David Robertson was 23-years-old and entering his senior year of college when he learned he was HIV positive. Instead of avoiding attention he chose to stand in the spotlight and share his story with others because he wants to help save lives.
Research shows young gay black males are disproportionately at risk for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, better known as HIV, compared to other races and ethnicities. Not enough attention is placed on this crisis says Robertson, an ambassador for the the American Foundation for AIDS Research and an advocate with the Making AIDS History Campaign.
Young gay black males and black men who have sex with males, commonly known by researchers as MSM, encompass a large percentage of new HIV infections. Data gathered by the American Foundation for AIDS Research, or amfAR found 64 percent of new HIV infections affected black MSM and gay men, who also represent nearly half of all persons living with HIV. Even more importantly to note, the increase of new HIV diagnosis for this group is more than 44 times that of other men and more than 40 times that of women
Recent data shows between 2006 and 2009, there was a 48 percent increase among young African American MSM, while other races and ethnicities remained stable or declined. The 48 percent increase pushed the HIV incidence 21 percent among all youth between 13 and 29-years-old and 34 percent for all young MSM.
Robertson grew up with his two sisters, brother and mother in Naperville. He went off to college and that is when tragedy seemed to follow his family. In 2004 he said he learned, while at school, his aunt was being hospitalized for cancer related to her AIDs diagnosis. A year later his mother called again because his brother was in the hospital for pneumonia and wanted him to come home. The day after, the family learned Robertson’s brother had been diagnosed with AIDS.
Two years later, the summer of 2007, Robertson learned he tested positive for HIV. He said he was infected after participating in a threesome with a male and female, people he considered friends.
“The day of my diagnosis was, I would say the death of the David Robertson pre-HIV. My pride definitely died in that moment. My invincibility died in that moment. My ignorance died in that moment,” he said.
“My sense of urgency and being a servant definitely cracked open. I had no idea how severe this disease was to my community.”
According to amfAR there is a disproportion in black communities because of lack of resources and lack of prevention education.
“The National HIV/AIDS Strategy seeks to address those disparities, which are reflected in the staggering number of black Americans, especially black MSM, who are living with HIV. Data show that this community is disproportionately affected by the virus, and our resources and prevention efforts need to follow the data,” amfAR said in an email statement.
“When I was diagnosed I didn’t know HIV stood for human,” Robertson said.
“I trusted the people I was having sex with. They were my friends. I contracted it through a threesome. It was me experimenting. They were my friends, I was trusting them. In my mind that wasn’t even a factor of what could they give me other than great times and laughter.”
The initial realization of his diagnosis led Robertson to attempt suicide. All three attempts failed before he accepted his life was still important and he had a job to do.
The first day he tried to jump in front of a moving taxi cab, but the driver stopped just in time. Another time he wanted to get alcohol poisoning, but it did not work. His biggest and final attempt to end his life and the pain he experienced then was to take cocaine and jump off of his balcony.
“My goal was to jump off the balcony and be the first black man to have his death on Michigan Avenue. I go on the balcony to jump off, a bird flies by and I fall back [away from the edge]. I was passed out for about nine to 14 hours,” he said.
After he gained consciousness again he had what he described as a “revelatory dream” where he was standing in front of a crowd holding a microphone.
“It hit me that if I stand on that stage and tell those people my story, I’m cleaning the blood off of my hands. I’m not a murderer, I’m doing my job, I’m making sure that they’re not murderers by killing themselves, [or] by putting themselves in situations that can affect or infect not only their lives, but their lives and the individuals connected to them,” he said.
“In that moment, I said, ‘okay, I know I have to do something. I can not forever be quiet about this.’”
Robertson is now 28-years-old and has been an ambassador with amfAR for a year and a half. He took the role and responsibility he said, because he wants to help educate youth in African-American communities and let them know anyone can get HIV.
“I am here to talk about hope and there needs to be a cure for this generation in this lifetime…I know it is a part of my purpose to help empower and invigorate, gird up and serve youth to let them know that I’m serving you my story so that you can be the catalyst of hope and not a catastrophe for our communities,” he said.
World AIDS Day is Dec. 1.