In this episode, Malachi and Tei found a unicorn: Larry Bryant, a straight Black man *willing to talk about his HIV diagnosis and experience.* Truly, a unicorn. But that’s not the only magic in this episode. We got our second tissue box out for some happy cries when continuing the convo about the power of supportive and loving families. But! We’re also snapping along when the convo got real about how toxic masculinity informs HIV stigma. It’s a must-listen, sit down and settle in!
Larry Bryant: ... and the more we can just feel our own self-confidence and acknowledge who we are, the less we're worried about taking down others.
Tei Pearson-Hall: What's up, folks? My name is Tei Pearson, and I want to welcome you back to another great episode of Positive Voices. Today, I have a fellow unicorn sitting with myself and my co-host-
Malachi Stewart: Malachi Stewart.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yes. And so, let me just bring on our guest, so that he can tell you why he's a unicorn and why it is important for us to talk about straight, Black men, as it relates to HIV and AIDS. So how are you doing today?
Larry Bryant: I'm doing well.
Tei Pearson-Hall: So who are you, because folks is like, "Well, who is this person? Why are they a unicorn?"
Larry Bryant: Why am I unicorn?
Tei Pearson-Hall: Right, because I'm a unicorn, too. I loves it.
Larry Bryant: My name is Larry Bryant, I'm a native Washingtonian. I think one of the reasons why I'm considered a unicorn is being a straight, heterosexual male, living with HIV for over 37 years.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yes. Can I snap for the 37 years?
Malachi Stewart: Yes. You an OG in the game.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Right, right?
Larry Bryant: Well, yeah.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: Listen, Larry. Larry, Larry, Larry. It has been so hard, so if I could just be transparent with our audience for a second.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Right. Please do.
Malachi Stewart: Y'all, we're going to be transparent, kind of going behind... is it the third wall? The fourth wall?
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yeah.
Malachi Stewart: To let you know that we were trying to book an episode, and we really tried this season to be so inclusive of what HIV looks like for all people. And so, in trying to book an episode, we wanted the perspective of a straight, Black male. Finding a straight, Black male who was willing to talk about their status on camera, we have tried everything. I mean, we were offering people to shoot over the shoulder, so that we didn't see them. We were offering to black people out, to do voice distortions, to sign NDAs, to clear the set.
We tried so many methods, and we could not find anyway, and then we found Larry. Then our producers saw your article with POZ magazine, and you just fell out of the sky. What has your experience been? Do you often feel like you're the only person? Because that's what we mean by you being a unicorn. Not just that you're-
Tei Pearson-Hall: Rare.
Malachi Stewart: ... living with HIV as a straight man, but that you're willing to talk about the experience. Have you felt like a unicorn?
Larry Bryant: Not really, I mean, because I know other men, other heterosexual men who are living with HIV, who just don't feel comfortable being as public as everyone else would like them to be, as I would like them to be, and that says a lot about the stigma, the fear, and just the pressure that exists, not just around HIV, but just the pressure that exists particularly for Black men to represent a certain standard, if you will. And a lot of men feel self-conscious about being presented in that way, certainly with flaws that are reported to come with Black men and just being a Black man in America today, but now add HIV to that and that is all of a sudden another thing that we feel challenged by or boxed in by.
Tei Pearson-Hall: So can I ask you a question about that? So with your statement, what do you think, rather, would be a movement forward within the Black, male straight community, to be able to say, "Yes, I'm positive, but my life still continues to go on," and kind of that whole thing?
Larry Bryant: I mean, that's going to be different for any man, that threshold, how you define safe and the difference between safe and being vulnerable.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Vulnerable, yeah.
Larry Bryant: For me, it was just about, first, when I was diagnosed, it was in an environment of, even before the term HIV-positive existed, I was diagnosed with the virus that causes AIDS. And he doctor that diagnosed me told me I was going to die, and he even gave me a year.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Wow.
Larry Bryant: So that was one thing, that's one kind of trauma to kind of suffer or survive through in order to regain balance, to be able to find that. Yes.
Tei Pearson-Hall: And so, with that, I'm sorry to interrupt, but so with the move forward is it the status, getting the positive status is the part that's grabbing hold or the stigma of it, in that statement you just made?
Larry Bryant: The status is first, because the status is absorbed internally. I knew about my status five years before anyone else did, and I already felt like I was dying. But living as a Black man in America, the framework, the definition of safe and secure is fractured long before HIV even enters the picture.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Gotcha. Okay.
Larry Bryant: So yes, in fact, I said this a few years ago, we could find a cure for HIV, we could find a pill, a dose of something that could eliminate the virus today, and I and millions of people living with HIV around the world would then be HIV-negative. But then, as a black man, I'm still walking, jumping over those cracks that exist in the culture. But again, particularly in this country, that seek to kind of just take little pieces of me away from my soul, away from my being, so there's a lot that exists long before HIV, but then even with HIV, it just makes finding that balance, finding that safe safe, that much more difficult.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Wow.
Larry Bryant: And the response, the stigma, the ignorance that you get from community members, from just people who don't know what they're talking about, and a lot from political leaders, from leaders and decision makers who make decisions that deplete resources, that take away-
Tei Pearson-Hall: [inaudible 00:06:13]
Larry Bryant: ... interventions in those communities. So it's all of that, but then it's surviving oneself, being able to identify who I am, and then learning how to take those steps going forward.
Malachi Stewart: And that's definitely relatable, even to myself, being a gay, Black man, the Black man part, when you live in a society where there is so much stigma that Black men face, you could cure HIV, but if only we could cure stigma. But I heard you talking about it, and I want to back up a little bit, because you dropped some gems about when you were diagnosed. Take us back, what year was it? What were the circumstances surrounding it? Tell us about the moment when you found out, what you know about your seroconversion. Share a little.
Larry Bryant: Okay, wow. So as a freshman in college, can I say what school I went to? I'm going to say what school I went to. I went to Norfolk State University.
Malachi Stewart: Rep your set. Let them know.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Hello, hello.
Larry Bryant: I went there on a football scholarship. I graduated from, formerly known as T.C. Williams, across the river in Alexandria. I was All-American football player in high school. I had just completed my first year in college, was also a Black college All-American then, as a freshman. I had, at least in my mind, I had chances of going pro, at least goals of going pro. I was being followed by agents and others, at the time.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Oh, yeah. You was about to be all the way NFL.
Larry Bryant: I hoped. And then, I think during spring, during off-season, a lot of my friends and teammates, we would do different things around the community, as a football player, just to kind of be a part of the community events, so volunteer at a youth center, not across the street, but in the neighborhood or donating blood at the blood bank in downtown Norfolk. I went to donate and had some trouble, didn't drink enough water, and it so it was just kind of a challenge to get any blood.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Dehydration, yeah.
Larry Bryant: So I donated, and no one said anything, and when I came back, I don't know, a month later, whenever, and of course, again, as a broke college student, donating blood on the weekends, getting $15, $20 was like, "Cha-ching."
Tei Pearson-Hall: Oh, yeah. That's that Walmart money.
Larry Bryant: That's right. Well, for us, it was like 7-Eleven beer and nachos.
Malachi Stewart: You could buy a lot of noodles with $15.
Tei Pearson-Hall: A couple six-packs, too.
Larry Bryant: Oh, yeah. So we went back the next time and all my friends went in and the nurse said, "No, you can't go in. The doctor wants to talk to you before you go in."
Tei Pearson-Hall: To you?
Larry Bryant: To me, to just me. So I'm sitting in the lobby, and this was weird back in the '80s, '86, this is the year-
Malachi Stewart: '86.
Larry Bryant: ... between my freshman and sophomore year. So the blood back was weird, because, the Red Cross, you go in, it's like a storefront on the street, you walk in, and immediately in the door, there's a bunch of chairs where you sit, like the waiting room. And then, there's a big array of files, I guess, where everyone puts their files. And then, behind that, is where everyone sits, the receptionist and everything.
So it was so weird, I mean, in retrospect that everything confidential is sitting there between the waiting room, so that's just the environment of '86. So a doctor eventually comes out, and he says, "Mr. Bryant, come on back." And then, I remember walking in, and I didn't think about it until later, but it was a tight squeeze. He exaggerated, like he did not want to touch me.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Wow.
Larry Bryant: Again, I didn't think about it, I just thought, "It's small," but it wasn't that tight. But he kind of exaggerated and went back. And then, I went in and sat down and I was about 10, maybe 15 feet from his desk and there was a lamp over him and I felt like there was a light over me, so it felt like that scene from The Godfather, when the guy is going in and asking... Yeah, like on-
Malachi Stewart: You were like, "Am I about to be interrogated or..."
Tei Pearson-Hall: Interrogated, right.
Larry Bryant: Yes or worse. And he basically said, at least what I remember, vividly, was two or three things he wanted me to know. One was the donation I gave last time tested positive for the antibodies that causes HIV, so it was before the term HIV-positive existed. And he kept saying some other terms, but basically that my white blood cell, my T-cell count, all measure in a way that, based on his measurements, I had about eight or nine years to live.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Wow.
Larry Bryant: Because it's common knowledge, at that point, I remember people, or later, like Melvin Lindsey from WHUR, deejay, and others, you would see them, they would disappear, and then all of a sudden you see them in the paper, lost 100 pounds and weeks from death. And that image was in my head. And then, of course, the last thing he wanted me to know was I could not come back to donate blood again. He gave me a pamphlet and said, "Okay. Peace out."
I went and sat back in the lobby and I just waited for everyone to come back, and I didn't know what to say, other than kind of go back to that first time, well, I was dehydrated the first time, I made up something weird like, "The nurse said, 'It'll probably be a good idea if you didn't donate blood today, for that reason." And that's pretty much what I said, and I left and didn't talk about it again. And then, it was like another five years before I did finally tell my mom.
Malachi Stewart: What was that like? How did that conversation go?
Larry Bryant: Phew. So over the five years, it kind of built up to a point, first of all, I left school after that. I played another season, kind of halfway played through another season, I started to fail out of classes, my mind was elsewhere, so to speak. But I couldn't tell anyone, and then rumors would come around and the girl I was dating at the time, I just basically kind of pulled back, and I didn't tell her why, and of course people were getting mad at me, and all kinds of rumors were happening, just swirling like, "What's wrong with Larry?"
And then, eventually, after a while, I left school. I attempted suicide twice while off campus. The second time landed me in the hospital, for like a week, and then I realized I needed to get out of Norfolk, so I went back home, and I just tried to figure out what I was going to do. My family just asked, "Wait, wait. You're about to go pro. You're playing football. What's going on?" No one really asked me, but I guess they figured I'd talk about it at some point. And I did a, I guess my last shot was like, "You know, I could join the military, and that way have free healthcare."
Tei Pearson-Hall: Medical treatment. Yep, yep.
Larry Bryant: I could just work through it, and I already got some college credits, so I can kind of go a little bit ahead of the line, as far as-
Tei Pearson-Hall: Come in as-
Larry Bryant: ... what class.
Tei Pearson-Hall: ... an officer.
Larry Bryant: Officer.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Get a little extra coin.
Larry Bryant: And it was around the time that the NFL Europe was starting, and I was like, "I still have a shot to play football, so I could get stationed in Germany, play for the German NFL team, and I could still play." I was just trying to do these acrobatics in my brain, and I went, and it was the Marines. And I remember, and I said this earlier, so I'm the oldest, I'm a junior, and my dad's in the Air Force and everyone used to ask me, all my aunts and grandparents used to ask, "So you're going to-
Tei Pearson-Hall: Join the Air Force.
Larry Bryant: ... follow in your dad's footsteps and go into the military?"
Malachi Stewart: Legacy.
Larry Bryant: I was like, "No, no. I don't want to," because I couldn't see myself carrying a gun, joining the military, it just wasn't on my list of things to do.
Tei Pearson-Hall: I'm an Army vet, too, so I get it.
Larry Bryant: Yeah.
Tei Pearson-Hall: The free stuff was what brings you in.
Larry Bryant: The free stuff, the travel.
Tei Pearson-Hall: And I was stationed in Germany, so when you just said you wanted to play over there, I was like, "Ooh, that would've been cute."
Larry Bryant: Maybe, yes. So-
Tei Pearson-Hall: So you go to join.
Larry Bryant: Well, I'm hunted by recruiters, because this was a little bit before Desert Storm, and so I was going to school in Norfolk and then I come back home, so I'm always around recruiters. And then, one day I was like, "Okay." The guy recruiting for Marines gives me the best sale job, I could be in special forces, blah, blah, blah. Just kind of giving me the-
Tei Pearson-Hall: Mm-hmm, the recruitment talk.
Larry Bryant: It's similar to what coaches were doing for a scholarship, trying to get me to go to their college. So I kind of took the best deal, so to speak. And I remember going, I even took the oath, did everything-
Tei Pearson-Hall: Oh, and got-
Larry Bryant: ... answered all the questions-
Tei Pearson-Hall: ... sworn in and everything?
Larry Bryant: ... took the oath. All that.
Malachi Stewart: Oh, so you was ready?
Tei Pearson-Hall: You was in there.
Malachi Stewart: Yeah, you was in there. You was ready.
Tei Pearson-Hall: You almost had a rucksack.
Larry Bryant: I thought. And then, that was the first year or the first time, it was during the year, this was '90, '91 now, where they started testing the-
Tei Pearson-Hall: The blood?
Larry Bryant: For HIV.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Wow.
Larry Bryant: So when they injected the needle, I was like, "Oh, here we go." And even then, I was like, "Well, maybe it won't show up. Maybe I'll get through this."
Malachi Stewart: You got to be hopeful, maybe you won't.
Larry Bryant: Hopeful, delusional. Yes.
Malachi Stewart: Yeah, it's a thin line.
Larry Bryant: It's a reality that's somewhere in between.
Tei Pearson-Hall: And it's the military, so they could've really been behind on technology a little bit.
Larry Bryant: That's true.
Tei Pearson-Hall: See, that would [inaudible 00:16:40].
Larry Bryant: I had hopes, delusional hopes.
Malachi Stewart: No shade to the military, though.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Right. Army strong.
Larry Bryant: Yeah, so I just waited and, by the end of the day, that's when they knew or I think it was maybe a couple of days later, they knew. The recruiter who was going to get a pretty big, I guess, commission from me, I wasn't sure if he was upset to give me the news or he was upset that he lost the commission.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Lost his commission. Wow.
Larry Bryant: But he gave me the letter that said I can't go, sorry, but you tested positive. And the letter kind of said everything that the first doctor said. And then, at that point, he dropped me off in front of my mom's house and at that point I felt like there's nothing I can do now. This is it. I have to face it. I have to talk about it. I can leave school, even though I have all this attention playing football, I'm in school, I'm on scholarship, I can leave, that can make sense. I can make it make sense. I can't make sense, I took the oath and now I just walked away from the Marines, so I had to tell my mom, at that point.
And that's when five years of just holding it in, of having the worst secret kept that I could ever keep in my brain, just came out. All the emotion, everything came out, and I told her what happened, told her why I left school, told her what happened at the Red Cross. And I was doing it all through tears, and I remember a moment during my talking, she was like, "Okay, you wait here." I was sitting on the couch just bawling, she's goes upstairs, I don't remember, at least I wasn't thinking, at the time, what she was doing.
But knowing her, she probably went upstairs and prayed, cried, and then she came back down and then she was just there for me. We called my dad, we called my siblings, and it's been fortunate that they have been that supportive since, I was going to say day one, but five years in, then day one, when I allowed them to know what was going on.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yeah, shout out to the family-
Malachi Stewart: Shout out.
Tei Pearson-Hall: ... and the support systems. Yes. Thank you for those.
Malachi Stewart: Yes.
Larry Bryant: Yeah. And I realize that, I mean, I've been doing this for a while and I've been living with this for a while, and I realize that's a very powerful support, that can't be underestimated, because I know a lot of friends and family who have had the opposite.
Malachi Stewart: Absolutely. I was going to say, hearing your story, you're a unicorn in more than one way, because in my experience of just working the field, a lot of times when I do have straight, male partners, especially when they're cisgender, straight, and Black, because there is so much stigma and expectation in the Black community around what it means to be masculine, what it means to be a man and what it means to be healthy, there's a fear of, to some extent, we talked about this on a different episode, I always felt like, when I told my mother, well, my mother came to the realization that I was gay, which should've been obvious always, because big gay, not the little one. Real bad.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Capital G.
Malachi Stewart: Capital G, honey. He came out twirling. But I felt like there was always an expectation or fear from my Black mama of, "This could happen." I remember even when I told my mom, it was like, "You got the virus," before I even finished the sentence. I said, "Mom, I need to tell you something." I'm looking down, and she just immediately... But I feel like, for Black men, it's because it's not expected, when you're straight, it's like, "Well, how did you contract it? Are you on drugs? Are you DL?" And so, for you to have your mother not only accept you, but then help you navigate disclosure to your family and open that door for you, do you think that made a difference and it would've been different for you, had she responded differently?
Larry Bryant: Probably. I probably would have responded differently. Again, I can't say that that type of support is immeasurable, and then say, "If I didn't get the support, I'd be fine anyway." You know what I mean? So I'd like to think I would have landed on my feet and made good decisions down the road, even if that initial response was different, but it's impossible to know, at this point. But again, fortunate that the support I got initially from my family was what it was.
But then, the other side of that is... well, it's interesting, because I think when I did disclose and you said all the things that your mom wanted to warn you about, because how your sexuality would influence some things, decision making, otherwise, put you at risk at certain things than others, which was interesting to me, because I don't know exactly what my family thought, because there were people who thought, "Well, he's HIV-positive, well clearly he's gay." Or the-
Malachi Stewart: I'm sure.
Tei Pearson-Hall: I was going to ask you that.
Larry Bryant: Yeah. And, of course, this came later when I started working in the field and understanding language and interventions and everything, but it's the human immunodeficiency virus, it's not the gay or the GRID, as light years ago it used to be called. Anyone who has unprotected sex is vulnerable, is-
Malachi Stewart: The virus doesn't discriminate.
Larry Bryant: ... at risk. Exactly.
Malachi Stewart: The virus doesn't discriminate.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: I mean, and we know that certain sexual behaviors are more high risk, we get that, right? Yes, I'm gay, the type of sex I have does put me more at risk, and I am exposed to a community of people who are more at risk and more likely to... But I love that you said that. It doesn't discriminate and it's not one plus one equals two. It doesn't mean, "Oh, you're a straight male, you must be DL, because you're HIV-positive. You must be on drugs, because you're HIV-positive." I had sex.
And I think, probably, do you get compared a lot to Magic Johnson, I just have to ask that? Because that's probably the only straight male that publicly that I've ever seen like, "I have HIV." And even with Magic Johnson people was whispering, "We don't believe him. We either don't believe that he has HIV or we don't believe that he's a straight, Black man."
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yeah, it was a lot of rumors swirling around that time, too, yeah.
Larry Bryant: So it was his kind of public disclosure that helped influence my sharing, because that happened around 1991, same time when I told my mom. And even with the questions like, "I wonder what really happened with Magic?" or who Magic really is, I don't know, I was so busy just worrying how I was going to survive. I didn't necessarily worry about the rumors or the gossip or whatever was happening. And so, it just didn't bother me, but I understood. And I think it goes deeper, just to how, particularly in D.C., in the '80s and '90s, being a Black boy in the city, you had to be hard. You had to be tough And, honestly, I play football, I was not any of those things.
I mean, I was a shy, introverted kid that, when I was 10 years old, my dad took me, kicking and screaming, out to a football field and said, "You're going to play." I ended up being good at it, I liked it. But I have always been kind of an introvert, kind of to myself, not the, quote unquote, stereotypical boy. And I've had men in my life who punished me, I guess you could say, for not being-
Tei Pearson-Hall: That's tough.
Larry Bryant: ... that type of dude.
Malachi Stewart: Not living up to the expectations.
Larry Bryant: Their expectations.
Malachi Stewart: Yeah, their expectations of masculinity. Yeah.
Larry Bryant: And I think that is part of what fuels the internal stigma, that drives young men to, "No, no, no. You can't see my vulnerability. I don't care what color it is, what it looks like." And that kind of complicates how heterosexual men process, not just HIV, but process their own sexuality, process their own identity, their own being, how they are interacting and reacting to others. It's all built on this kind of myth of who they should be. And obviously, that's evolved since the '80s and the '90s, but that kind of, "I'm going to be hard" mentality, "I'm going to be this and not show any of that vulnerability or perceived vulnerabilities," that still exists, it just comes in different forms now.
Malachi Stewart: For sure.
Larry Bryant: But yeah, that part, going back to what we talked about at the top, where there's not a whole lot of heterosexual men talking about their HIV status publicly, I think, largely, that's at the root of that. I mean, obviously, there's so many other things, so many factors that contribute to that person's, that man's experience, that keeps them kind of protected, keeps them closed, but a large part is built around identity and who am I supposed to be? Who do people see when they look at me? Who do they hear? What do they hear when I speak? And sometimes we get caught up on that, instead of just being ourselves, instead of just absorbing and accepting who we are and then-
Malachi Stewart: That's powerful.
Larry Bryant: ... building on that.
Malachi Stewart: I appreciate you saying that-
Tei Pearson-Hall: Thank you for that.
Malachi Stewart: ... for sure.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yes. I can't imagine that darkness of trying to be a regular Black boy at Norfolk University, this college, I'm sure you was the big man around town and you had the girls, because you was the football star, right? And then, you said you had someone that you were speaking to, and you had your boys, and kind of just living the Black boy joy on college campus.
So when you got your diagnosis, the first time, I can imagine that's a doctor at the clinic, "He probably ain't a real doctor for real, because he working at a school campus." You know what I'm saying? "So I see this paper and I'm going to process it." But what did you do to process, healthy? Because I'm sure it was a lot of dark within that moment, but one day had to become another day, even if you didn't want it to be.
Larry Bryant: It took a long time to get there. I'm not sure that I was fighting for anything, other than that I wanted to die going forward.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Wow.
Larry Bryant: I didn't-
Tei Pearson-Hall: Wow.
Larry Bryant: At the time, I was diagnosed, the only treatment that was available was AZT. And AZT, hugely toxic, a lot of people were dying to just becoming sick and then dying, because of the treatment. I said, "Well, I'm just going to take a chance with the virus and see what happens, and if I'm going to go, I'm going to go out swinging." So that's why I wanted to find something to do, Army, whatever just to be doing something going forward, but I had a date in my mind that I was going to die. I was going to not make it. I struggled with that reality or eventual reality and knowing that, one day, I could just die, disappear, go away, and then my family, that would be when they found out.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Wow.
Larry Bryant: And I didn't want that.
Malachi Stewart: So were you kind of waiting in those five years to see what was going to happen?
Larry Bryant: I didn't know.
Malachi Stewart: You didn't know.
Larry Bryant: I was paralyzed. It was like being knocked off a ship. I'm in the middle of the ocean, my instinct is, "How can I not drown? How do I keep my head above water?" That was my instinct. I had no idea where I was going to go, which direction to go, I just want to tread water for as long as I can.
Malachi Stewart: And you weren't on medication at that time?
Larry Bryant: No.
Malachi Stewart: Are you a long-term non-progressor?
Larry Bryant: I am now.
Tei Pearson-Hall: And what does that mean?
Malachi Stewart: A long-term non-progressor is a person living with HIV who is able to go long periods of time without being medicated, but still maintain a moderately low viral low, which is the amount of virus in your body, and moderately healthy CD4 count, which is... you imagine your CD4 count, that sort of measures how healthy your body is. And those numbers vary based upon age, a lot of factors that play into that, but each demographic has... in your 30s, what a normal CD4 count is different than in your 60s.
Long-term non-progressors are able to not be medicated, but kind of go a long time and still be relatively healthy. The virus is progressing very slowly over a long period of time. Unfortunately, most people find that out because they either don't have access to medication, because of stigma, they won't medicate, so those are usually the reasons people find out.
Larry Bryant: Because they don't have access to clinical trials.
Malachi Stewart: Exactly. Because we're not included, a lot of times, in clinical trials. All the time, minorities aren't included. And sometimes, again, because of stigma, we don't want to participate in those things.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Gotcha.
Malachi Stewart: I want to ask you, and I'm on a lighter note, because I'm so interested, I know so many stories of dating, love, and family planning when it comes to being queer, when it comes to being a part of the alphabet mafia and being HIV-positive.
Larry Bryant: [inaudible 00:30:47] Alphabet mafia.
Malachi Stewart: Alphabet mafia [inaudible 00:30:50]. What did that look like, dating and family planning? What did that look like for you as a straight man who's HIV-positive?
Larry Bryant: Well, there was no family planning and there was very little, if at all, dating. I felt comfortable, well, I don't know about comfortable, but I started feeling that possibilities would exist, because once I started working in the field, then it was the assumption, because I was working in the field, that I must be positive, and that I could talk to other people about being HIV-positive and it felt comfortable.
That wasn't the same if you just went to a random corner bar, and someone pulled up next to you and you start having a conversation. There's no subtle way to, "Oh, by the way, I am living with HIV." And certainly, if it gets to the point where someone asks, "So what do you do?" And I say, "Well, I work in the field of HIV and AIDS advocacy and activism and blah, blah, blah." And it's eventually, "So why do you do that? How long have you done that?" And usually, the conversation would end with skid marks, them going in the other direction. And/or, well, I mean, I just avoided it. I tried to avoid, I tried to just stay away from people wanting to get too close to me.
And then, before, I was diagnosed HIV-positive, I was already, talking about mental health issues, I was living with depression and anxiety, so yes, I was the big football star, but without the football stuff, I was not that guy.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Got you.
Larry Bryant: And so, HIV or not, dating was never really easy for me, just because I'm a nerd.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Ain't nothing wrong with being a nerd.
Larry Bryant: Now.
Malachi Stewart: Yeah, now. Shout out to the blerds out there.
Larry Bryant: But eventually, it took a lot of... and, I mean, I had relationships along the way. It wasn't until probably 2002, 2003 that I realized, "Okay, I might not die."
Tei Pearson-Hall: Hello.
Larry Bryant: In fact, I left the Red Cross, I didn't go back to a doctor until 2002. I was living in Houston. I started working in the field. I felt like, "If I'm going to work in the field as a health educator, I probably should take care of myself."
Tei Pearson-Hall: That's a good thought.
Larry Bryant: I went to a clinic there in Houston, and just started from scratch. Just said, "I would like to take an HIV test," and introduced myself to them. They had no idea who I was, and they came back with my blood work and said, "Well, you're doing pretty good, and we have a couple more questions for you," and then they left the room. And then, he came back and said, "Wait a minute. When did you say you were diagnosed?" And I said, "Well, it was '86." And then, "What have you done since then?" I was like, "Well, nothing. I just came to see you." And that's when I first learned about the possibility of being a long-term non-progressor.
So if I had taken the AZT or whatever treatment at the beginning, then I never would've learned that. But that was when I started building towards kind of just being my own level of confident and knowing how to protect myself, and then understanding how to protect others. But then, between that, how to actually have a conversation with someone that led to a point where then I had to make a decision about safe sex or whatever.
But it took a while, and I've met a lot of people over the years that tried, that I try, and I just wasn't ready. It wasn't until maybe five, six years ago that I started really entertaining opening the idea, the possibility, that I could be in a relationship.I found out, along the way, also, talk about just adventures of my life-
Tei Pearson-Hall: We like the story of the journey. We love it.
Larry Bryant: ... that woman that I was dating in college, Yolanda, she was pregnant with my son. I didn't know. I don't think she knew or at least, if she knew, she didn't tell me. And because of my mindset at the time, I wouldn't have been surprised.
Malachi Stewart: And this was prior to your diagnosis?
Larry Bryant: No, this was when I knew-
Malachi Stewart: Okay, so [inaudible 00:35:31].
Larry Bryant: ... but she didn't know.
Tei Pearson-Hall: But she didn't know.
Larry Bryant: And then, eventually, she transferred, went to a different school, had Dominique, my son, and again, I was in a bad place when she left me, and I thought I was doing her a favor. I didn't know she was a pregnant, but I thought I was doing her a favor by just like, "You don't want to be with me." But then, one day in 2006, I think, at the first presidential debate, or 2008, first presidential debate, John McCain and Barack Obama, I could not think of his name the other day.
I'm driving a bunch of people, I'm working for an organization where we're doing a bunch of advocacy work around HIV, around making sure whoever our next president is will put in policies that will help, ultimately, end the epidemic, blah, blah, blah. We brought people from all over the East Coast and Midwest to Oxford, Mississippi, were there for the debate, and then drove back, literally drove a van back to D.C.
But then, during that ride, Yolanda's sister emails into POZ magazine, I'm on the cover that year, or the year before, and during that interview I talk about one of the things I wish/regret. At that point, I didn't think I had a child, and I was like, "One of the things I wish is that I had the opportunity to have a child. I don't know if that's every going to happen." And she, I guess, reads the article, and emails in, how you go to the bottom and leave a comment. The people at POZ were like, "Well, we didn't want to put that on the website. We just contact Larry directly," and that's when I found out I had a son.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Wow.
Malachi Stewart: I know you gagged, because I just gagged when you told me.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Wow.
Malachi Stewart: So I know you were just... What was that like? I mean, because you found out you had a son, and know your son knows-
Tei Pearson-Hall: But through an email, too.
Malachi Stewart: ... through an email, you found out you had a son. Now, your son, you were in POZ magazine, so you don't know... What was that like, that conversation?
Larry Bryant: So as he tells it, his mom had been looking for me or this is the early years of Facebook and we're all kind of being... this gravitational-
Malachi Stewart: Moving from-
Larry Bryant: ... pull of-
Malachi Stewart: ... Myspace.
Larry Bryant: ... social media. Myspace. Scary, Myspace. He does a Google search, sees my picture, the cover photo on POZ and goes to his mom and says, "Is this him? Is this my dad?" And she was like, "Yeah, that's him." So that's how he was introduced to me. And I got home, I was like, "I can't talk to her while I'm driving. I haven't slept in like three days. I'm driving home. Let me get to the other end, and then let's talk on the phone."
And then, she calls me, Yolanda calls me and then puts him on, and it's like, at that moment, I just melted. It was like, "Wow." I remember to this day, it was like a, "Wow." And he understood what was going on, I mean, he saw my picture in POZ magazine. My story, my words, and the only thing he's interested in is, "Do you mind if I call you Dad?"
Tei Pearson-Hall: Oh.
Larry Bryant: It was one of-
Tei Pearson-Hall: Oh my god.
Larry Bryant: ... those kind of-
Malachi Stewart: Don't be saying that when I got my face done and I'm on camera.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Hello, hello.
Malachi Stewart: You're going to make my eyes leak.
Larry Bryant: So yeah, it was one of those kind of-
Tei Pearson-Hall: Oh my gosh. Yes.
Larry Bryant: And so, soon after that, we kind of made plans to meet each other. He's going to school at the time, he's playing football. Well, he wore my number in high school, he plays the same position, he has the same major.
Tei Pearson-Hall: What?
Malachi Stewart: Legacy.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Hello. Jr. Yes. See, and you started with saying you're a junior, and look at that.
Larry Bryant: Yeah, yeah.
Tei Pearson-Hall: See?
Larry Bryant: So I'm fortunate that that doctor from the Red Cross was wrong, because... and this is, I think, some of the things that I try to share when I meet people anywhere, we do this work, I do this work around advocacy, advocating for lifesaving services for people living with HIV, not just the HIV care, but the supportive services, everything, housing. We're talking about a healthy, whole human, not just blood human or the blood in the human. And all the things that we're fighting for, we're wanting to save, yeah, so saving lives.
But it's also those memories, our culture, are all of the moments that I would have lost, I would have missed out on, if I weren't here, including... I mean, the obvious thing is actually meeting my son, but it's so many things along the way, hearing other people's stories, sharing those experiences of that journey, even if it's just in moments and minutes with people. And I'm proud of that involvement and I think what am I happy for that that doctor was not correct, it's being able to contribute to everything that I've contributed to, to this point, and being able to share that story and hopefully something that helps someone else find themselves and find their own footing, their own platform, their own confidence, and being able to share that with others.
Because that self-confidence is no... We can all live on our own. I love the idea of independence and being able to do for ourselves, but it's so much better, so much more valuable, when you can share that with someone else, whoever that person is, family, partner, friend, whoever that is, even if it's just in the community.
Malachi Stewart: For sure. And we definitely are also glad that that doctor was wrong, because the world needed your light.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: You're a unicorn for a reason, but in the best of ways. Just as we kind of wrap up, I want to just say, one of the things that we know, in healthcare, is that Black men who are living with HIV tend to live longer than Black men who are not, just because we're going to the doctor. We have to get our labs done. Even if you are undetectable, you typically go once a year if you're undetectable, you don't have to go a lot.
Larry Bryant: But look what it took to get us there.
Malachi Stewart: And that's exactly where I was going with what I wanted to... It's not even a question, but what I wanted to ask you to do. Because we know that it's so hard, and you kind of talked about the stigma of you have to be rough and tough and that doesn't look like going to the doctor. My grandfather died with colon cancer and we ain't never know. Now, we knew Big Mama had sugar, but we didn't ever talk about... and he felt like that vulnerability of even sharing that or knowing it made it not a safe space.
As a Black man, as a straight man, as a person who is intersectional in those ways, can you just close us with whatever your call to action would be to people who identify as such, with regard to their healthcare, to even those who are living with HIV and who are also straight, Black men are are afraid to engage or not knowing how to navigate those situations, whatever you call to action would be. What would you say to them?
Larry Bryant: I mean, there's a lot I could say. I mean, one thing or a couple of things, is for Black men who look and sound like me, homophobia, that hurts us, as well. Having those kind of destructive kind of mindsets, it deteriorates us. And it doesn't fully allow us to connect and share who we are with people and to those who need to hear our story or who could provide support when necessary. The toxic, masculine shields that we run around with as kids and grow up and still think we're kids playing war games, we need to put... I'm trying so hard not to cuss here. We need to put that stuff down, and fully embrace the community around us.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yes.
Larry Bryant: There's a lot of energy it takes to hate for no reason.
Tei Pearson-Hall: No reason.
Larry Bryant: And the opposite of that is just being accepting, being caring, being empathetic to others, and that helps us as much as it can help someone else. And the more we can just feel our own self-confidence and acknowledge who we are, the less we're worried about taking down others, in order to kind of lift ourselves up. So I'm hoping that I challenge other straight, heterosexual men living with HIV to sit where I'm sitting or wherever they are and they don't need to get on a camera and do a podcast, talk to someone, listen to someone, have a conversation about... you don't have to be living with HIV, as a Black man, to have a conversation about how HIV effects us, all of us, whether you're living with it or not. And we just need to be more willing to accept the community around us and it's a rich and beautiful community.
Malachi Stewart: Period.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Thank you, thank you.
Malachi Stewart: Listen, y'all, on that note-
Tei Pearson-Hall: Ooh, I'm so full.
Malachi Stewart: That was so powerful.
Tei Pearson-Hall: Yes, thank you so much.
Malachi Stewart: I'll just say, thank you so much, Larry, for being here. Thank you all for joining this conversation with me and Tei. And listen, y'all heard the call to action is really if you are living with HIV, you are a Black, straight man, you a white straight man, you any color of a straight man, advocacy, this was your invitation. You are welcome to the table. Listen, if you're watching this, and we talked about a lot of resources and a need for that on today's episode, if you need any resources, HIV related or not, and you are anywhere in the country, you can go to www.linku... L-I-N-K-U... DMV.org and you can just type in your zip code and get any resources that you need. You'll see an array of things.
If you want to watch more episodes, because we talk about a lot of good things, you can watch, catch up on past seasons, and see what we have coming up. Go to www.dcendshiv.org/podcast and, listen, take the survey. Talk to us. If you're watching this on social media, if this is a clip that you're watching, comment, tell us what you think about the conversation we had, because we definitely want to hear your voice. Until next time, bye guys.
Larry Bryant (HE/HIM) is the Senior Program Coordinator with The Reunion Project (TRP), the national alliance of long-term survivors of HIV. TRP collaborates with local and national HIV advocates, providers and researchers to convene and connect individuals and communities, sharing our experiences of survival and loss while honoring our past, and developing successful strategies for living and supporting one another—today and into the future. As Senior Program Coordinator Larry provides administrative and programmatic oversight and technical expertise for TRP. Along with our excellent TRP staff and community partners, we work together to create and develop interactive and inclusive activities and events that will expand and grow TRP's visibility and reach, while also setting and meeting key engagement goals and priorities when it comes to meeting the needs of long-term survivors of HIV and AIDS.
Previously, Larry had the responsibility and privilege to have a lead role in the creation and development of grassroots advocacy networks across the United States for the Campaign to End AIDS and DC Fights Back, two organizations primarily composed of individuals representing the HIV and AIDS epidemic in local communities. While diagnosed HIV-positive himself in 1986, Larry was central in working toward both coalition goals to ramp up HIV prevention tools guided by science rather than ideology, increase research to find a cure, vigorously fight AIDS stigma, protect the civil rights of all people living with HIV and AIDS, and help pass legislation that further identified safe and stable housing as a critical role in prevention and treatment leading to positive health outcomes.
Larry has also written and published articles, blogs, and photos to POZ magazine, The Body, and multiple local, regional, and national online and print publications including White House Office of National AIDS Policy publications. An accomplished photographer, Larry uses photography as a means of social and creative expression, specializing in portraits, profiles, and social justice.
A native Washingtonian, Larry now lives in Alexandria Virginia and is extremely proud of his commitment to cultural and gender diversity and inclusion in issues and actions that eliminate the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and improve access to quality health and mental health care systems for all in need.