Knowledge Is Power
At The Alliance for Positive Change, Brandon Lee gives people the tools they need to empower themselves about HIV
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
“I am the Orange Warrior. My power is healing.
“I am a professor, and an inventor. My goal is to eliminate HIV from the world. My strength is knowledge.
“Knowledge is key, and knowledge is power, and when you’re empowered, nothing can stop you. My truth is that HIV isn’t a big scary monster.
“When you know about HIV and you know how it’s transmitted, then you know you can control it. You have the power to stop it, and you have the power to stop other people from getting it.”
I met the Orange Warrior and others in the fight several years ago, when photographing the HIV Warriors campaign for the AIDS Service Center NYC, now The Alliance for Positive Change, a nonprofit based in New York City. Recently I reconnected with the Orange Warrior, a.k.a. Brandon Lee, to talk about today’s issues when it comes to HIV, as well as his role in solving those issues.
As he reaches my studio, he greets me with a big, warm smile. He also brings a bag full of, well, stuff, to show me hands-on what exactly he does as an MPowerment trainer at The Alliance. Watching him take items out of his magic bag, I can’t help but think of Mary Poppins. First, a pair of lavender gloves appears, then several devices for finger pricking, followed by more items to show how to correctly put on and take off a condom.
While still eyeing his bag, wondering what else it might hold, I also wonder why he chose this line of work. “Oh, it starts back in middle school,” New Yorker Brandon Lee (now twenty-nine) says, explaining when he realized that he was gay. Then, in high school, he found out that a gay high school—Harvey Milk High School—existed (fully accredited in 2002). He told himself that he needed to get into that high school, so he researched the courses it had to offer, and eventually talked his mother into transferring him to the high school.
But come graduation day, he was hesitant to invite his parents to the ceremony. Instead, he brought his older sister. “She drove us from Harlem all the way down to the Village,” he recalls. “We were coming close to the Barnes & Noble bookstore downtown, and I said, ‘There’s something I have to tell you. This school happens to have an unusually high number of gay and trans students.’ And she said, ‘Is there something you want to tell me?’ And I said, ‘Yeah….’” He told his sister that he was gay and she almost drove the car into the bookstore. “Yeah, that’s how I told my sister,” he says. His laughter fills the room. “But it was great!” he adds. His sister asked him why it took him so long to tell her. And he believes that his mother had known for a while that he was gay.
After graduation he decided to take two years off. When he came back, he eventually found a job at the post office.
One day a friend asked him to accompany him to a group. That’s how Brandon Lee ended up at the AIDS Service Center. “We walk in and there’s a group of other black gay guys and trans girls. I felt like home, and I just never left.”
He started going to the group on a regular basis. Soon he began volunteering at events. Not long after that he started running a peer group.
For a while, Brandon Lee worked as an HIV case manager at another company. Then, one day in August 2016, The Alliance emailed him to offer him a full-time position.
During all this time he had been working at the post office, in addition to working in the HIV field. He quit the post office job and started working full time at The Alliance for Positive Change. “Now I manage an MPowerment group, and also do [HIV] prevention and testing.”
One of the many things that I find fascinating about Brandon Lee is that, as a young gay man with a gift to help others and the smarts to do it right, he could have chosen any career path. He chose HIV.
When I ask why, he reminds me of the two-year “sabbatical” he took after graduating from high school. When he came back from that sabbatical, his friends wanted to get together and “catch up.” Some of them wanted to tell him “something”—that, while he was gone, they had seroconverted and that they were HIV-positive. They were young men with whom he had gone to high school or knew from high school. “It hurts!” he says. “I thought that had I been around in those two years, maybe I could have done something.”
That’s why he chose to work in the HIV field, to help those deemed at risk for acquiring or living with HIV. That’s why Brandon Lee became the Orange Warrior. (After all, orange is his favorite color.) And he stands by the Orange Warrior’s statement, and points out part of it: “HIV is not a monster anymore,” he says. Then he adds, “but we have to be aware of it.”
He goes on, “I still very much feel that knowledge is power. And in the position that I am now, I can [help our clients] and continue to give them knowledge.” And while knowledge can be boring, because it’s all about facts and stats and numbers, he tries to make it interesting, adding a more personal touch to it, trying to apply it to the specific needs of his clients. “You’re trying to make [knowledge] a factor in their life, a part of the conversation,” he explains.
This brings our conversation to HIV prevention and education, and the difference between the two. “Education is cold hard facts of what’s going on with HIV or hep C,” he says. “It’s the knowledge presented to you. Here, this is what the data reflects, and now you know. Do something about it. Prevention is about everybody’s personal way of living, and about how they can reduce their risk of [seroconverting] or [if HIV-positive] reduce the risk of spreading the virus. The combination—HIV education and prevention—is about giving facts that work in each person’s personal life.”
When it comes to people’s personal lives, housing is often a problem that comes up in the group that Brandon Lee manages. In the New York City area, HASA (HIV/AIDS Service Administration) can help provide housing to those living with HIV. “That is great,” he says, “because people who are HIV-positive [and have a place to live] are taking their medications, get tested, even become undetectable.”
Shelter is one issue. Money, or lack thereof, is another. Brandon Lee explains that individuals living with HIV who are not sick can stay that way if they take their medications. But if they don’t have money or have very little money, they put off spending it on meds. Spending money on medications “takes a backseat to everything else,” he comments, “because having a roof over your head, clothes to wear, and food in your belly takes priority.”
In parts of the country, where this kind of access to housing is not available, many individuals have no other choice but to rely on survival sex—sex for money—and some of those who are paying them want to have unprotected sex. On top of that, in many of those areas, information about PrEP and PEP is often very limited. This set of circumstances increases the chances for someone who eventually gets tested for HIV to find out that they not only are HIV-positive, but also that the disease has progressed to AIDS.
That said, the overall number of new HIV infections is at a record low, yet that’s not the case in black and Latino communities, among MSMs and trans women. The reason is, at least in part, HIV stigma.
“Imagine that you’re a Latino young man,” Brandon Lee comments. “You’re still living with your parents, and you find out that you’re HIV-positive. And now you have to keep HIV drugs in the house. That is a struggle, just for the fact that the family doesn’t even know that you’re gay. It’s a closet within the closet, like a little Russian doll of stigma.”
The first step in dismantling that stigma is a much-needed conversation between parents and their teenage children. But there’s usually no reason for subjects like HIV to become part of the conversation in the lives of straight black and Latino parents. “The only time [HIV] would come up, that I can think of, would be in movies,” Brandon Lee says. “If you can’t get to the gay part, you can’t get to the HIV part [of the conversation]. And so, no conversation is going on at home. It’s like, they keep it on ice.”
That conversation has to start at home. If not, young gay (and trans) individuals can put themselves at risk. If they feel that they can’t get support from their loved ones, they look for it somewhere else, and often find “support” in individuals who take advantage of them. They end up allowing themselves to be abused, physically as well as mentally, and they tell themselves that that’s better than the negativity they’re getting from others they already knew. In many cases, trans individuals, too, have to rely on survival sex, in particular because “transition is not cheap.”
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Individuals living in the New York City area can find a home at The Alliance for Positive Change. Founded in 1990, the organization has 160 professional staff, 150 peer educators and forty volunteers. It has six locations in the New York City area, including the main Midtown office, Harlem, and the Bronx. Each office is located close to a hospital, so that reps can take their clients to the hospital and start them on PrEP or on HIV medications as needed.
The Alliance offers a wide range of services—from HIV and hep C testing to providing PrEP and PEP, case management, PREP (Peer Recovery and Education Program), and even housing, as well as pharmacies. Clients living with HIV/AIDS who are homeless or escaping homelessness can have their medications delivered to the pharmacy located in The Alliance office building. It makes it easier for clients to stay on meds and, thus, to stay healthy.
The Alliance doesn’t only provide vital services, but also a safe place—free of stigma and judgment. “It goes back to combining education and prevention,” Brandon Lee reminds. Creating that safe place is about opening a dialogue about what’s going on in the client’s life at that time. It doesn’t have to be about HIV, but about something that clients want to share. “Once you open a dialogue and take the time to listen to what people want to talk about, you can find the root of the issues in their lives.” Only then you can assess which issue is the biggest issue and start making changes necessary to address that issue.
“Change starts off small,” Brandon Lee says, “but it can lead to a more positive change.” He’s a firm believer in people deserving second and even third chances in life. He also believes that, indeed, knowledge is power, and wants to give people that second chance and the knowledge to make that positive change in their lives. And so he urges those who might be struggling to reach out for help: “Come as you are,” he says. “We love you as you are. Let us help you.”
Find out more about The Alliance for Positive Change by visiting online at www.alliance.nyc.
In December 2017, Brandon Lee appeared on a Bronxnet show, in Albany, NY, and talked about the importance of HIV testing and the strategy to end the epidemic by 2020: www.bronxnet.org/watch/videos/4157/. Also, Orange Warrior quote: www.hivwarriors.com/#Orange.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U. She interviewed Avram Finkelstein for the January issue.