Thriving with community
Thriving with community

Tim’m West – Educator, community builder and lifelong HIV advocate

“When I tested positive at 26, I didn’t imagine 50. So, turning 50 was a spiritual moment for me. I realized I still have a lot of my life I get to plan.” 

As the current Executive Director of the LGBTQ Institute at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Tim’m West wears many hats. He has worked in education for several years, is involved in HIV and gay youth support groups, and most importantly, works toward HIV awareness and mobilization. 

He is sharing his story so everyone knows it is possible to thrive with HIV. 

An introduction to HIV

In the 90’s, during a sex education class, Tim’m recalls being introduced to AIDS. He says most of the conversations were grim. Stigma was prominent even among educators. 

“I distinctly remember a health class where a film was shown about HIV/AIDS. It was shown in a way to scare people from being gay,” said Tim’m. “There was a scene where there were two men holding hands, and the health teacher made this puking motion, like she was sick.”

Tim’m says it wasn’t just the disease the teacher was disgusted by, but the display of affection between the two men.   

“The education back then was rooted in toxic homophobia. A lot of the messaging was about scaring people out of being gay, so it’s hard for me to separate the two,” says Tim’m. 

However, Tim’m never internalized these beliefs. He educated himself on HIV and participated in HIV prevention groups in college, far in advance of his own diagnosis. 

The first person he seriously dated in college was HIV+ and it’s perhaps because of this early encounter that he has always approached HIV in an empathetic way. Before living with HIV, himself, he was a strong and supportive ally. 

Then, trusting a partner’s reported negative status, Tim’m received his positive diagnosis at 26 years old. The proximity to HIV communities didn’t make it any more easy to manage stigma, rejection, and other challenges.

Embracing his status

Interestingly, Tim’m tested positive while working as a facilitator for a young gay Black men’s youth group. At first, he chose not to disclose for fear of rejection and stigma. 

Then, during a group discussion, the topic of, “what would you do if you found out you were HIV+?” came up. The responses from these young men were deeply concerning.

“I just remember a series of suicide methods being talked about. I had just tested positive three weeks earlier. I thought to myself, these young men love me, and trust me; so I can’t let them leave the room thinking that’s how you deal with an HIV diagnosis.” 

At that moment Tim’m chose to come out for the first time about his status. 

He told the young men: “I just tested HIV-positive, and I’m going to live. I’m determined to live.”

Finding comfort in community

“It’s really hard to thrive with HIV if you don’t have community. Community got me through it,” he says. 

Tim’m wants everyone to know an HIV diagnosis isn’t the end. When you find a community where there’s joy and positivity, you’re able to not just survive but thrive with HIV.

For those struggling, Tim’m says to think about the people in your life. There will always be people counting on you to be present, and community is important for that acceptance. “I want to be here for my friends, and have different experiences down the road,” he says. 

Advice on acceptance and allyship

“A question that people who are negative need to ask themselves is, ‘Do I provide a safe space for people living with HIV to talk about it?” says Tim’m. 

Facilitating that openness means being mindful of the language you use when talking about HIV (e.g., not using “clean” to mean HIV negative). It could also mean talking about HIV testing, treatment and care openly. Tim’m says he’d like to hear more about a person’s last testing experience or conversations about PrEP among friends.

Tim’m has people supporting him with medication reminders, which he says is a great way to show up for someone. He recommends asking questions such as:

  • Are you taking your meds? 
  • How is that going? 
  • Can I support you in any way? 

“We need specific training on how to be an ally to someone with HIV,” Tim’m recommends. Finding leaders or trusted members in the community and then providing them with the tools to create safe spaces is extremely valuable.

Amplifying HIV voices   

Through community, compassion, and advocacy, Tim’m has thrived after living more than half of his life with HIV.

He is sharing his experiences as a sign of hope for both those newly diagnosed and those who have lived many years with HIV.

“I want people to see me living out loud and know it’s possible to have friends, have community, and be successful,” he says.

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