Photo courtesy C. Jacobs

When I recently met this young whippersnapper in Palm Springs at a Desert AIDS Project (DAP) benefit, I was bulldozed.

She’s as straightforward, feisty, and determined, as she is charged with generosity. At nineteen, Carly Jacobs (named after the legendary singer, Carly Simon—one of my faves), divides her time between many organizations, including Safe Schools Desert Cities (an empowering LGBT+ youth group), True Colors, and the Transgender Community Coalition. She even helps broaden HIV awareness throughout the Desert cities, as well. Carly is focused on encouraging more self-expression acceptance and eliminating HIV stigma. Note: it was at a Safe Schools event where Carly first got tested—at the age of fourteen.

Here at the soiree, as we lean against a decorative table, topped with an extravaganza of fresh vibrant flowers, Ms. Jacobs confides that she has a Human Rights Campaign bumper sticker, but worries whether she’ll be bullied. Unfortunately, she’s witnessed others being harassed for simply being themselves. In a relationship for four years with AJ, who is transgender, Carly fears for AJ’s safety too.

Carly, having just turned twenty last month, attends Joshua Tree’s Copper Mountain

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

College, studying psychology and studio arts. After graduation, she will continue her studies at California State University San Bernardino for her BA. From there maybe a doctorate in psychology? Carly is passionate about becoming a clinical psychologist, concentrating on LGBT+ issues and adolescents.

Carly is also president of the College Spectrum Club, which supports fair treatment of all students, advocates for equal rights, and provides inclusion for all students. In her spare time, Caryl likes to write and paint.

Though the room is crammed with chatter and gaiety, Carly and I, who has a passing resemblance to Christina Ricci, are in a cozy corner.

Ruby Comer: I wanna know what was the last film that made you cry?
Carly Jacobs: Holding The Man. [My mouth is agape with delight.] I first watched this movie a few months ago and since then I have watched it three other times, twice by myself and once with my partner.

Oh Carly… One of my most beloved films! And it seems not many Americans are aware of this tender tragic love story.
I felt like this film gave me an understanding of what it was like to be LGBT+ in a society that was even more unwelcoming to our community. In addition, this film gave me a small glimpse into the horrors of the epidemic and how it would feel to slowly lose the one I loved. After learning this was based on a true story, I bought Timothy Conigrave’s book along with my textbooks for the semester and I’ve been reading it in my free time.

What a powerhouse of a story! [Carly nods briskly.] There seems to be a strong connection between DAP and Safe Schools….
Through Safe Schools I’ve learned a variety of information regarding the disease. For example, every year Safe Schools hosts a Youth Summit workshop in conjunction with DAP, touching on various topics, including PrEP and PEP.

Fantastic! How does it compare to your high school’s HIV education?
I remember at the last youth summit there was a middle school student that exclaimed in frustration over answering a question wrong, “I haven’t been taught this in school!” This is the exact reason why these organizations host these events for youth. Even at a middle school level, students should be learning proper sex education, which includes LGBT+ sex education. This will help teach them to practice safe sex and hopefully lessen the stigma around sexually transmitted infections.

Carly Jacobs receiving the Youth Voices Essay 1st Place award from the Harvey Milk Diversity Coalition, Coachella Valley. Photo by David A. Lee Photography

How about at Cooper Mountain College…?
I’ve encountered HIV information twice. In my “Death and Dying” class, there was one paragraph that discussed the AIDS epidemic and the AIDS Quilt. If I didn’t bring it up in class, I’m nearly positive the topic wouldn’t have been discussed. [Carly leans down to sniff one of the velvet-soft red roses.] In my “Human Sexuality” class, the topic was discussed but not in depth, and the LGBT+ was not even mentioned in conjunction with the subject.

I took to the Internet to view videos of the AIDS Quilt being displayed in Washington, D.C., and I remember crying as I was writing my reflective journal. It is amazing how people congregate in tragedy. However, it horrified and saddened me how many lives were lost.

I’m grateful that you young ’uns are being taught about the epidemic, even if it is in patches here and there.
So many teachers avoid these topics, including those pivotal to LBTG+ history, including the Stonewall Riots. It saddens me because I have had to struggle and fight to learn more about the culture I identify with. I do not want younger generations to experience this same confusion and lack of representation. In fact, I hope that my activism will help make this change happen.

You are an old soul, sister. Happy we are on the same team.
Before we go on, Ruby [she eagerly sticks up her hand], I have to tell you about the DAP workshop last year. They… played…Jeopardy! And the students had a blast. [In a lower register she reflects] They make learning interesting and entertaining!

In addition, DAP helped Safe Schools host a camp last year where students learned about safe sex practices and HIV and AIDS education. Without Safe Schools, I honestly wouldn’t have known about Desert AIDS Project. Right now my partner actually goes to DAP for primary care and also for the transitioning process. In addition, I’m currently working with them to try and provide free HIV testing to Copper Mountain College in celebration of LGBT+ Health Awareness week.

AJ and Carly. Photo courtesy C. Jacobs

You are a doozy, Carly. [I waggle my head in awe of her activism.] Help this ol’ broad out, will ya? You identify as being  “pansexual cis female.” Exactly what does that mean?
When looking at gender norms, I present myself as non-conforming, meaning that I don’t necessarily abide to the gender norms typical for females, although I still sexually identify as a female. As for pansexual, the prefix pan means “all” and has a sense of fluidity. Over time I have found that I am not attracted to a specific gender or sex but to the individual. Both of these identities are valid, and people often have misconceptions about them.

 To me, that’s the way to go. Why not go for everybody?! I guess I’m not that evolved yet, my dear. [Switching gears quickly] …you tested at age fourteen?
I was at Palm Springs Pride and tested for the first time, yes. I stood in line to have my results read, but then as I looked across the way, I saw this [attractive] stranger I had met. I worried by getting tested I looked sexually promiscuous, so I left the line and I never got my results.

Oh, you are wild! When you and your partner met, how did you broach the topic of STIs?
We met at Palm Springs Pride during a Safe School’s event. At nearly all Safe School’s events they have a van from DAP that does free HIV testing. They’ve offered incentives from movie tickets to raffle entries. AJ and I initially tested for the incentives, but now we do it because it’s the normal thing to do. [She stops to acknowledge that the band is playing “You’re So Vain,” the iconic hit from Carly Simon.] It’s incredible that free screening is available to the youth, and without this availability I do not know if my partner and I would have discussed the topic of STIs, HIV, or AIDS.

How do we get your peers to play safer, Carly?
Educating a young group is difficult. I believe ensuring that testing is available and free is one of the best ways to bring them in. Providing incentives works with people in general, so maybe a movie ticket or something small would also help attract youth that otherwise wouldn’t want to get tested.

Many your age feel indestructible…I remember my rebellious years. OY!
Many youth believe they are invisible and almost immune to disease or death. The education system does not adequately explain to students HIV or AIDS, or how this disease has affected the world.

I must add, I believe teaching abstinence is an absolute joke! Focusing more on safe sex and sexual health would allow people to learn more about how to live carefully. Furthermore, perhaps having guest speakers who have experienced STIs, HIV, or AIDS, directly or indirectly, talk to students would allow them to understand the serious topic of sexual awareness.

Photo courtesy C. Jacobs

Outstanding points. [An old friend, dressed in drag, approaches, quickly kisses me on the cheek then departs.] Carly, kudos to you for entering the field of clinical psychology. For a while during the latter eighties and early nineties I counseled those who were living with AIDS. Where does your interest originate?
I experience depression and anxiety almost daily. [I listen intently.] Some days are worse than others. When I feel this way, I try to reach out to others and also preoccupy myself with activities that I tend to enjoy. [I nod in agreement.)

[She pauses, prompting me to ask] Anything else?
I force myself to think positive, redirecting [negative] thoughts to reaffirm why the world is a good place. I have the willpower and the mental strength to help my brain develop positive pathways. [She pauses.] I do have a slight fear that I’ll always be plagued by these thoughts and feelings though….This is the main reason that I push mental health awareness, as well, in my activism. Every single person, no matter the circumstance, can benefit by meeting with a therapist.

No truer words have been said, my dear. Say, who are your role models?
I look up to a variety of figures, but primarily my parents. They both have illnesses, but go to the moon and back to support our family and myself.

 How lovely. How bloody lovely.What irks you?
…the negative stigma that surrounds this disease. There’s such a lack of awareness of how it’s transmitted, how it progresses, and the people that it affects. [She glances down at her maroon neon-colored nails.] My heart goes out to every individual affected by this disease, and to those who have lost someone to it. I hope more people work together to continue educating one another about the truth of this disease.

We need more Carlys…Carly. [Across the room, AJ motions for Carly to join him.] It seems you are being summoned! [She brightly smiles, a twinkle in her serious hazel eyes.] Any exiting words, sister?
[She ponders briefly.] I struggled with my sexuality from a young age and I never want another person to go through what I had to deal with. I want to spread awareness, visibility, and [she pauses, inhaling deeply] create more safe spaces in this world.
[With that, we hug, and Carly strolls off parting the crowd. Enraptured, I whisper to myself, This girl is magic.]

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].