Charlie Jacobs

The great question we all ask ourselves at some point is:  “Why am I here?  What is my life’s purpose?”.  I know that question well.  In August 2010 – I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the answer …

It has been 10 years since I was diagnosed as HIV positive.  A decade during which I had tried to understand what that meant, trying to fight going on ARVs, scared to make a lifetime’s commitment to the medication.  10 long years of drugs use and abuse.  A whole decade spent hanging out with my good friend “denial”.  And  there I was, August 2010, with a CD4 count of 29, 18 kgs lost (now I know why they call this disease “Slim”).  I was so sick, I thought I was going to die.  I couldn’t walk from the bedroom to the kitchen without wanting to pass out from exhaustion. I was lucky – my best friend’s mother took me in, and for three months she nursed me back to health.

Being that sick made me realise I had to make the commitment to life.  There was no more room for denial.  It was time to go onto ARV treatment, to give up my lifestyle and beloved business in Nelspruit and move back to JHB, to be with my friends.   (My family was there too – but I still couldn’t bring myself to tell them:  I was afraid of the disappointment I thought I would see in their eyes.)
As I lay in that bed I asked God to help me, to give me a purpose and He did.  His answer came through a book given to me by a friend, “The Purpose Driven Life”.  “We are all here to learn as much as we can from each other.  To use that knowledge to teach.  To give back to those that can benefit from our life experiences.”
And I had many of those …
2002 was a perfect storm of bad timing.  I was 20, I had just lost my best friend, my mother, in a tragic accident and my first gay relationship of three years had come to an end.  Still young and very naïve, I went out and had unprotected sex with a good friend, thinking: “HIV is something that only happens to other people”.
A few months later a work colleague came to me in tears.  She told me that she had unprotected sex with someone she hardly knew, completely out of character for her.  She asked me if I would go with her to be tested as she was scared to go on her own.   I had only ever been in a monogamous relationship, and had the short fling with my good friend – so I knew I had nothing to worry about.  I agreed and off we went.   We were thrilled when her result came back negative and shocked beyond belief that mine came back positive.
I can’t find words to describe the thoughts, the emotions that ran through my mind, my heart and my soul.  I was depressed and confused, broken into pieces that took me nearly ten years to pick up and put together again.
The first person I confided in was my best friend Victoria and she has supported me throughout my journey.  I also told my last sex-partner (fling I had after my 3 year relationship), he also got tested, he tested positive.  It’s so strange how these things happen; if I hadn’t gone with my colleague to be tested, I could have spent years without knowing.  I think I was lucky to have found out about my status as soon as I did.
At the time “the good news” (as the doctor described it) was that my CD4 count was 550.  My viral load was high and ARV treatment wasn’t necessary yet.  I was relieved but still had so many questions.  Most importantly:  “would I still be able to have my own kids one day?”   Even as a gay man, I always wanted to have children.  After doing research I discovered that with careful management and a doctor’s involvement; becoming a dad was still possible.
Another worry on my mind:  “would I ever be able to have another relationship?”  The first romantic partner (post diagnosis) I told,  accepted me.  So I grabbed the opportunity and we stayed together for four years.  Now that I look back – the relationship probably should have only lasted a year – but I held on for dear life.  The mere thought of ever having to tell someone my status again was terrifying. I didn’t believe that anyone else would ever accept me that way.   Regardless of how horrible things were between us, and how badly we treated each other, I was going to make it work.
But it did end  – I believe my partner did me a favour by breaking up our relationship!  I realised it was time for self discovery, time for me to heal outside of a relationship.  I was determined not to be afraid.  Disclosure is never easy …  not for anyone.  When is the right time to tell someone?   We all want romance.  Should you tell the person on the first date?  The second?  Or should you let them know you first before breaking the news?   Knowing what I know now – I would say you should speak out, tell them, wear a t-shirt!
Was I rejected? Oh yes!  Was I judged?  Indeed I was.  Did they walk away? Yes, numerous times.   But somehow this only made me stronger.
Those who run for the hills….let them get a good work out.  I tell them to run as far and as fast as they can.  Those who judge …let them go play that game on their own.  Those who don’t accept you, need to go and accept themselves first.  They are obviously not ready to get to know the incredible person you are.
Being HIV positive also influenced me professionally.  I was denied the opportunity to work as a photographer on a cruise liner because of my status.  Working in Dubai wasn’t an option any longer.  At one point I felt all the doors in my life were being slammed shut.  I had thought coming out of the homosexual closet was hard, but coming out of the “HIV closet” was much more challenging.
As time passed I never seemed to meet anyone else who was living with HIV.  Or at least who was open about their status.  I just couldn’t understand it.  Were people just not being honest?  Or were they not getting tested?  I had a great support system in place, people to confide in and talk to.  Yet I still felt alone.
Today I know that HIV lives and grows off fear.  The fear of rejection, the fear of not being accepted, the fear of not living a long healthy life, of not achieving dreams.  So people stay silent.  I want to stop feeding this Virus with fear … I want people to start feeding HIV with “HOPE” instead.
Then, on my 30th birthday in 2011, I received a surprising facebook message from a stranger saying that I should enter Mr. Gay South Africa 2011.  He was one of the organisers that scouted for people and he thought I had potential.  As I researched the competition, I realised that it wasn’t just another beauty pageant.  Mr GSA was looking for an ambassador to champion the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Intersex) community.  This was the opportunity for me to be a spokesperson to speak on behalf of those who often didn’t have a voice.
I saw then that this was an opportunity for me to go public with my HIV Status.  It was time to end my secrecy – to tell my family. Keeping this secret from them was making me sick, it was time to tell the truth.
So I did.  And the response from my father has been non-existent.  Nothing at all.  Almost like I didn’t say a word.  More denial!  But I was determined to move forward and after a nation-wide selection process I became one of Mr Gay SA’s top 15 finalists. The first ever finalist openly living with HIV.
I spent a lot of time during my campaign working with my status, creating awareness, trying to reach out to people who were still silent.  I knew I was on the right path.  I might not have won the title of Mr.GSA 2011, but I feel like I did.  This great competition opened up so many doors for me, taught me so much about myself and introduced me to incredible people.
One of them was an inspirational speaker called Shane Everts.  He knew of an organisation called Positive Heroes that he thought shared my goals.  During Mr GSA you have to nominate someone you consider to be a personal gay role model.  For me, it is Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron, who I didn’t know then, is the Patron of Positive Heroes.  It was meant to be!  He introduced me to the team and another Hero was born.
I never wanted to give up.  Yes! This was a bad thing that happened to me, but through it all I learned to know HIV well: how it affects a person emotionally, physically, mentally and most of all spiritually.  The competition taught me a lot about being pro-active and so I approached institutes offering courses in Life Coaching.  And I was blessed when New Insights Africa offered to sponsor my studies.   I plan to specialise in coaching people living with HIV.  Helping them to shorten the journey from Denial to Acceptance.  Working with them to reach their full potential without letting HIV get in their way.
Now, my goal now is to strive, seek and find more Positive Heroes and not to yield. I know today that testing positive was not the end, but only the beginning of a bigger journey and chapter of my life. Being positive is now the most positive thing in my life.