Impact Through HIV Advocacy: Nathan Townsend

“Seeing the impact of our efforts through advocacy, as well as the allies and community partners furthering our cause, makes me hopeful for the future.”
Sep 18, 2019 5:00 AM ET

Nathan Townsend is a singer, songwriter, motivational speaker, creative director, and social advocate based in Fulton County, Georgia. He has been involved with HIV advocacy since 2005 and works with THRIVE SS to support people living with HIV, using art and music to tell his story and combat the stigma people living with HIV experience. Nathan is a commentator at fashion shows.

When did you find out you were HIV positive? How has your HIV status impacted your life?
I was diagnosed in October of 1984 at the age of 30 during a time when HIV/AIDS was in its infancy. There were very few treatment options and many of us had little-to-no understanding of the virus and how it was spread. Fear ran rampant and was only surpassed by the rumors, myths, and misplaced fears.

For almost 20 years I lived in silence, working and volunteering peripherally with a few AIDS services organizations while never truly engaging in any dialogue about my status. During that 20-year period, I lost almost my entire network of black gay friends, family, and associates who succumbed to comorbidities due to failed treatment regimens, suicide, and drug overdoses resulting often from mismanaged treatment or the trauma of their AIDS diagnosis.

I was shamefully hiding in plain sight. The most painful part of the memories remains the loss of my four life partners whose lives were snuffed out before any of them reached 30 years old. I survived, existed, or endured merely because I was always gainfully employed and utilizing my gifts to live a very full and productive life. It was easier for me to compartmentalize my experiences during those tragic years because most events happened around me and not to me.

However, hiding what I knew as a black gay man growing up in an actively religious family, I was constantly plagued with the contradiction of who I was attracted to versus who I was expected to be. HIV presented yet another challenge, a deeper and much darker secret that I believed robbed me of my hopes, my dreams and ultimately my future.

Where have you gotten support to manage your HIV treatment?
Up until 2004, only my inner circle and sister were aware of my status, and they were inclusive of my sexual partners who were also positive. I was fortunate to have found an infectious disease doctor who served as my longest intimate relationship, lasting 24 years, and lived through all of my secrets and trials in treatment with me. 

In December of 2005, I was admitted to Cooper Hospital and stayed 40 days fighting neutropenia, requiring two blood transfusions and a series of injections to boost both my hemoglobin levels and my white blood cells. During this time, it became painfully obvious that my life would never be the same again. I lost 33 pounds, had severe dehydration accompanied by the most painful mouth ulcers, and was told by a stoic physician that my body had stopped manufacturing blood. I did not know how to access services, but I knew enough to reach out to a friend who went on to plug me into everything that has become my life’s purpose.

How long have you been involved in HIV advocacy?
On December 1, 2005, I spoke publicly about my HIV status for the very first time at a World AIDS Day Commemoration at Bucks County Community College. It seemed non-threatening because they were all white strangers with no connections back to my community in the hood.

Telling my story made it real, but it also made me accountable because I had to practice what I preached there. This small volunteer opportunity led to a whole new life for me, both personally and professionally.

My journey is just beginning but I have many ideas about how we can partner to impact the social barriers and challenges, especially through art I have produced in recent years. 

Do you think there is an added stigma being a person from a racially marginalized community living with HIV, and if so, how do you handle it?
I think that there is so much about being a Black man in America that has its own litany of unresolved issues, many of which precede our own personal life journey. These schisms were culturally inherited, and often so inappropriate and overwhelming. Life showed up as a bully almost every day, and now the bully is armed with additional weapons called fear and stigma.

Do you feel that you face additional challenges in care as a member of a racially marginalized community living with HIV?
There is limited health literacy within the Black gay male community, and it is often accompanied by a lack of trust in the medical field due to historical accounts of mistreatment and abuse. This is well documented and presents challenges for myself and others. 

How would you support someone who recently received a positive HIV diagnosis? 
I’ve seen this disease transition from a terminal illness, when I was diagnosed, to a chronic condition that can now be managed and suppressed. I would tell them about the advances in treatment regimens that make the medication more tolerable and effective in controlling it. I would work to empower them to make informed decisions about their care and introduce them to community organizations like THRIVE SS so they can begin to build a support network. 

If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Understand how important your life is. Your value is priceless, and you don’t have to lie down to know love.

What gives you hope?
Seeing the impact of our efforts through advocacy, as well as the allies and community partners furthering our cause, makes me hopeful for the future. 

Ending the HIV epidemic — and improving and extending the lives of those living with HIV — has been Gilead’s mission for more than 30 years. Through the HIV Age Positively initiative, we aim to shine a bright new light on individuals aging with HIV: the challenges they face, the resources they need and the support they deserve. Read more of their stories here.