Someone once sang, Love is a many splendored thing. Well, it seems it applies to these two doves.
Twenty-seven year old Jonathan Allen and twenty-five year old Derrick Young met by accident six years ago. They were students at Louisiana’s Grambling State University and were attending a debate for student body president. Jonathan was running for office and gave a speech. Afterwards, Derrick approached Jonathan to tell him that his campaign paraphernalia needed to be removed before the elections closed. They began talking—instant connection!
Both are now law students at Boston University. From the start, they have been activists. In 2006, Jonathan founded Futures Inspired by Youth with Aim (FIYA), empowering youth to make healthy choices. In 2008, he served as Special Projects Coordinator for a local health network, providing support to low-income families. He also coordinated a youth camp where health practitioners engaged over 300 local youths, empowering them about sex and STIs. He’s currently a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice.
In 2013, Derrick interned for the CDC, at the HIV/AIDS Resource Center (HARC) in Ypsilanti, Michigan. A year later, he was selected as an NMAC youth scholar at his Louisiana college. This year Derrick was appointed Harvard University Center for AIDS Research Community Advisory Board Membership Chair.
Eventually, the couple wants to start a family. They are huge travelers, having visited Mexico and Ghana over the summer. Their favorite city, thus far, is Washington, D.C. They also have an Internet show called The Bedroom (found on YouTube), which documents their times, travels, and journeys together. Each has lost someone to the epidemic and they have friends who are living with HIV, as well.
One afternoon, I have a Skype encounter with them. Still an amateur on this type of technology, Jonathan and Derrick are complete gentlemen, even when this old school lady accidentally hangs up on them…thrice.
Ruby Comer: So sorry, I thought I had this darn thing down. Nuts! [they both smile and are patient.] Good. I finally see you! Nice to see ya, ‘young fellers’! How has the epidemic affected you?
Derrick: HIV is not something we openly talked about growing up. We only joked about it. As we’ve grown older, we see how it has made its way into people closest to us.
Jonathan: The epidemic has changed and shaped our culture—the black culture. As two young black gay men, we’re most at risk for HIV. We believe it affects all of us in a significant and individual way. It’s one of the few things black people are silent about, due to the stigma…and it’s killing us.
Wow, you stated it head on. You’ve got your pulse directly on the crisis. How did you first hear about AIDS?
Jonathan: I was in school, or some community program, I recall.
Derrick: My mother was the first person to mention it to me. Her uncle died from an AIDS-related illness the year I was born. He was one of her favorite people, so she talked about him a lot!
Tell me about your great uncle.
Derrick: He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1992 and died a month before my mother gave birth to me in August 1993. My mom always said her uncle would always rub her stomach and say “That’s a boy; my boy.” I always felt connected to him and as a young kid, his memory sparked my commitment to HIV and AIDS advocacy.
Ahhh…Jonathan, who have you lost?
Jonathan: It was my cousin, a few years ago. My entire family experienced the pain of watching him suffer, while silently avoiding much discussion about it because he was gay.
My-oh-my. Sad. Sad. [There’s a knock on my front door. I excuse myself and return.] Sorry, it was a UPS delivery from Victoria’s Secret. So, Jonathan, what attracted you to Derrick?
Jonathan: It was his caring nature, his suaveness, beautiful glow, and smile. I was smitten immediately.
Derrick, what immediately turned you on about Jonathan?
Derrick: His love and service for people instantly attracted me. His energy is one of a kind!
So you’re interested in raising children, huh?
Derrick: Very. We can’t wait until it’s time!
Okay. Who first said, “I love you”?
Where did you first kiss?
Derrick: We were watching The Lion King.
Tender. How did you initially discuss STIs?
Jonathan: Derrick discussed them right from the beginning of our relationship. (He pauses.) I was twenty when I first tested.
Derrick: I was eighteen. I’ve always been health conscious.
My gawd…you two are such social activists! Thank you. What…drives…you? Where does that passion stem from?
Jonathan: We believe love makes change. Our families have always taught us to love and respect people and God. God gave us our passion to change culture. [Derrick nods.) While in school for his Master’s in Public Health, Derrick worked as the Lead Tester and Counselor at Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, Massachusetts.
Wow. Tell me, Derrick.
Derrick: The Dorchester Knows Testing initiative was modeled after one of the largest HIV testing initiatives in the nation, New York Knows. The experience was great. [He brightly grins.] We partnered with small businesses and community organizations to educate the workers and the community on HIV and AIDS. Through our partnerships, we were able to have designated testing areas in different locations throughout the summer. [Derrick takes a breath.] I left Codman Square to return to school, and the initiative unfortunately ended shortly after. Codman and Dorchester experienced a lot of structural challenges and barriers that prevent sustainable programming.
Your motivation inspires me. I know you two established the nonprofit, The Leadership Brainery….
Jonathan: Yes, Ruby. The Leadership Brainery’s unprecedented National Ambassador Program funnels minority student leaders into diverse fields. Fifty-two first-generation and diverse college student leaders—who we call “Ambassadors”—are selected among a pool of nominated rising sophomores. One Ambassador is selected from each state, including Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, to create an essential network of different representations and perspectives. During our three-year cohort program, we focus on long-term development, such as leadership, personal, and professional, and preparation for graduate/professional school—and a successful career.
Derrick: We also prepare them for the LSAT and help them navigate the law school admissions process. Currently, we are focused on developing and fundraising to see this vision through. [He looks away for a brief moment and returns with a wide grin.] Once our student leaders graduate college, they will be prepared to enter top graduate/professional schools, and make change for the greater good!
Luck be with you! Comment on the high rates of HIV infection in the black community.
Derrick: The majority of the black community does not have access to quality education or wealth. The information and wealth gaps are real. We are not taught how to select insurance plans and cannot afford quality care. We are not taught safe-sex practices and cannot afford transmission barriers/contraception. [Derrick takes a beat, cupping his hand on his chin, and his tempo is now measured.] I think we can reach out by educating with a perspective. For example, when we teach about antiretrovirals, and PrEP and PEP, we must address the black community’s fear and distrust in medical science. We have had many unethical things done to our minds and bodies in the form of “treatment” and it shifts decision-making.
Yes, yes, yes! Very well said my friend. I couldn’t have ticked this off better. Do you guys have any pets?
Jonathan: Yes. We have a tortoise! His name is Franklin Jubilee.
Okay, I’ll bite. Why Franklin Jubilee?
Jonathan: Well, “Franklin” is named after the cartoon character and….
Derrick: A Russian tortoise can live nearly fifty years, and fifty years is considered a “jubilee.”
Clever! When I hear the name “Franklin,” I think of the protagonist in that Twilight Zone episode, who’s vacationing in Las Vegas, resents gambling, and ends up addicted—and dead! Speaking of dead, what historical person would you like to have a cuppa Joe with?
Derrick: [His eyes gleaming, he instantly replies.] Nelson Mandela! [Jonathan shakes his head up and down feverishly.] It would be incredible to personally experience him sharing his thoughts on justice. President Mandela’s legacy as a freedom fighter in South Africa and around the world inspires us to love others, with action.
Those interested in supporting The Leadership Brainery can donate at www.theleadershipbrainery.com/donate/.
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].