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Expressing Themselves: LGBTQ People Share Thoughts on HIV, Marriage

By Mekado Murphy and Erik Piepenburg

 
Sam Hodgson
 

What does HIV mean to a millennial? How has the right for same-sex couples to marry changed views on marriage? What does discrimination look like at any age? Those are some of the questions The New York Times asked people recently at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Centre in Greenwich Village. The conversations have been edited and condensed.

Amber MahoneyMaliika Graham, who formerly identified as bisexual, but identifies now as queer, in New York.
Maliika Graham, who formerly identified as bisexual, but identifies now as queer, in New York.

Discrimination

Maliika Graham
I present as femme, so some people read me as straight. It’s hard to separate whether someone is discriminating against me for my race or my sexuality, especially when I’m with my girlfriend, because she is a dark-skinned black woman. When we’re together, people see two black women holding hands being affectionate. We get looks.

Edgardo Diaz
Having a space like this community centre is definitely a blessing. It has helped me love myself more and know that if people can’t really understand who you are, that’s their problem, not yours. Because at the end of the day, you’re in this life for yourself and only to surround yourself with positive energy and not let the haters deter you from that.

Amber MahoneyJonah Zechariah, a trans man, in New York.
Jonah Zechariah, a trans man, in New York.

Jonah Zechariah
The centre gave me a place where I can just be myself. I was never able to do that back at home. I can be known as Jonah and not my old self, who I was before. It’s a place where I could not feel like I have to live up to anybody’s standards.

Michael Feuerstein
I have to say, I don’t think I ever had any problems. I had a wonderful mom and dad. When I did tell my mom — on her terrace with my father — I said, “Mom, Dad, I’m gay.” My mother says to me, “Michael, it’s OK.” I said, “It doesn’t bother you that I’m gay?” She says, “No, you’re my son and I love you very much.” She turns to Sam, my father, and says “Sam, you heard that.” He says, “Fine with me.”

Amber MahoneyEdgardo Diaz, a gay man, in New York.
Edgardo Diaz, a gay man, in New York.

HIV and AIDS

Edgardo Diaz
I definitely do think about it a lot only because, in the household I grew up in, my mom tended to say that being gay is synonymous with having HIV and all these diseases. Being reminded constantly, you tend to start worrying after a while and you start not wanting to explore yourself sexually.

Maliika Graham
The amount of people in the black community with HIV and AIDS who are not only gay but straight black women and straight black men — I don’t think it’s just a queer issue. I think that it’s something that we all need to not only accept as part of our lives but also not criminalise it, not stigmatise people with HIV and AIDS in our language and in our legislature.

Amber MahoneyChristian Griffin, a gay man, in New York.
Christian Griffin, a gay man, in New York.

Christian Griffin
Among my gay friends, PrEP (Truvada, which virtually eliminates the risk of HIV infection) is pretty standard at this point. My purpose in getting on PrEP wasn’t so that I could have unprotected sex. It was because you have a drink or whatever, and your inhibitions are lowered and you’re less likely to make good decisions for yourself. Admitting that condomless sex feels better means that in a lot of situations, you’re going to end up exposing yourself.

Frank Amato
I think young men downplay HIV and AIDS somewhat. It’s very easy to say, “Well, take Truvada and OK, now you’re good to go.” Then we have other STDs on the rise. There is no 100-percent guarantee.

Jama Shelton
I have some friends who are positive, and I lost some acquaintances who are positive. And also my work has been in LGBT youth homelessness. That’s what I’ve done for the past 15 years. Lots of young people that I knew, I often wonder, are they still alive? For reasons related to HIV and also just being homeless in New York City. And every year I do the AIDS ride to try to keep it present.

Amber MahoneyMichael Feuerstein, a gay man of Greenwich Village.
Michael Feuerstein, a gay man of Greenwich Village.

Marriage

Michael Feuerstein
When I was in my 20s, it did enter my mind, and then I said no, it was never going to happen. Nothing like this happens. But the fighting that we had all these years led to something fabulous. And there’s going to be more fighting. It’s not over.

Christian Griffin
I always grew up with a little bit of a fantasy of a white picket fence, family with a dog and children, and a marriage. It was a wife at first, and then it was a husband. I was really happy when marriage equality passed because it just seemed like a social injustice that had been there for a long time, and it just didn’t make a lot of sense.

Amber MahoneyLeonardo Canela, who does not label his sexuality, in New York.
Leonardo Canela, who does not label his sexuality, in New York.

Leonardo Canela
I feel like if two people are in love, they don’t need that status quo in order for them to feel like they’re in love. They can just know that they are. I’m happy and proud of the achievements that we fought for, and that we came this far to have gay marriage. But for me, I don’t see it. I don’t believe in gay marriage.

Edgardo Diaz
I am excited about the fact that I can get married now. I’ve always admired the whole tradition of being married. Granted, the whole idea of having it is more of a business, and what marriage really meant has been lost over the years. But I’ve always loved the idea of walking up to the altar.

Amber MahoneyFrank Amato, a bisexual man, in New York.
Frank Amato, a bisexual man, in New York.

Frank Amato
Young gay people don’t realise the importance of marriage. I think that being young is part of it, and experience, of course. You’re only going to get that with age. My relationship with my partner was with a male. We were together for 12 years when he got ill. And without having the paperwork in place and not being married, you had no say.

Maliika Graham
At first, I didn’t even believe in marriage, but now I want to adopt kids, and I feel like marriage is the safest way to protect my family. I also want to have a ceremony. I want to stand in front of my family and commit my life to my partner, have a party, maybe on a beach.

Amber MahoneyJama Shelton, who is trans queer, in New York.
Jama Shelton, who is trans queer, in New York.

Gender Expression

Edgardo Diaz
Now you see men who identify as straight and they still paint their nails. They do their makeup. Does that make them gay? Not necessarily. And vice versa. You see women who don’t like wearing dresses. They like to dress up in suits and stuff like that. Does that make them LGBT? No. I just hope in the future we get to a point where we can actually just learn to give each other an opportunity before we come to such rash assumptions.

Leonardo Canela
I feel really liberated to be my age and find a space like this where I can discover myself. At first, I was confused and identifying myself as bisexual. But I finally found within myself who I am and my gender expression. I go by he, she and they. Because gender is like whatever you can be. No one can tell you what you can’t be.

Jama Shelton
I think there is a lot more flexibility and fluidity that is allowable now more than before, more allowance for breaking down the binary. I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think the more we can work to break down what it means to be a man or a woman, the more room there is for everyone to just be who they are outside of those categories. Those are two such limiting categories, and there is such variation in each of them. We’ve just drawn these arbitrary lines around them.