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HIV Equal Online's Most Captivating Voices of 2014: Damon L. Jacobs

In honor of World AIDS Day 2014, HIV Equal Online is honoring 10 of the most captivating voices in HIV research, advocacy and care. The honorees were selected based upon the nominations of people from across the country who have been inspired by the work of these men and women. HIV Equal Online is proud to present the first annual list of Most Captivating Voices in HIV, and in the spirit of voices, will allow these men and women to speak for themselves.

Name: Damon L. Jacobs

Age: 43

Location: New York, New York

Occupation: Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, HIV Educator

 

What inspired you to become involved in your work with HIV?

 

I came out as gay in 1989 in West Hollywood, then soon moved to the Bay Area.  That was the time when knowing people with AIDS, dating people with AIDS and loving people with AIDS meant losing people with AIDS.  I lost a lot. 

 

At the same time, I was beginning my education and career in mental health.  It seemed irresponsible and unethical to not be part of a solution to a problem that was causing so much anguish and suffering to everyone, both infected and affected by AIDS. 

 

During the last months of his life in 1990, Vito Russo taught a class at my college on his book “The Celluloid Closet.”  He would teach about movies and play clips about gay and lesbian representation in Hollywood films.  Inevitably, the video would fail to play, and we’d just be sitting there in the auditorium, waiting.  Vito would fill in the gaps by telling us stories about his New York activism, about his deceased partner Jeffrey, and about the progression of AIDS in his own body. 

 

In one of the last weeks of class, Vito reflected on his life, how he enjoyed partying, but wished he hadn’t wasted so much of his time “making small talk at bullshit cocktail parties.”  He died a few months later. 

 

Why did this prominent activist/author choose to spend the last few months of his life with a group of college students?  It was about a lot more than movies.  He was there to motivate, to inspire, to have us act up, fight back, and not waste so much time “making small talk at bullshit cocktail parties.”  He was the first person I ever met, hugged, and then lost, to AIDS.  And he was the first person who got me interested and active in prevention.  

 

What do you think contributes the most to HIV stigma today?

 

I think what contributes most to HIV stigma is how the fear of pleasure is deeply intertwined with homophobia in this society.  People fear HIV not because it is a death sentence, but because of this perception: “That guy had wild reckless unprotected sex with another man.  I’m afraid of my desires to have wild reckless unprotected sex with another man.  So if I shame that guy and perceive him as “other,” then I’ll be safe from my own carnal desires to have wild reckless unprotected sex.” 

 

HIV is the never-ending rorschach of our time.  Those who love and embrace their minds and bodies have no issue loving someone who is HIV-positive.  Those who carry uninvestigated layers of self-loathing and guilt project those feelings onto their HIV-positive brothers and sisters.  

 

To put it another way, if people paid as much attention to their own “shoulds” about HIV as they spent on their weight, appearance, money, etc, we would have a lot less stigma and violence in the world today. 

 

What does it mean to you to be HIV Equal?

 

It means that my expression of love, lust, passion, desire, intimacy, respect, connection, admiration and adulation are not determined nor limited by one’s HIV status. 

 

How do you use your voice in the fight against HIV/AIDS?

 

I use my voice in social media, primarily FaceBook, in the “PrEP Facts: Rethinking HIV Prevention and Sex” Group that I started.  I also use my voice to communicate in the HIV Equal columns that I have written. 

 

Additionally, I use my voice to facilitate trainings on PrEP with healthcare professionals and community members.  I help people learn the science, history and the pleasure-based reasons why people choose to use PrEP.  By gaining greater acceptance of pleasure in themselves, participants then have greater respect and appreciation for pleasure-seeking in others. 

 

I have also used my voice more recently in media coverage.  I have been extremely gratified to use my voice, and my ability to speak clearly and concisely (on live TV!), about PrEP and its advantages with features on MSNBC, The New York Times, USA Today, NPR Radio, New York Magazine, New York WPIX 11, Al Jazeera America ... and more.

 

What do you hope to accomplish in your work with HIV?

 

I hope to accomplish more P.R.E.P. in the world, meaning Proactive, Responsible, Empowered, Pleasure.

 

For me, PrEP is more than just a new way to have sex. It offers a new paradigm of choices, decisions, actions and responsibilities. We have an unprecedented opportunity to be catalysts for real change in the world - not just with our bodies, but with our minds and actions.

 

It invites us to rethink HIV prevention and sex as tools for expanding love, information and compassion, instead of promoting fear, shame and stigma. It poses a challenge: do you want to engage in the status-quo models of defensive relating and attack, or do you want to be part of a real revolution of community, integrity, unity and respect? 

 

At my funeral celebration, I want someone to say, “I had better sex because he taught me I could change my mind.”  That is what I hope to accomplish.