"If I help one person, to me that is a success"
How George is helping to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS
George has been touring universities and schools in the UK as part of the Student Stop AIDS Campaign speaker tour, powered by Restless Development. He hopes that every time he speaks he can encourage at least 1 young person to live a lifestyle to keep themselves HIV-negative.
As a regular teenager growing up in the US, at 16 years old George enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps through school. Three days after graduating from high school, George heads off to basic training for the US Marines. After graduating from training his mum came to pick him up and take him to university. As George was preparing to leave home, little did he know that his mum would go rummaging through his belongings and come across a series of letters. These letters, as she soon came to realise, were mostly signed B.S. or Brandon Small, who was George’s boyfriend at the time. However, to his surprise, she did not mention this until she dropped him off at university a few days later. Her last and only words to George at that time were to ‘stay safe’.
Eight months later, George received an unexpected phone call from the US Marine Commander asking him to be ready for 0700 hours that following Saturday in full dress uniform. George immediately thought that this meant he was being called on duty, meaning he would have to leave home to enter a dangerous war zone from which he may not return. However, to his surprise, when he arrived at the base, it was totally desolate and no-one else had been called in. He was told to sit on a chair in a corridor in front of a door which people kept walking in and out of. No-one was introduced to him, but George realized they were top ranking officials from the base, until he was finally called inside the room 2 hours later. Once inside, he was asked if he knew why he was there. As he did not, he was told that, as he knew, he had had blood work drawn the last time he was on base. He was told that this blood had been randomised into having a HIV test and that, unfortunately, this test had come back positive.
Stigma and discrimination
Forty-five minutes later George was snapped back into reality when the Direct Commander asked him if he was ok. His reply was ‘Yes Sir’. George was then given two options. The first was to get a stack of medical paperwork completed, but it was explained that he would only receive 30 days to do so and that the US military would not be able to support him financially. George immediately realized taking that option would mean driving nearly 700 miles back home, leaving university, and disclosing his diagnosis to his mum; something he realized would take much longer to do. The second was to change his status to ‘inactive duty’ or as the US Marines calls it, ‘for the good of the Corps’. George explains how this phrase has stuck with him as it seems like at the one point in his life when he needed the most support, his country was turning it’s back on him.
Following his diagnosis, George quickly sunk into depression. He turned to alcohol and drugs and stopped attending classes. He stopped getting out of bed, unless it was to head to the bar. Things quickly got out of control until 1 morning he decided he would not let his diagnosis determine the rest of his life, and that he needed to tell his family his HIV status. However, as his mother’s last words were ‘stay safe’, every time George thought of telling his mum, he couldn’t help thinking of how he had let her down.
He therefore decided to disclose his HIV status to his aunty, who would then help him tell his mother. George remembers how he stayed at home while his aunty took his mum out for lunch and told her everything. He couldn’t help but think of how disappointed she would be of him, and all the difficult questions she would have for him when she returned, such as how did it happen, why did it happen, who did it come from? However, to his surprise, when his mum got back, the first thing she did was embrace him, tell him everything was going to be ok, and that they would find him a doctor.
George explains that even to this date he is yet to have the conversation answering those difficult questions with his mum. George is very passionate in making sure that people realize that these questions are not important when a person is diagnosed as being HIV positive, questions are unimportant. But what is important is making sure, “that each person has access to the quality life saving treatment they deserve.”
Experiencing the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV first-hand meant that George was motivated to become an AIDS activist and peer educator. His hopes are that every time he speaks that he can encourage at least one young person to live a lifestyle to keep themselves HIV-negative; or to encourage at least one more young person that it is okay to do as he is doing. He states, “even if I help one person, to me that is a success.” George is currently actively involved in the Campaign to End AIDS (C2EA) as the National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Intersex Chair in the US.
Unite to Fight AIDS speaker tour
George has been touring universities and schools in the UK as part of the Student Stop AIDS Campaign speaker tour, powered by Restless Development. The tour brings the voices of 3 young people affected by HIV or AIDS from across the world to talk first-hand about why tackling the spread of AIDS is so essential.