The Instrument: Tim'm T. West

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Name: Tim'm T. West
Age: 36
What he be: writer, poet, emcee, vocalist, educator, scholar, social activist, cultural warrior
Hails from: Cincinnati born, raised in Little Rock and Taylor, Arkansas
Currently lives in: Houston, TX
Status: Single Again

I thank God, as I've come to know its spirit - full, gracious, and unconditionally loving, in the ways I strive to be. I thank my family for the courage they've taught me, that has led to me doing and being things that may not be altogether comfortable for them. Their example grants me permission to be brave. I thank them for loving me, not in spite of it, but because of it. I thank my friends, too many to name, who understand that distance and the circumstances of my proximity do not weaken the ties that bind. I thank them for their faith in my intentions to be loving, for their inspiration, for having my back, and for cussing me out when I shrink from being anything other than Tim'm West. I thank mentors: cultural warriors, poets, visionaries, writers and activists who have inspired the "breath" of my work. So many of you have gone before me only to illuminate the path of my journey. I remember you daily. Those who remain are daily reminders that I do not change-make alone; and that there is still so much to be done. And I thank anyone who has found, through me, an inspiration for living, for a song or poem. I thank those with a heart to forgive me, and for eyes to see me beyond the literary, media, and musical projections that try to capture my inescapable "becoming". I am a servant to our struggle for better lives. I am a beacon foreshadowing the triumph and joy of people who have faith that God is good...all the time.

Learning 3, The Hard Way: Getting Beyond Shame, Sickness, and Stigmas
I refuse to lose To carry that b-boy blues The battle some lose When they buy into the shame, blame, and guilt Well, I'm built to be stronger Gonna live longer Defeat better take a backseat

But sometimes it doesn't. Defeat knocks on my door sometimes nightly between night-sweats and self-confessions in front of mirror medicine-cabinets that distort my most handsome features. Sometimes I wish that there were only q-tips, vitamin c, papaya, or other "health nut" supplements behind the mirror. But I have reminders of a reckless and careless past in which I sought the warmth of bodies to contrast the coldness of family and community. I sought shelter in the arms of men who, like me, could not fully share their longings for a life with a same sex partner with family and community. We are the children of the night who often turn to night to face the pain we so meticulously mask in the daylight. The meds have given many of us extended breaths, deferring a death we see as imminent. When defeat comes, seeing myself as whole and beautiful isn't as easy as how I write about it in raps or poems or songs. Strength becomes an ambition I falsely put on to disremember the fear, paranoia, and sadness. The truth is that only half of the time do I feel positive about being POZitive. The other half of the time I wish I were negative. Often, sweat-filled, heavy-breathing nights remind me, not of the rapture of romance, but feelings of regret that I wish I could wash down with the AIDS medication I anxiously "intoxicate" myself with in order to feel better. Before 1999, a different kind of demon haunted at night, but it wasn't HIV related defeat. It was defeat's forefathers: loneliness and self-hatred.

It was 1999 and among a group of young African-American gay men at SMAAC Youth Center in Oakland that I first disclosed my HIV status. I was moderating a discussion about stigma associated with HIV and how it prevented people from dealing honestly with its impact. I'd found out about my status only weeks before, and the conversation had been planned long before even my test results. It was a timely conversation - one of those moments when you find yourself preparing to give others advice that you know is meant for yourself. At this juncture, I had decided that I wouldn't share my status with anyone, that I wasn't deserving of love (less deserving of a sex life), and that there was not safety enough in the world to hold me in the weak moments.

Talk about death, and suicide, and despair was thick in the room that evening. To the question "what would you do if you found out you were HIV positive?" was an exhaustive list of suicide methods and which would be less painful. I was a bit shocked. This wasn't a generation of young men who'd seen black men disappear from the clubs week after week and into faded obituaries; the causes of death guised under the catch-all "cancer" "pneumonia". This was supposedly a generation of young people who've always been affected by AIDS and who, in the mind of some researchers, were no longer intimidated by its affect. They are the living testimonies of a generation we failed to "scare straight". I was a HIV health educator prior to testing positive, so I certainly had no business engaging in risky activity. However, "safer sex" dialog was all too uncomplicated for the crude realities of my black gay existence. Feelings of alienation and the desire for connection intensified the desire for intimacy. I was annoyed by the "wear a condom, every time" humdrum that seemed to be grounded in a sanctimonious homophobia, and that undermined any possibility of a safe relationship between men. I'm a good guy. And 90% of the time I was safe with those who quenched my hunger for tenderness in this harsh world. This had kept me negative for 7 years, so why not 7 more?

Well 90% of the time just isn't good enough; and I know this now. I've realized in the work I've done as an activist over the years, that the conversation still hasn't shifted from statistical probability of which shameful, taboo acts will put one at greatest risk, to a conversation about wellness. I was infected because I did not feel I was valuable enough for a negative status to matter (especially to myself). Feelings of self-loathing and depression make sexual risks a viable way to defer, extend, and draw out suicidal feelings. The young man who says he'll jump off the Bay Bridge if he discovers he's positive, probably is at greatest risk of being infected. This is our sad reality and something that I feel prevention bureaucrats still don't get.

My life isn't a horrible one. I was disinterested in writing one of those "woe is me" "don't let it happen to you" kind of tirades that are as uninventive and cliché as they are ineffective. The reason I came out about my HIV status the evening of that heartbreaking conversation with my young brothas at SMAAC? I did so because I could not let them leave the room thinking that you can cheat death if you don't find out you're positive. Illusions of negativity can lead to the kind of positivity no one should want. I expressed to the young brothas at SMAAC that I had 192 T cells and was very afraid. I did express that I felt there was hope and optimism enough in the world for me to get through it, but this was the wishful thinking of a moment when I'd decided to disclose when I said I would not. This has led to me being a spokesperson of sorts for especially young gay men who are HIV positive. And, to be honest, sometimes it's pretty annoying.

Now journalists seem to forget I am a writer, an educator, an emcee, and activist. I'm that HIV Positive (fill in the profession) black man. And I don't know which is worse, the stigmatization in the gay community that you are one who "has it" or a culture looking for some positive icons who will generate hope for a cure. I sometimes carry this burden of POZitivity like a mountain on my back; afraid that if I don't carry it, that no one will, but growing more tired of living with it by the day. Others admire my strength, but I'm bleeding on the insides and am often scared of the impending sickness I cannot fight off with HIV drugs that "make you sick to get you well." This society is a cruel one. The same people who admire you for having integrity and being forthright are the same ones who prefer their men "disease free". It hurts most when I see "disease free" in a personals ad that I feel so shameful about having HIV. I don't regret a lot of things that have happened in my life, but I do wish I was not HIV positive.

This summer, and nearing 10 years of living with the disease, I've traveled to various AIDSWalk events, performing inspirational poetry about "keeping it POZitive".
By no means am I undermining the long term affects of medicating AIDS or the related social disease that slaps you when people cast out, rebuke, and deny your full humanity. It's no joyride hoping that the health stats remain good every few months, or debating whether or not a rash or flu is just that, and not recurring beginnings of the "big one". My life is the result of cards I played, sometimes not so carefully, and the terms that I am forced to accept. Being responsible for my decisions and my body is something that I wish I had learned before AIDS.

But what I hope that people get from it, is that a lot of what I've gained as cues for how to improve the quality of my life, out of bare necessity and survival, can be adopted by people before getting infected. This also means cultivating a society where people can feel comfortable saying "I messed up.... What now?" without being made to feel more dejected or reckless than they do admitting such a thing. It's reckless to shove a condom in a young person's face after they disclose risky behavior rather than asking them how they're feeling. The relationship between one's lack of self-care and his or her careless behavior is way understated. It's almost as deafening as the silence ravaging the black community around HIV/AIDS.

I met Monte J. Wolfe and Erik Chambers in 2005 in Washington, DC; initially through our shared love for independent performance art and music. While I had some familiarity with them before, the respective disclosures of their HIV statuses strengthened that bond. I was simply feeling pretty isolated, not just in my disease, but the utter invisibility of brothas willing to speak honesty and openly about its affect of our lives. Having been the POZ poster child for a minute, I enthusiastically embraced the possibility of having warriors beside me to identify with, struggle and triumph alongside. The creation of Brave Soul Collective was Monte's enthusiasm to take things to another level - to expand the vast possibilities of what it meant to publicize the toxicity of our silence, to paraphrase Erik, to create communities of brothas (positive and negative) willing to speak honestly and openly about the impress of HIV/AIDS in our personal and collective experiences. The response about the Brave Soul Collective movement is testimony to many brothas' frustration and discontentment with being spoken for and about, rather than speaking for ourselves. The media has largely reduced our experiences to dramatic, fetishistic, exploitative, misrepresentations about DL men. Brave Soul Collective is about the possibility of celebrating the UP HIGH - those brothas moved to bravery, self-love, and community through their respective truths. It's the organization I'm a part of to save my life.

So the next time Defeat and his friends visit me, in the mirrors or in the nights, I'm all the more resolved that I'm speaking my truth. I'm not too keen on the idea of being some sort of Blaxploitation poster-boy for living POZitively with HIV. I don't have to do that anymore. I have a community of brothas willing and ready to stand strong with me. Instead, I can be an example of the pitfalls some might avoid, and the possibility others can embrace, through truth and nonjudgmental dialogue about our day-to-day experiences...beyond the sex life. When defeat takes a back seat, I emerge in the mirror as beautiful as I believe myself to be; and I hope to experience a lot more of that.