Positively Persistent
HIV Activist & Researcher Jim Pickett Never Yields to the Word Impossible
by Dann Dulin

Photos by Brian Solem/AIDS Foundation Chicago

Expert!

“Expert” is one of those overused words that eventually become a cliché. Think…“Luxury.” “Bargain.” “Improved.”

Describing HIV “expert” Jim Pickett, the adjective returns to its authentic meaning. Mr. Pickett, who’s Senior Director of Prevention Advocacy and Gay Men’s Health at AIDS Foundation Chicago, and an inductee into the Chicago LGBTQ+ Hall of Fame, has labored in the HIV field for over twenty years. Jim’s mission is to speed-up treatment and prevention.
His continual revved passion is awe-inspiring. In 1999 Jim, who is living with HIV, began his public health career. He managed a book project called Faces of AIDS–Living in the Heartland, with the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). Its success prompted the printing of a second book. It featured personal stories of people living with HIV/AIDS in thirteen Midwestern states impacted by the epidemic.

Around this time, under the auspices of the Syphilis Elimination Task Force, Jim directed the development and implementation of a citywide social marketing campaign on syphilis and simultaneously worked with the LGBTQ+ community on substance abuse.
In 2004 he joined AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC). A year later he launched the International Rectal Microbicide Advocates (IRMA) to provide a global advocacy and communication platform for scientists, advocates, policy makers, and funders. It includes research and development of safe, effective, accessible, and acceptable rectal microbicides for men, women, and transgender individuals. Microbicides are compounds (creams, gels, etc.) that can be applied inside the rectum or vagina to protect against STIs. The studies continue.

Thank heavens this lightening rod…never gives up.

Continued efforts brought him to spearhead a two-year project called Mapping Pathways, with RAND Corporation (a U.S. nonprofit global think tank) along with partners in South Africa, India, and the United States. Through a blend of research, stakeholder engagement, and scenario planning it sought to aid communities in preparation for the implementation of new HIV prevention technologies.

In 2014, AIDS Foundation Chicago (AFC) formed the Illinois PrEP Working Group (IPWG) in partnership with the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH). It provides a platform to collaborate, coordinate, and network in the service of improving awareness of and access to PrEP for vulnerable communities. Currently there are over 400 members in Illinois comprised of clinicians, advocates, educators, navigators, health officials, researchers, and so on.

Asking the tough questions at the Conference on Retrovirus and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) 2019. Photo courtesy J. Pickett

In 2016, under the umbrella of IPWG, Jim helped to create a social marketing campaign called PrEP4Love. The focus is black men and black women, including transgender women. This ongoing PrEP education and community mobilization operation has been shown to be highly effective in its reach. It is correlated with evaluations conducted by Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. During COVID they’ve increased their online programming.

In 2018, PrEP4Love was the model for France’s PrEP campaign!

Jim initially entered the workforce as an editor and an advertising sales associate for a weekly, Gab, writing satires and critiques of Chicago gay nightlife. About this time he was diagnosed with HIV, which emotionally and psychologically rocked every cell of his being. It changed the trajectory of his purpose. Jim realized he needed to confront this monster virus head-on in his writing, so he started a column called “Sick–A Body of Work in Progress”—noting in detail the “schizophrenia of being HIV-positive.”

Raised in the Badger State, Wisconsin, Jim, fifty-five, first heard about the epidemic in 1984 when he was a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin (UWM) in Milwaukee. The following year he came out. In 1987 he transplanted to Chicago when he turned twenty-one. He never left.

Fourteen years ago he met Kevin Jack, a lawyer, and they wedded not long ago. Jonesing to travel once COVID is contained, Jim is a full-on wayfaring enthusiast. But in the meantime, his daily joy is to grab a catnap, and his life credo, “Try it, you might like it.”

Dann Dulin: …Faces of AIDS, a winsome title. I’m eager to read it.
Jim Pickett: [He nods with a smile then beams.] I loved this job. I was hired based on my “Sick” column, and CDPH’s Frank Oldham, Jr. led the project. The idea was to share personal stories as a way of demonstrating the needs of people with HIV in a very human, intimate way.

What an innovative project, Jim.
The first book was so successful we did a second. Accompanying the books were 100 large portraits of individuals and families living with and impacted by HIV, a traveling photo documentary. These images were used in a variety of exhibitions and events across the country, which I implemented and at which I spoke. The venues ranged from governmental buildings to churches, colleges, high schools, airports, malls, community centers, and conferences, all to increase HIV awareness and understanding.

What states did you travel to?
My territory for conducting interviews for the book included Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. I interviewed a compelling array of people from a gay priest in Tulsa to a woman serving time in Kansas to a family where both parents were HIV-positive and their adolescent son was the primary caretaker. [He intensely inhales, and then sighs.] It was truly incredible…and such an honor.

What research, what discoveries, and what progress!
The stories were meant to educate the public as well as our elected officials, and to connect people’s lives with policy, program, and resources needed to help people live and thrive with HIV.

What’s the mission of International Rectal Microbicide Advocates (IRMA)?
The mission has now evolved to focus on all HIV prevention modalities, from short-acting, user-controlled, “on demand” methods, to long-acting choices delivered in the clinic. IRMA hosts a website and a dynamic listserv and has published six major reports. It’s led several campaigns and projects with our African members. It includes a demand for lubricant access, and has engaged in many community consultations on study trials and prevention needs of vulnerable communities.

In 1985 you came out while as a first-year college student, the same year AIDS killed Rock Hudson. My god, having sex was scary back then! How did it all play out for you?
I kicked that closet door down, hard. There was a lot of lost time to make up for, and definitely hormones raged on overdrive. I was away from home so there were no barriers. Up to that point I had limited sexual experience. Being aware of HIV, I was terrified of it, but it didn’t stop me from becoming as sexually active as possible. Some of my first sexual experiences were without a condom, but that changed quickly after my first HIV test. Back then results took a month. It was agonizing to wait! After that experience, guaranteed condoms were used from there on. [His eyes pop, brows furrow, and he shuns a smirk.]

About ten or eleven years later you were diagnosed positive. Take us back to that time.
I was taking part in a study for sexually active gay men in Chicago where they followed us over time for several years. They asked a million questions about my sex life every six months, and with those pesky questions always came an HIV test. In August of 1995, my test was positive.

Leading a protest at the HIVR4P conference in Madrid, 2018. Photo courtesy J. Pickett

And your immediate reaction was…?
I was numb, terrified, devastated, angry…and very, very sad. This was before the advent of highly effective HIV drugs, so I really thought I had only about ten years to live. I had seen a lot of people get sick and die, and most people didn’t make it very long. The only saving grace here was that I was tested frequently, so I knew my seroconversion was fairly recent. Other than that I was bereft. I curled up into the fetal position for three days before I was able to even move, or think about what I was going to do about this.

Wow. My heart goes out to you. Heavy. Intense. Was this the motivating force that inspired you to dedicate your life to helping others?
When I was diagnosed, I was working as an editor for a sassy Chicago weekly called Gab. A couple of years passed and then it occurred to me that I needed to change gears and write about the hardest thing going on in my life—being HIV-positive. So I started the column, “Sick.”

How did you approach it? What did you tackle in the column?
Well, I started on meds for the first time that year, and, while they made my T cells soar, they also gave me daily diarrhea and nausea. I was doing great with my numbers, but I felt beyond miserable. So that’s where I was coming from, and the perspective was very personal, and raw. The column was well received by people living with HIV and those working in the HIV community. It led to many open doors.

I applaud you, Jim.
This column really was the start for a second career in public health, one that I have been passionately in love with ever since. Had I not been diagnosed with HIV, I can’t imagine public health being in the picture. I would have never thought of it, quite honestly, and really had no interest in it until my column led me into rooms and situations and opportunities that started to make clear that a new path was opening up for me.

Hallelujah… “Sick”! You work, study, and research HIV people of color. What are the reasons for the high number of infections?
In terms of high rates of HIV among people of color, this speaks mostly to structural racism. Our health infrastructure, like every other structure in this country, is plagued by white supremacy and racism. White supremacy ensures adequate testing and prevention for most whites. Care services are not as available or accessible to most people of color. White supremacy helps ensure that culturally competent and literate healthcare is the exception—not the norm.

[Jim’s on a heartfelt roll. His volume increases.] White supremacy helps ensure most people of color make less money, are more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be uninsured or under-insured, have more housing instability, are hungrier, are less educated, don’t have providers that look like them or understand them, and on and on. [He takes a beat.] Our country fails most marginalized communities over and over and over and over—and has been doing so for 400 years. This is the main reason we see the racial disparities we do in terms of HIV…and pretty much every other health condition.

Well said. Do you see anything coming down the pike in prevention or treatment?
In the next few years we will have long-acting treatment and prevention options delivered via injections that are very exciting and offer folks new choices to fit their lives. We may see long-acting oral pills for treatment and prevention as well, removing the need to take pills every day. Further out are things like implants. Imagine something inserted in your arm that delivers HIV prevention, or treatment, for a year. That …could…be…a…thing! I say the more choices, the better. [There’s a playful glee in his voice when he yields] I’m also excited watching the development of a rectal douche with anti-HIV drugs that could be used to make your booty fresh before sex—and—provide safe, effective protection from HIV.

Electrifying news! Now that sounds fun! Hooray. Who do you consider a hero in the AIDS war?
I have many, but I am going to say Dr. Sharon Hillier, head of the Microbicide Trials Network. She is a fierce scientist and an even fiercer advocate. Tough as hell, smart as hell, and a heart as big as the planet.

Who else in that galaxy attracts you?
All the young global advocates who are going to be taking over the world…hopefully sooner rather than later!

Being an expert in the HIV field for many years, what’s your number one piece of advice?
[Jim straight away bursts with fiery conviction] Silence = Death.


For more information about AIDS Foundation Chicago, log on to: www.aidschicago.org.


Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor at A&U.