How purpose saved this
long-time AIDS survivor’s life

Part two of The Silent Epidemic: Black Gay Men and HIV

This week, tens of thousands are expected to converge on Atlanta to celebrate Black Pride Weekend, one of the largest in the country. For many gay black men, the celebration is mixed with a harsh reality. According to CDC, 1 in 2 gay black men will be diagnosed with HIV at some point in their life. This week, in a five-part column series, you will hear from five gay black men — including two who are HIV positive — who will share their personal stories and perspectives on why the epidemic has continued so long and why no one seemed to care. This is Part II.

In the spring of 1985, Craig Washington started to feel constant nausea. He had no appetite and he was battling a cold that wouldn’t go away. Before long, he was experiencing night sweats, swollen lymph nodes and thrush, all classic symptoms of the virus that causes AIDS.

He was 25 and certain his life was about to change.

Four years earlier on June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had marked the beginning of America’s long AIDS epidemic, highlighting five cases of pneumocystis pneumonia or PCP in five young homosexuals, all white.

Craig was black. And now he was terrified.He had reason to be. At the time, nearly 90 percent of AIDS sufferers died within two years of diagnosis; the average time of survival was 14 months after the first bout of pneumocystis — a form of pneumonia.

Up until that moment, nothing had scared Craig more than coming out to his family, especially his father.

RELATED: Stigma still fueling rising rate of HIV among blacks

Leon Washington, a bus driver, was a loving father, but he was also a very traditional, patriarchal and domineering figure. He would smack Craig’s hand if he felt his posture mimicked a girl’s.

That’s how girls hold their hand, he’d tell him.

His mother, Anna was more measured in her responses and observations. Instead of accusing the then 14-year-old, she’d say, I want you to stop playing with girls so much. Eventually, she’d come to assure him that she understood his need for love.

Wherever you get that love, whoever loves you, I will love them, she told him.

“That was her way of prompting me to come out but I wasn’t ready,” Washington said. “I said, ‘OK, mom. I’ll let you know,’ and I changed the subject.”

Then in the spring of 1980, the same year Diana Ross bestowed the anthem “I’m Coming Out,” Craig Washington, at age 20, stepped from the closet, declaring a known if unspoken truth.

“I’m gay,” he finally told his mother.

“I know,” she said. “What I’m worried about most is how people will treat you.”

Later that summer, he had a similar conversation with his father.

“If you had a problem, would you tell me?” Leon Washington began.

“I lied and said, ‘Yes,’” Craig Washington remembered. “I loved my father, but he could sometimes be unfair and stubborn, and I knew he didn’t approve of my sexuality.”

Leon Washington suggested they take a walk.

“Are you a faggot?” he asked his son.

Craig rolled his neck and waited for his father to rephrase the question.

“Are you a homosexual?”

Craig answered yes.

Leon Washington went into a tirade, rattling off the girls Craig had dated.

“The girls were there just to throw y’all off the scent,” he told his dad. “I like men.”

This is wrong, his father declared. This is ungodly.

Craig was no longer willing to deny his truth.

“All the sudden, you’re going to say what’s ungodly and what’s not,” he shot back. “This is who I am. It doesn’t matter whether you approve.”

Craig had never spoken to his father this way, but he was done pretending. After years of avoidance and lying, Craig was fighting.

In hindsight, he said, he didn’t have the maturity to appreciate what this meant to his father.

During a workshop at the Names Project Foundation in 2007, volunteers work on panels representing African Americans for the AIDS Quilt. The portraits hanging on the wall were taken by San Francisco photographer Jim Wigler during 1987-88, and was part of a exhibition titled, "Faces of AIDS." AJC file

It was in many ways a coming of age, a way of saying that he was who he was. But even then, Craig harbored some internalized homophobia.

“Like a lot of queer folk, I had the need to approximate what was normal,” he said.

Normal didn’t wear dresses or makeup.

A younger gay friend named Derrick took Washington to his first gay club. He linked him to the gay culture and offered dating advice.

If Craig spoke in whispers, Derrick confronted him. Why do you care what they think?

RELATED: Movement empowers black gay men living with HIV

“He knew how to push in a way that wasn’t shaming,” Washington said. “I think he didn’t want me to slip back and that helped. It also helped with my fear and discomfort with my own femininity. Derrick was comfortable wearing shoes with heels, tight pants, a little makeup. Being around him made it OK, helped me realize there was nothing wrong with guys who might look more feminine than me.”

Just five years had passed since Craig’s full awakening, and the AIDS epidemic was already in full bloom.

“It was such a big deal, and it carried such a load of fear that you didn’t want to even refer to it by its name,” he said. “To say it meant death.”

It was 1985. Media coverage about AIDS was new, but growing. That summer, the epidemic was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Craig remembers reading every page.

“I was scouring for treatment, a line to suggest I might survive. I remember not finding that line.”

In spite of his fear, Craig could hear a voice in his head reassuring him he wouldn’t die.

He learned there was a doctor at St. Vincent Hospital clinic in lower Manhattan studying people with lymphadenopathy, disease of the lymph node. He enrolled but only so he could loosely monitor his T-cell count.

Even then Craig shielded himself.

“It was just too much,” he said. “I was terrified.”

In New York, where Washington had grown up, HIV infection rates in gay men were already high. The recommended approach was to exercise caution, essentially to act as if you might be positive.

Six years after his first symptoms, he had met someone new. After one sexual encounter, a guilty Craig shared his suspicion.

His partner encouraged him to get tested.

Two months later, Craig received the confirmation he feared. He was HIV positive.

The two fell in love and relocated to Atlanta.

They arrived on July 4, 1992, and by year’s end, Craig, now 32, was volunteering at AID Atlanta, where he was later hired to coordinate African-American Outreach.

“It was great,” he said. “One of the best times of my life.”

It was also one of the worst.

It hurt to see people shamed for their sexuality and who, in addition to having an incurable disease, were being ostracized by their families.

Nick McCoy, a representative of Georgians Against Discrimination, looks at a memory quilt displayed in the Sheraton Midtown at Colony Square in conjunction with Black Gay Pride on Sept. 4, 2004. AJC file

Craig found sanctuary in a group for gay black men called Second Sunday that gathered monthly in private homes to discuss issues such as trust and disclosure. The group attracted so many men, it soon outgrew homes and in 1995 moved to the Virginia Avenue Baptist Church and finally to the Phoenix Room at City Hall East.

RELATED: Elevating black gay men in Atlanta

AIDS was hitting the black gay community particularly hard in Atlanta. Even as the community rallied, people were dying alone and in secret.

“It was wrenching,” Craig said. “There was this weird almost twisted, fuzzy line between concern for confidentiality and shame of acknowledging HIV.”

Craig urged the group to start talking.

“Our brothers are dying right before our eyes, what are we going to do,” he asked.

Fortunately, Craig had quickly found family in a community of organizers like Duncan Teague, Mary Anne Adams, Maurice Cook and Toney Daniels — people who supported him and modeled the possibility that he could join the work to bring about change.

As program coordinator for HIV education, it fell to him to take the message to schools, barber shops, jails, radio stations and black college campuses.

Meanwhile, Craig’s lymph nodes were getting noticeably larger. His doctor suggested he begin taking AZT, the standard treatment at the time for HIV. He refused.

Craig had long heard of the medicine’s horrible side effects — discoloration in the skin, straightening of the hair and the impact on the GI system.

Even though he knew HIV gradually wiped out the immune system, Craig wanted none of it.

“I wasn’t thinking about that,” he said. “I was living day to day. I felt fine.”

But by the summer of 1994, Craig wasn’t fine. He had chronic diarrhea and had gone from 190 pounds to just 155. He could no longer work.

Craig had AIDS, Dr. Jim Braude told him.

“I closed the door and I cried for about 10 minutes,” Craig remembered.

At home, he told his partner.

You’re going to beat this, he assured Craig.

When he shared his HIV status with his parents nearly 10 years later, it wasn’t a complete surprise.

Well, you know, cat, I think I knew, his father said. Why didn’t you tell us earlier?

It was now 1995, and AID Atlanta had received funding for outreach to black gay men. Craig founded the Deeper Love Project, his way of encouraging gay men to educate themselves about HIV transmission and prevention, to fight for their own lives and embrace their own community.

Ironically, Craig wasn’t always responsible to himself or others. He missed taking his meds — a combination of Zerit, Epivir and AZT — and after his breakup with his boyfriend sometimes engaged in unprotected sex with multiple partners.

Braude challenged him at every turn.

I’m not going to enable you to commit suicide, a visibly angry Braude told him once.

“I could see that he cared,” Craig said.

He also realized he was squandering an opportunity. He resumed taking his meds on schedule, and under Braude’s watchful care, the brotherhood at the Second Sunday gatherings and his close circle of friends, Craig’s health started to improve.

Even so, AIDS had become an epidemic and was the leading cause of death among African-American men age 25-44. Craig knew he had to do something.

He continued in his advocacy role, working as director of the Atlanta gay and lesbian center. He also started the annual Bayard Rustin/Audre Lorde Breakfast, which seeks to educate communities about the life and contributes of the late civil rights leaders.

At age 43, Craig enrolled at Georgia State University to pursue a degree in social work. When he received an award from PFLAG (Parent and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in 2005, his parents, who’d become two of his biggest cheerleaders, were there.

In 2008, he returned to AID Atlanta to lead gay men’s programming until last May. He’d come full circle, leading and supervising young black gay men. Only he was an elder now.

Today, Craig Washington is 57, one of the longest survivors of AIDS.

His path has been onerous. At 15, he had no sense that he could freely be who he was. At 25, he thought he would perish. He was 33 when a fellow volunteer named James Dewberry told him he’d do great things. When Leon Washington died in 2010 and Anna a year later, both were at peace with their son and proud of the man he had become.

Purpose, he said, has kept him alive.

“I’m here to bear witness, to challenge the hatred and the bigotry,” Craig said, “to heal from things I internalized and to help move my good brothers and sisters toward our destiny, which is our liberation.”

This is the second installment of a five-part series about black gay men and HIV.

In part one, read about when HIV and AIDS first began to take holdin black communities.

Craig Washington (from left), Tori Cooper and Freda Jones talk during "A Weekend Summit For HIV+ Long Term Survivors" hosted by The Reunion Project Atlanta at St. Mark United Methodist Church in July.