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].