A college student from the South and his quest to become a force for change

Just days before his 20th birthday in 2013, Antwan Matthews tested positive for HIV. It only took him a few hours to make the bold decision to not let his new status bring him down, and to use it to somehow help others—and that’s exactly what he’s done, and continues to do.

“I had a feeling that I possibly had HIV,” he explains. At the time he was fasting, so his weight loss was misconstrued and associated with his fast instead of his diagnosis. Additionally, he began to think back to some conversations he had with a past sexual partner that began to trigger something, leading him to believe that he may have acquired the virus from him.

Throughout his high school years, his family would take him and his siblings to get tested for STIs, so naturally, when Antwan was in college, he continued to get tested regularly. “I was tested at my college through a community-based organization,” he said.

Antwan identifies as a male who likes males (gay, but he prefers not to use specific labels). “Being a black male in the South, my experience has not been like those of my ancestors—I was never targeted for being black,” says Antwan. “I think that with my family and peers, as well as the people that I had sexual encounters with…the issues were with me being gay, not black.” Initially, when Antwan came out to his family, he had to deal with the ignorant stereotypes that often came up, such as members of his family asking him if he would now dress more feminine or like a female, due to his sexual orientation. Instead of battling with them, he decided to make something of himself. “I always considered myself a relentless person, so I always thrived no matter what was put in front of me.”

Now, at 24 years old, being a gay man is no longer a conversation he has with people; he doesn’t identify with sexual identity terms any longer. “At this time, I am who I am and I like what I like.” He finds that most people who are in his life today respect him for who he is. “At the start, it was rocky, but with time, people began to grasp who I am.”

 ‘At this time, I am who I am and I like what I like.’ He finds that most people who are in his life today respect him for who he is. ‘At the start, it was rocky, but with time, people began to grasp who I am.’

Antwan’s resilience is part of what makes him so extraordinary, along with a multitude of accomplishments for someone of such a young age. Originally from Meridian, Mississippi, but currently living in Jackson, Antwan is in his senior year at Tougaloo College, majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry. For the moment, he is applying for a number of internships and fellowships, while also gaining more experience within the HIV field, including policymaking. He is also the founder of the organization Peer HEALTH Educator (HEALTH stands for Helping, Educating, Advising, Learning, Teaching, Healing), an organization at Tougaloo College with a mission to redefine health and build innovative modules to demonstrate strategies to improve health disparities.

After receiving his HIV test result, he was told that he would need to take a second test, as the testers weren’t able to determine the outcome from the original test. “With me being a biology major, I understood [the need for a confirmatory] second test,” he said. When his second test came back as a preliminary positive, he was told to visit the actual clinic the next day for further steps. “I remember being surrounded [in the waiting room] by individuals that knew me or knew why I was there, so I had to put on a smile like nothing was wrong as to not give them any indication of the news that I had just learned,” he said. “As I walked out the door, I felt as if the old me had just died at that moment, and I now had to figure out how to thrive and live my life…but first, I went home and cried.”

Although not religious, Antwan considers himself to be a spiritual person, so that day he asked his higher power what to do. “I already knew that I was going to be on medications and all that, but now my concern was how was I going to be able to help others, especially [other] people of color.” It can take newly-diagnosed individuals months or years to come to terms with their HIV status, but for Antwan, he quickly realized that if he felt sorry for himself, he would only receive pity from others, and he refused to accept that. “I am very strong, independent and determined, so to show a sign of weakness, I felt like that would be too vulnerable, and I didn’t want to be in that state of mind.”

Coming out HIV-positive to friends and family

Antwan waited about a month before he told his family, beginning with his father, who would later start the chain discussion that would eventually wind its way through the entire family. “My parents grew up at a time when they had seen HIV/AIDS destroy communities, and my dad, being a religious person, somehow felt like it was his fault, as if the devil himself was getting back at him for his past.” His mother would always warn him as a child and young adult about diseases that were “out there” and how they could hurt him, and with that, Antwan noted her reaction as more hurt than disappointment. “At this point I felt like my parents weren’t expecting a son who liked men and then on top of that, now I was HIV-positive,” he said.

“My dad expected me to figure it out since I was a man, and my mom allowed me the space to figure it out, and with time, they started to see that I’m still a man, and even though I was HIV-positive, they grasped the idea that I wasn’t going to turn out like the typical stories they witnessed from the ’80s and ’90s.” In the years since his diagnosis, his parents have seen him grow and change, and with that, his HIV status is “not really a topic of conversation with them anymore.”

“I told some of my best friends right away, like the next day,” he said. “None of my friends made me feel like I was ‘less than,’ but I am also in a community of college-educated peers who knew more than most, and my life with HIV has been plentiful and purposeful, mainly because of the support I received from my friends and colleagues.” To this day, when his friends see him on interviews or in articles, they always let him know that they watched or read and are supportive. Antwan likes to remind himself that, “Someone else is always doing worse than you are, so there is never a real reason to complain about your life.”

Accomplishments and victories

Beyond Peer HEALTH Educator, his organization that continues to grow, Antwan was in the PBS documentary Southern Remedy. He was featured as one of the younger faces talking about HIV, while he was filmed on campus going about his daily life. “This was where I really became a new face of HIV and when people began to notice who I was,” he said. Afterwards, he was introduced to Snow Companies, a patient ambassador whose intention is to be a global leader in patient storytelling. Through Snow Companies, as well as their partnership with ViiV Healthcare, a pharmaceutical company specializing in the development of therapies for HIV infection, Antwan was sent to different states around the country to speak about his life with HIV.

Antwan met one of his most important mentors, Susan Wolfson, through a mutual friend, Cedric Sturdevant, at a CDC-supported awareness program in Jackson, Mississippi. Antwan describes Wolfson as a fascinating woman with more than three decades of experience in strategic communication, with a special emphasis on HIV/AIDS. “Most mentors, when you tell them your visions, they might think that you sound crazy, but Susan was different and she watched me grow and do what I said I was going to do, while encouraging me and assisting me along the way.” Antwan considers Susan to be someone who not only coaches him but also critiques him in an effort to help him better himself. “She is one of the main people that helped me get to where I am today.”

In the summer of 2015, Antwan completed a summer internship in non-profit management at Brown University and was invited back to Brown in the spring of 2016 for a second internship. Afterwards, he was invited to AIDSWatch through the scholarship program to represent Mississippi, the only person there to represent the state, at the young age of 21.

‘Within 15 minutes of meeting Antwan, I was struck by his commanding presence, bold ideas, and strong sense of purpose,’ says Wolfson. ‘Soft-spoken and self-possessed, Antwan is unabashedly clear that he will be a force for change in Mississippi.’

Antwan continued to successfully collaborate with various organizations throughout the country, earning another internship in microbiology with the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He was also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scholar.

Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship

Wolfson encouraged Antwan to apply for the Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship, and he learned that he was a scholar recipient in October 2017. The scholarship, which is dedicated to the continuing legacy of AIDS educator and activist Pedro Zamora, seeks to support the academic efforts of emerging young leaders committed to ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic; a total of $50,000 was awarded to 10 students in 2017. “In November, I was informed that I would be speaking in front of President Bill Clinton in San Francisco at the National AIDS Memorial Grove,” he recalled. “My speech was focused on getting to zero within my community as well as living in a society that belittles black success and liberation, something that I now see as being a bit provocative for the audience.”

Up next

Antwan’s organization has already been approved to do HIV testing, in partnership and collaboration with several HIV organizations that will oversee the testing. Through this collaboration, his organization is able to go out into the community and test as well as educate. He’s also recently been accepted for the second round consideration for grant funding through MTV’s Staying Alive Foundation. If chosen, the grant will help him accomplish different community-based opportunities like training more HIV testers, as well as doing a short documentary about the lives of students in the state of Mississippi and other places around the world. “HIV is spiraling out of control within the younger community ages 13–25, and we are trying to reach the youth and college students in order to change the dynamic of HIV though educating them on the progress of medications as well as PrEP.

“I love the idea of being in a position where my innovative ideas and modules are put into place within our society to establish reliable opportunities, resources, and funding…I want to be able to implement change in our society that is beneficial. I hope that after college, I am steered in the direction of helping to promote change as well as being proactive for change.”

Antwan has his sights set on possibly attending medical school with hopes of being an infectious disease physician someday, but right now he will be taking a year off to see which direction he will go as he awaits news about possible opportunities. “If I’m able to continue down my path with my scientific degree, and I’m able to make things happen without medical school, then I’ll cross that road when I reach it.” 

David Durán is also a nationally recognized HIV advocate and writer who contributes to HIV focused publications. Always in the know about the current trends within the HIV community, he also speaks and participates at conferences and gatherings around the world on the subject.