Cure Chronicles Episode 4: Guy Anthony

The Cure Chronicles: HIV with Guy Anthony

Guy Anthony is a dedicated HIV/AIDS activist, community leader, and author. He talks about being more than his HIV status and the importance of sharing his story to positively impact the lives of others living with HIV.

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Jeff Galvin: Welcome to The Cure Chronicles. I'm ecstatic to be joined by Guy Anthony today, a dedicated HIV/AIDS activist, community leader, and author. Diagnosed with HIV as a teen, Guy has dedicated his adult life to the pursuit of neutralizing local and global HIV and AIDS-related stigma. He released a book called "Positively Beautiful" and was named one of the top 100 HIV prevention leaders under 30 by Pause Magazine, one of the top 100 Black LGBTQ SGL emerging leaders to watch by National Black Justice Coalition, and one of DBQ Magazine's LOUD 100, which happens to be the only LGBTQ list of 100 influential people of color. He's also the founder of the Black Gifted and Whole Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships to Black gay men attending college.

Very impressive! Welcome, Guy, and thank you so much for joining me today.

Guy Anthony: Thank you for having me. This is an honor. I'm excited about this. Anytime I get to share what I've gone through with anyone, I take it very seriously. I do not play around with my story because I understand that my story has gotten me to this point, and it has positively impacted other people's lives. I don't know how because it's just my truth, but apparently my truth resonates with people, so sure, you know, I won't fight it.

But a little bit about why I say that is because growing up in a very religious household, you know, my parents, my mom's almost an evangelist, if you will. We all grew up in church. Sex was not even talked about. So before we can even think about HIV being stigmatized, hell, sex was stigmatized in my household. 

And then I was, you know, I was outed. I didn't have the luxury of coming out on my own. I was outed by a family member at the age of 16. Before I even understood what my sexuality would be, I knew that there were some things that happened to me in my childhood that would ultimately change the trajectory of my life. 

And so I knew that I was, you know, struggling with these feelings, but whenever I would try to talk about it, it was "go pray about it" or "let's go to the altar." And so before I even was infected with HIV, my sex was stigmatized. And so, you know, and I'm not alone in that. A lot of Black and Brown communities are very religious, and the stigmatization of even having sex, God forbid I have same-sex sex, you know, so that was something I talked about. My parents never talked to me about sex. Everything that I learned about sex, I learned from other people in the world.

And so, you know, I often say that most people are afraid of the stigma, because I know a lot of people that are in care but won't talk about it. And so essentially, I may be jumping around a bit, but that was really one of the reasons why I wanted to write the book "Positively Beautiful" because I had so many friends living with HIV, but they were sort of all coming to me and dumping on me and asking for the resources and how do I talk to my doctor? How should I empower myself to communicate with my doctor about my own sex life? And so that's why I wrote the book.

Like okay, listen, I have so many friends living with HIV but everyone's afraid to talk about it. So, I think that storytelling has definitely helped my career in the sense that I'm not afraid to share how I became HIV positive, my life before and post diagnosis. Especially in the south where they don't have as many resources as I have living in Brooklyn. You know, my healthcare looks completely different than another black gay man's health, and the way in which he engages his doctors in the south. And so, I wanted to not make an umbrella statement but just let everyone know that you could be in the south, you could be on the west coast or the east coast and we're all living with this disease. You may not be as vocal as I am about it, but you can talk about it and here's the language to help you talk about it.

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, so this is your way of breaking through the stigma is to be really open and genuine about your situation. And it sounds like people can go ahead and identify with you, but it also does seem like you've made a tremendous step forward in your own life because one of the things that I saw in your book was a couple of concepts that I really, that stuck out at me that I was looking forward to talking to you about. 

One was the difference between living with HIV rather than being HIV positive. And then the second thing which I thought was related was finding happiness. Like at the end of one of the chapters you go, "I am happy, okay?" And happiness is a very complex concept, right? But there is a possibility of finding happiness in a wide variety of situations. There isn't just one way to be happy. 

Can you kind of share some of your wisdom in this area? Because I think that a lot of people are trying to look for that opportunity to still be happy, even facing challenges as huge as living with HIV.

Guy Anthony: Even with that because I feel like when you say, "I am HIV positive," you put yourself in a box. And when I say that I have HIV, I'm also dark-skinned, I also am an actor, I'm also all these other things besides HIV status. And I think sometimes people get so caught up in that status because to them, it is the end-all to their life. 

And what I understood the most is that I truly began to live after my diagnosis, which is quite interesting because before, a little bit more about my background, I don't mind, I was a drug addict living in L.A. when I was diagnosed. I had been sexually assaulted when I was living in Philadelphia. That is how I seroconverted. So, you know, it wasn't as if I was promiscuous and having lots of sex. I was actually sexually assaulted. 

And so, when you think about the stigma, it's really not the HIV, it's around the sex part. And I'm like, "Okay, so what if I was sexually assaulted? Do you still feel that way about HIV now?" Because this wasn't something that I could control. And even if you could control it and you had sex and you seroconverted in that way, so what? There shouldn't be any stigma around it anyway. 

Jeff Galvin: You're absolutely right. I mean, it's not so much how you think about HIV, but how do you think about the person that happens to have HIV and what does that mean? That is the stigma, right? You know, because there is this presumption, right, that immediate presumption that 'oh, well, if they have HIV, they must be gay.' Well, that is absolutely false. Okay, I talked to lots of people who are straight that have HIV. 

Guy Anthony: Essentially, that's the way the media has portrayed it. Right? Because, you know, even when I was younger, I didn't know what HIV was per se, but I just knew it was a gay disease.

Jeff Galvin: Right, right. Yes, it's almost like they only talk about it together, right? 

Guy Anthony: They only talk about it in that regard. And then it's you know, and even if you know growing up in Detroit, you know, as a gay man, as I got older, I was just like 'oh my god, I'm gonna get HIV' because that was almost expected of me being gay, you know? Especially in a...I remember growing up like I said in church and our pastor would preach about homosexuality and the result of being gay would be HIV. So, he always put the fear of God in me that I would contract HIV without me even understanding my sexuality at that time.

So like what I what I try to do is...I'm a rapper, I'm an artist, I write, I'm an advocate, I'm a son, I'm a brother, I'm all those things wrapped up in one. HIV is just part of my story and I make it a point to let people know that everything that you wanted to do before your diagnosis, you can still do. And so to go back about the way that I started to live after diagnosis, I was going down a very dark path and I did not see myself making it to 25 years old. I really did not because I was dealing with so much depression. 

You know, I didn't know at that time, but it was depression. I have bipolar disorder and I take medication for it. So, that's also something else, right? And so I knew that I had been depressed because of the molestation as a child and then the rape at 19. I just knew. And I self-medicated with the drugs and I just did not see myself living. And then one day, you know, I go get tested and it came back positive. I remember, the tester was just like 'you have no emotion', like, you know, there were no tears. I knew it because I felt like I had been told my whole life because I was a gay man that I would get HIV. So to me, it was just like 'okay, just another thing.'

And so, you know, for a while, I had a near-death experience while living in L.A. and I had to go back home. And that's the moment I was like 'I'm not going to allow HIV to take me out. I'm not going to allow anything to take me out, period.' And so that's when I got into care, because I met a man in Atlanta and I was underinsured, just underweight, all these types of things. And I remember googling and researching HIV/AIDS organizations, you know, in my area, and I found this center, this drop-in center. And it was the first time that I had seen other black gay men talk about HIV in such a way that it wasn't a death sentence. And I was like 'okay, so there are people actually living whole lives with HIV.'

And I remember my mentor at the time. I was struggling with, you know, coming out, disclosing my own status, and he told me, he says, "Guy, if we don't tell our own stories, then our stories die with us, or people are left to determine the story about us." And at that moment, it clicked. I got to tell my story, yeah, and that's how Positively Beautiful, you know, was born because I decided that I don't want anybody telling my story but me.

Jeff Galvin: Right. 

Guy Anthony: And it is not the end of my story, me being, you know, HIV positive. In so many ways, my career took off after, you know, sitting in that truth. But I do understand that everybody's trajectory in life is not to disclose their status or be as public as I am, but that's my way of, you know, getting myself out of depression, getting myself out of the mind frame that I was going to die from this disease. Like no, I am going to live, and I'm going to help other people live too. 

Jeff Galvin: I mean, that's just absolutely fascinating. It seems like facing your greatest fear sort of realizing your greatest fear made you kind of re-look at your entire life and decide to start living it, right?

Guy Anthony: Yes.

Jeff Galvin: You were, you know, it seems like you kind of, that was a moment, a turning point where you decided you're going to take charge of your life, and then it looks like you got a little bit of luck there, like you ran into somebody that was a good mentor, right? Which is critically important, and that's another thing that you're doing here with all of your openness, with all of telling your truth, you're spreading a lot of the things that you learned from that part of your journey, and this could be something that could, you know, give somebody a new perspective, and they could grab onto their life and be more than just HIV positive. They could be living with HIV, and that could just be part of their life, and the rest of their life could be happy and fulfilling, and they could be directing their own life. 

Guy Anthony: Absolutely.

Jeff Galvin: What a fantastic way to look at it. Can you share with me a little bit of, you know, what is the day-to-day experience living with HIV? What are the extra things that have to be incorporated in your life or the things that come along with HIV that you just have to deal with, that are the things that you have to kind of set aside and then, add in everything else that is fulfilling in your life?

Guy Anthony: Well, I have two, I guess I have two, you know, um, two starting points. One, being newly diagnosed was different for my day-to-day, and now I'm 17 years positive, so the only time I remember that I have HIV is when I take my meds at night. 

Jeff Galvin: Got it, okay, so once once a day, you get reminded, and is that just one, one pill?

Guy Anthony: One pill a day, and that is mind-boggling to me because, yeah, and I owe it to my ancestors who had to take upwards to 30 pills a day in 1986, the year I was born, right? And all I have to take is one. 

Jeff Galvin: Even the people that were taking 36 pills, most of them died from HIV, and now you take one, and your expectation is a normal lifespan.

And now with cabenuva, bi-monthly I can take an injectable, so six times a year, I can get injections, right? And so, you know, that's just mind-blowing that my ancestors had to, you know, do so much and fight for us. So, the ACT UP people, even some--yeah, some, you know, some people in my life--Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill--who are my ancestors who died before, you know, recognizing that they could live, because they didn't have the opportunity to. And so, if I just have to take one pill a day, it's worth it, because they put in so much work for me to get that one pill.

But when I was newly diagnosed, it was such a burden because, you know, I did not have my own place, so I was living with people. I was underinsured, and so the stigma there was, okay, now I have to take this medication. Where do I even store my medication? 

When you're living with someone and you have to disclose your status, you're kind of at the mercy of other people being in the room or being at home. So you have to sneak off and take medication or you just bypass taking medication altogether. 

Yes, these are real things that are happening with people, and that's why I always say, you know what we're lacking at across the board is the wrap-around services that people living with HIV deserve.

So now I'm newly diagnosed, you know, I have ADAPT. You connected me to the resource, but now okay, I live with my mom. I don't want her to know I have HIV. You know, where do I store my medication? What about my food insecurities? Do I have enough food to take my medications with? There are so many things that a lot of people are dealing with that I don't have to deal with because I like to say I got a little lucky. I moved to a place like DC where pretty much everyone is insured, right? And then I moved to a place like New York where the moment you test positive in New York, you are guaranteed a housing voucher, and you get a Metro Pass, and you get food stamps.

Jeff Galvin: Right.

Guy Anthony: Those wrap-around services. But I have to be cognizant that someone in Mississippi, a black gay man or anyone living with HIV in Mississippi, they're not gonna get a housing voucher. They're not gonna get available access to the doctors to and fro. Like, how am I supposed to get to my visits? 

So these are so many things that a lot of people like me are really dealing with, and it takes people like me that only think about it one time a day to advocate for them.

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, I think it is neat that you call back to those activists of the '80s because if they hadn't gotten the attention that they received by forcing themselves on politicians and leaders and things like that, they could have taken twice as long to develop what we have today, right? 

Guy Anthony: And so my offering is to advocate for--you know, I work in corporate America. I work with pharmaceutical companies, and oftentimes, I'm the only Black man at the table, and then I'm the only Black man with HIV at the table. So there are so many people making decisions about my life without my input.

Jeff Galvin: And the lives of people like you, right? But one of the things that you said in your book is that three percent of gay Black men become infected. If that's the case, if you look at the general population of the United States and the rate of HIV infection, that is huge. That's huge.

So how could you not be represented in all of the thinking? That's a market by itself.

Guy Anthony: And that's why I wrote the book. I wrote the book for that reason alone. I wanted people to see themselves, and I did not want to focus on the morbidity of living with HIV. I wanted to focus on the vitality of life once I'm diagnosed. 

So if you notice, I took time and made the typography in the book beautiful, the cover is beautiful, it's hidden gems, there are little pills, there's a heart in there, there's a man pushing to the earth, you know, trying to get out of his situation and see the light. I made sure that I styled the guys right, I took great pictures, I wanted people to see themselves in this book and not go, "Okay, this is somebody else just preaching to us to get us to take medication." No, that's just half of the battle. 

Like, I need you to see yourself represented in this little book because it's only a couple of pages, but that book has gotten me to interview with you today, so it's not just a little book.

Jeff Galvin: You’ve done so much more than just the book. 

Guy Anthony: That started it off. Like people, I would have not gotten a job. 

Jeff Galvin: That was your work of art that actually sort of brought people to the table. That's amazing.

Yeah, and it is a work of art. I mean, I think what you're talking about in terms of the thought that went into the cover graphic and the way that you presented the folks in that book, of course, they are, I'm not gay myself, but I recognize that those guys are incredibly attractive guys living with HIV, right? Yeah, and you did, you made them look beautiful. You made them look like they were living a life through those pictures, and then you let them tell their own story and write… 

I love that thing where they write letters to their old selves, right? And you see that they made a transition from young to old, and that advice actually is probably good for that person in Mississippi who's, you know, 12 years old or 15 years old and realizes that they're different, and feels like they're really alone. And they read that book, and they realize, okay, you know, this is a journey that is actually been, it's been traveled by many people before, and that might give them the strength or the motivation to maybe find some of those support groups and take charge of their life even earlier than you got to. 

I mean, here you are, this incredible success story, and the only thing that would have made it better is if it had happened at 17, right? Where you take care, take charge of your life, and maybe without HIV, right? Yes, I mean, now HIV was a trigger for you, and it's really great that you can put it in that positive light, but being gay in America is still not simple, is it? Yeah, you know, they need heroes, they need role models, they need to know that they're not alone. And then, you add HIV on top of that, and it's like another reason to be in the closet, another thing that you can't admit to people around you. 

I was just blown away that you've admitted it to everybody. I mean, that's so brave, but also, you move to a location where you can live a normal life, because of course in the New York area, this is just a thing, right? Yeah, nobody cares. It's like DC, right? 

Guy Anthony: Yeah.

Jeff Galvin: But even in those places, right, it's cool that New York has got this attitude that, well, look, if you've got HIV, then we need to make sure that you can get to your doctor's appointment so that you're not a potential spreader of HIV, that you're getting good medication because maybe everybody doesn't know this, but you taking your pill every day, you are what is called "well-controlled suppressed," you are uninfectious. 

Guy Anthony: Yes.

Jeff Galvin: That's like you're no different than somebody who doesn't have HIV in terms of the level of threat to people around you. You have nothing that is contagious. 

So, you know, that is something that New York says, "Hey, that's worth an investment in. Let's give him a housing voucher, let's give him a metro pass, let's make sure he makes it to his doctor's appointment, gets his medication." Now, you were motivated to do that on your own. There are a lot of people that are living with that despair, that depression, right? And I've talked to some of them too, I've talked to people that were suicidal. It just blew my mind, right? They felt like they had nothing to look forward to. 

Once again, something critical about your story that everybody needs to hear is that there is a reason to go on, there is a life after HIV, and hopefully it'll just get better and better, right? 

Guy Anthony: And I don't want people to assume that, okay, because I'm so open, so transparent, that I don't have my down days, that I don't get dark. I remember one time I met someone, I liked them, and we went on a date, and for the first time in a very long time, I was a little nervous, nervous about disclosing, and I'm like, you know, because this person didn't know me, he didn't know my story, he didn't know I wrote a book, we were just meeting as two people, connecting.

Jeff Galvin: Right.

Guy Anthony:  And then after I disclosed, his face changed, and he made the statement that, you know, "Oh, I was dirty." 

Jeff Galvin: Oh my god.

Guy Anthony: He was like, "Holy day, clean people." Now, I take three showers a day, I'm the cleanest person in the world. I mean, but at that moment, as far as I am along in my activism and my advocacy and my "tell the world that I'm positive," that hurt me, that broke my heart. 

Jeff Galvin: How could it not hurt you? We all want to be liked, right? Don't we all want to be accepted? Don't we all want to be loved for what we are, right? And we try our best, and then, you know, somebody tosses something like that at us that, yeah, really, it's just a prejudice, it's kind of ignorance in a way.

Guy Anthony: Yes.

Jeff Galvin: I mean, to associate it with not being clean, I mean, that's just totally the wrong word.

Guy Anthony: If you do a quick search. I did this before this call of HIV on Twitter, under trending, you'll see so many disparaging things about people living with, so many jokes about us. Or go on Instagram and you search HIV and you look and see what people are saying about us.

As much as we want to believe people have evolved and they don't stigmatize people living with HIV, they still do, and right now it's even more present because we get to see it on social media. And so, luckily, that doesn't bother me anymore, but imagine someone newly diagnosed without the resources, without the courage that I have. This could deter them from even getting into care because they don't want people to know. And so, you know, that is why it's important that I can consistently stay in front of the media and show them like you can live a full life and talk to, you know, talk about my drug abuse, talk about the molestation, talk about the rape, because a lot of people are going through that too, but they don't have the language. And so, I'm hoping that I'm giving them some sort of language to articulate their feelings and get the help that they need. But it's really difficult with this generation because we all live on our phones.

Imagine seeing HIV, dirty, clean, unclean, on social media. Like, that is hard. It's really heartbreaking. 

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, we're seeing that in so many different areas of young people's lives and how social media and everybody's addiction to it and the fact that people can now anonymously snipe at others through social media with anonymity, and you know that it's this is a natural thing like when you go to the playground, the little kids, they feel better about themselves if they can put other people down. And I don't think that adults outgrow that in all cases, right? Sometimes, you know, the reason that they lash out at a vulnerable community or they go ahead and embrace these prejudices is just because of their own fears, their own insecurities, their own kind of lack of self-esteem. And so, you know, they go, well, you know, if everybody around me is, you know, down a notch, that that makes them feel better.

That's really interesting. And so another part of what I'm hearing in your message is like, hey, don't be Guy Anthony, take Guy Anthony's, you know, sort of vocabulary, his language, his knowledge, his experience, and utilize it in your life to grab your life and do what's right for you, right? Because you haven't said a number of times here, hey, I'm not saying everybody should be out loud about this, you know, and just reveal their status all over the place. Now, you did that and that worked for you, but what you're saying is that, you know, they should have the knowledge through which they can select a path forward that will give them the greatest opportunity for what and what's the big theme in the book? Happiness.

Guy Anthony: Happiness. Affirmations. And I'm an artist, so the book was a form of, you know, an extension of my art. I released a rap album where I talk about drug addiction and I talk about being raped and HIV. That's another part of my art. Me advocating on Capitol Hill for expansion and Medicaid for ADAPT. That's another part of my art. 

And I often say, you know, art saved my life in ways that a doctor couldn't, because I was just another number sometimes to these people. Right? I get 15 minutes with the doctor. Cool. You take your meds. Cool. But no one is really, you know, looking at the whole person. I'm just sort of a line item on a grant, and I don't like that. 

And so I was empowered enough to create art that resonates with people, and I think that that is something that kind of differentiates me from other activists or advocates. It's because I'm putting all of my true feelings and my art, and people love art. That resonates with everyone. 

So, I wrote a script recently called "Pausing NYC" about dating with HIV in New York. That's another form of my art, so I'm showing people in different ways that you don't necessarily just have to get on a microphone, do a pharmaceutical  campaign. You can create art and let that be an extension of your activism, and you don't necessarily have to say it, you know, straight ahead.

Jeff Galvin: So yeah, I think that you know experience can cause deep feelings, and having deep feelings sort of begs for an outlet. Some people are lucky enough to find their art, because I think that art is all about not just telling something in a factual way, but telling something in an emotional way as well. And I think that's why that has so much appeal to people, because you're touching not just their minds with logic but their hearts with emotion. And when you tell your truth with authenticity, one of the things that I find is it cuts right through to the heart.

Guy Anthony: Absolutely.

Jeff Galvin: And it gives the head a reason to listen. And so it's the second type of art that you're doing, Guy, which is evangelism. You called it. Like evangelism has kind of a dirty word down in the South because it's probably all anti-gay and has all this stigma and stuff like that. But evangelism, to me, is about just telling your truth from the heart. And in this interview, and in everything that I've seen you do, and in the book, especially, I really thought that came through.

So there are two forms of art there that I think are really valuable and an opportunity for people to connect with you and really benefit from all the things that you had the courage and the strength to figure out and to deploy in your life and to get to such a great place.

I gotta say, I felt like I knew you before I even met you because I've seen you so much on TV. And then having read your book and seeing some of your other interviews, especially the HHS one, I thought that was really tight, a few minutes that everybody should watch. 

And I also want to say that everybody in the world should read your book. It shouldn't be confined to people that have HIV or people that are gay, no. It should be for everybody to go ahead and exercise the most important human emotion and attribute that we have, and that is empathy with other people. This is your chance, if you are like a straight, white guy, to go ahead and walk a mile in somebody else's shoes. And one of the things that it might give them is a little bit more strength to handle the challenges in their life.

Guy Anthony: Absolutely.

Jeff Galvin: Because everybody looks at their worst problem, and it's their worst problem. You get a little bit of perspective, and you go, "Your worst problem ain't all that bad, buddy." Yeah, and find your happiness and find connection to other people and figure out a way to love people that are not like yourself, right? And that book just invites you to do it. So highly recommended for everybody out there.

Hey, look, this has been a great conversation. I mean, I feel bad about saying this in a way, but you're exactly what I expected. 

Guy Anthony: There you go.

Jeff Galvin: Obviously, your art is really exhibiting your soul, and your soul, it comes across when you just chat with somebody, you've got a lot to say. I want to talk with you again sometime. Let's not make this our last interview, okay? This is a great start to our relationship. You get a chance to touch somebody else's life and learn something from it. And I really appreciate you sharing with me today. 

Guy Anthony: Thank you for having me. I mean, this was maybe my easiest interview. Like, you know, it was just a conversation and I love that. Because that's what I am. I'm an activist and I like to talk from the heart. So, I appreciate you asking me questions that were about me. Most people kind of just, you know, "So this is what you've done." But no, like, there's a story behind everything that I've done. So, I really appreciate taking time out to actually read my book. Most people don't. 

Jeff Galvin: Yeah, I mean it's such an easy read and it's a quick read. It is just jam-packed with, you know, just instant value. I'm so glad you enjoyed this too. And I feel like that's what it was all about. I wanted to learn more about you and I'm glad that you've been so forthright and so open and so articulate as well. So, let's do this again real soon. Thank you again for joining us on the show. 

Guy Anthony: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you.

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