The struggle continues, says Benjamin Di’Costa, with his generation

So, chances are you are feeling some kind of way about the title to this article. But now that I have your attention, I want to tell you my story of how I turned being an HIV-negative youth activist into a positive and powerful thing.

According to the CDC the rates of new HIV infections among young gay men ages 13–24 are skyrocketing at alarming rates, especially within black and brown communities.

You might be quick to assume that these rates somehow equate to the amount of sex we are having, or that we are somehow anti-condoms. But we must first look at sexual and reproductive health education in the schools.

I am a child of homeschooling; my parents, who are evangelical pastors, removed me from fourth grade after the Columbine shooting out of fear of attacks on Christians. So growing up I never was given the “Birds and the Bees” talk, and didn’t know what HIV or an STD was. All I knew was that condoms prevented pregnancy and that abstinence until marriage is the only way of life. It wasn’t until 2010 when I met my first partner that HIV was introduced to me.

Throughout the past six years I have wondered what my role in HIV is since I am a 26-year old, white-passing, and cisgender queer male who happens to be HIV-negative.

It was the day of Orlando Pride at around 7 a.m.; my partner who was 20 years old at the time had been in the hospital with serious co-infections. Aside from dealing with the typical LGBT discrimination within the healthcare system, my partner experienced something I had never seen before: HIV discrimination at the time of his diagnosis.

When my partner was diagnosed, the doctor walked in and said, “We’re sorry, we made a mistake on your HIV test, you actually are HIV-positive,” then proceeded to walk out of the room. No compassion. No counseling. My partner turned to me immediately with tears in his eyes and said, “You’re going to leave me, aren’t you?” At that moment I made a promise to him to get educated about HIV and support him through this journey.

He was one of those rare individuals, less than 1% of those who are positive, who was able to control the virus without using medication; however, current recommendations state that people who test positive for HIV should consider starting treatment right away. Eventually our relationship dissolved for other reasons, but I still had a fire inside me about making sure other young people like him do not have to go through such a traumatic experience.

Throughout the past six years I have wondered what my role in HIV is since I am a 26-year-old, white-passing, and cisgender queer male who happens to be HIV-negative. But there is power (and privilege) in your HIV status. I’ve learned being HIV-negative is a privilege but staying HIV-negative should be afforded to all regardless of socio-economic status, race, or gender identity. After the outcome of the recent presidential election, it is apparent that we as a community who are no strangers to adversity and activism must continue to fight for funding and continued research for HIV/AIDS.

Lastly, I want to challenge young people to take note from people like Paul Kawata, Cecilia Chung, Ryan White, Peter Staley, and Pedro Zamora, to name a few. These are leaders who have paved the way for us through community organizing to have adequate HIV programming. Now more than ever is the time for our generation to rise up and continue the fight to see HIV infections get to zero.

Benjamin Di’Costa (@BenjaminDiCosta) is a nationally recognized HIV activist based out of Chicago. He recently was awarded the Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholarship by the National AIDS Memorial Grove to continue his work with youth.