Years in the streets left “Tommy” bloodied, battered and infected with both Hepatitis C and HIV.
“And herpes,” the former prostitute who spoke with me on condition of anonymity said. “Don’t leave that out.”
The problem with Tommy
Tommy was far from what I expected when I told ARC Ohio I wanted to profile someone living with AIDS or HIV in the Dayton area ahead of Masquerage on Saturday.
Masquerage is a big fund raiser benefiting ARC Ohio, having raised more than $1.25 million since its inception in 2001. It seemed a fitting time to share a story with the community of someone living with AIDS or HIV.
Tommy is far from what most think when they imagine ARC Ohio’s poster child.
In his dark days, Tommy was a boogie man in the closet.
He says he knows he gave others HIV while working as a prostitute.
And it is easy to picture that some of the poster boys and girls we picture are among those impacted by his actions.
The poster boy many think of is a young white gay man who slept with the wrong person or used the wrong needle.
Tommy’s story is not easy to hear, but as D’On Ingram, ARC Ohio’s prevention coordinator for the African-American Mpowerment program, told me in an email, his story is “really profound.”
“He has lived with the virus now for 20 years,” Ingram wrote. “He’s truly seen and been through many obstacles, and today is still alive and happy, despite the circumstances he’s faced.”
Ingram says Tommy was eager to share. Tommy told me he wants to help by sharing his story.
“I hope that people will practice safe sex now,” he said when we met earlier this week for lunch on a Dayton restaurant’s patio. “Don’t just go out and get drunk and have sex, cuz you don’t know who you are sleeping with. You don’t know.”
At times during the interview, Tommy’s candor outraged me.
By the time I dropped Tommy off at the RTA bus hub on Main Street, I was hopeful.
Sometimes using unsettling words, the 1976 Dunbar High School graduate told me of a life turning tricks in Dayton and Atlanta that began in the early ’80s when he was in his early 20s.
It was a cautionary tale filled with pain, nightmarish turns and what can only be described as self-hate.
Tommy was introduced to drugs after meeting someone whom he described as an “old drag queen” hooked on drugs in Dayton.
“I started really shooting drugs and doing tricks in Atlanta,” he said. “I really amp-ed it up when I went to Atlanta.”
He was in Atlanta four years before returning to Dayton.
His mother and sister got him back to town after he started “hearing the bells.”
“When you hear the bells, they say you are going to die,” Tommy said.
His addiction to cocaine in powder and crack rock form didn’t go away in Dayton. He abused alcohol, marijuana and P’s and B’s, the heroin substitute Talwin (pentazocine) and PBZ – (pyribenzamine).
“The only drug I didn’t do was heroin,” Tommy, now 57, told me. “I have abused this body right here. God has given me the strength to wake up every day. Why he has done this, I do not know.”
Tommy asked that his real name not being used out of fear of retaliation.
Raised in a religious home, Tommy expressed two fears during the interview:
- Being gay dooms his soul to hell.
- One of his former Johns would track him down and end his life if his identity were revealed publicly.
He said many of them were men on the down low with wives and girlfriends.
Some were dangerous.
“I know I have probably had sex with a murderer and a child molester,” he said matter-of-factly.
He knows for a fact that he’s given other people the virus that causes AIDS and some of those people went on to spread it to their wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, children …
“This is going to be the only (expletive) up thing about this interview. I don’t feel no remorse. I didn’t put a gun to your head and say, ‘OK, lets have sex.’ I didn’t do that.”
He pointed out that someone had given the virus to him.
“If you came out in the streets and want to have sex with me, you should have thought about it really clearly and you should have thought about using condoms,” he said.
“I know it was up to me to do the same thing, and I wish I would have done that same thing. I wish I would have done what you should have done, but I didn’t do that.”
There are more than 1,700 people known to be living with HIV or AIDS in the Dayton area, according to AIDS Resource Ohio.
Tommy is among those served by the agency charged with HIV and AIDS education, testing and prevention.
It provides services in 74 of Ohio’s 88 counties.
Called the Dayton “party of parties,” ARC Ohio’s fundraiser Masquerage 2015 is set for 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 17 at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Roundhouse , 1043 S. Main St., Dayton.
In advance, general admission is $50 and VIP Red Ribbon Level admission is $150. Friday, Oct. 16 is the cut-off date for online ticket purchases. Admission prices will be $60 and $175 at the door.
Barbie dolls and GI Joe
Diagnosed in 1988, Tommy says he got the virus from unprotected sex and intravenous drug use while working as a prostitute.
HIV is far from a thing of the past as evident by the fact that 73 new HIV or AIDS infections were reported locally in 2013. Another 300 are thought to be infected, but not diagnosed.
He’s an activity director for a local HIV and AIDs support group and has done things with the ABBA (Aspiring Beyond Beliefs and Adversity), an ARC Ohio group geared toward young African-American men.
Tommy knows his story is not typical of all men fighting or living with AIDS or HIV.
He went as far as to call some of the young black men who work with ARC Ohio’s program bourgie.
He and his two siblings were raised by a single mother with the help of a nanny.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was a little person,” he said. “I play with my sister’s Barbie dolls. I even had GI Joes.”
His innocence was stolen when a church pastor molested him at age 11, he said.
A lifetime fighting demons and drug addiction followed.
“When I dressed up like a girl, I looked like a girl,” he said. “If a man passed me on the streets, he would turn around to make sure he knew exactly what he was looking at.”
Tommy said he had honey blonde hair and wore Fashion Fair make-up.
“Men were giving me attention like flies on shit,” he boosted. “I was a very pretty drag queen.”
The streets were far from friendly.
He spoke and was chased by a group of men who would have killed him if they caught him, he said.
That was far from the worst of it. He’s been dragged by a car and shot three times, once by a group men in a car as he stood on a street corner.
“I was waiting for someone to say they had $20,” he said.
A few moments later he explained the $20 was his price for sex.
Tommy worked as a prostitute in Dayton long after his diagnosis.
He didn’t take it seriously until after catching pneumonia. He was in his early 40s when he stopped for good. That decision happened only after he was beaten to a bloody pulp during a robbery.
His mother’s reaction on seeing his battered state still remains with him.
“She said ‘Oh my god, the streets are going to kill you,” he recalled.
Tommy said he’s held several jobs in the past, but hasn’t been able to work since 2009 due to health issues.
But he says he’s in a good place now. He likes his apartment and hopes to find work. He said he knows he should be doing more with his life.
“(I have bought) cars and houses for the dope boys,” Tommy said. “My message to young men and young women is be careful who you have sex with. Just like a women can get pregnant on the first try, you can get HIV on the first try from not having safe sex.”
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