An interview with Aaron Darr, a gay and once HIV positive teenager who seeks a future seat in congress
Sex education has become one of those political footballs like prayer in school or restricting science teachers to only teaching “intelligent design.” Ever few weeks some right wing Christian politician says something outrageous about education and the subject matter just devolves. However, it is sex education specifically that concerns me the most.
Sex education still frustrates me in this country. I think it takes more than just a class or two to reduce teen pregnancies and raise awareness to sexually transmitted diseases. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has alarming statistics about the rise of HIV in the teenage population and the number’s are getting higher.
Recently, I met a young man named Aaron Darr. We somehow got introduced and got to talking to each other. Aaron is first and foremost a political strategist. After a few conversations about politics, Aaron told me more about his background. He is 23 years-old, but found out when he was 17 years-old that he was HIV positive. That caught my attention right away. I grew up in North Hollywood so I remember the “Dallas Buyers Club” days of the 1980’s, but finding out about an HIV diagnosis to someone this young? I asked Aaron if I could interview him for a sex education and HIV Awareness story and he agreed.
What was sex education like when it was taught to you?
My junior year of high school was one I could neither have predicted nor seen coming, even if directly ahead. One of the classes I was able to take my junior year of high school was a health class during my first semester, of which had a focus on sex education and the dangers of unprotected sex.
While in class, there was a woman from the local health department who came as a guest speaker to talk about the dangers of unprotected sex, unwarranted teenage pregnancy, and HIV/AIDS. After class one day, I went to her to ask for her guidance and advice, as I had been sexually active with three people at this point, all of which were over the age of 21. I complained about a cold sore I had that week specifically and she told me I should think about going and getting tested, so I went.
How did your HIV diagnosis come about?
On December 23, 2008 I went to the Canton City Health Department. After signing in, taking my number, and waiting in a room full of other individuals who were there for what I assumed were the same reasons I had been, my number was finally called.
I traveled down a long hallway with a nurse. While walking, I immediately thought of an episode of Sex & the City, when Samantha Jones had gone for an HIV/AIDS test. Petrified to learn she might be HIV positive, Samantha actually collapsed upon receiving her results. I may have been blonde, a dancer, and 17, but I couldn’t imagine having as much sex as Samantha Jones, so I thought I had nothing to worry about. I sat down with a nurse, put out my arm, and made myself available to any and all STD tests that I was told I should receive after discussing my past sexual partners, which included an HIV/AIDS test.
I returned to the lobby and 40 minutes later was called back into the same room I had been tested in. The young nurse, who once was energetic and had been playfully joking with me, was no longer the nurse I had just met. She was very mellow, nervous, and I could tell something was on her mind. She sat me down and went through my test results. One by one, she told me I was negative. I was so relieved, even though the last result she had told me was my HIV test result. Before she got to that test result, I actually started to put my coat on because at 17 years old and only three sexual partners, I knew I had nothing to worry about. This became a defining moment in my life. I learned that just because you are young, you are not invincible.
“You should sit back down,” she said. So I sat back down in my winter jacket and she told me that there was an issue with my HIV/AIDS test. My heart sank. The room became deafening and cold. I felt as if everything around me were about to cave in. She told me I had tested “preliminary positive for HIV” and that they were “going to need another blood sample to send off to Columbus, Ohio” and I would know an official diagnosis in two weeks. Shocked, I just started to laugh and told her to stop trying to scare me. She then explained to me that she had just started her job the week before and that this was the first time she ever had to deliver a positive diagnosis to another individual. In this moment, I realized that she was not joking and that my life had forever changed.
One band aid later and a knock at the door, I met Joy Dugan, the nurse who tried to explain to me what had just happened. I followed her into another room and she sat down and described in depth to me what had just happened and how my life was going to change. She then gave me a pamphlet with Magic Johnson on the front, a former NBA basketball player who also had become HIV positive. She looked at me and told me, “I know you are going to be okay. There is something about you. You are going to help people one day. I know it.”
How did you tell your parents?
My good friend and her mom, Lynne, brought me home. I went straight upstairs to my room with my friend and our moms talked about it in the kitchen for a few minutes. Never one to be caught off guard or indirect, my mother rushed up the steps to my room with Lynne and my stepfather Robbi. She opened the door and could tell I was visibly upset. She asked me what was wrong and I could not muster the strength or the courage to tell her what had just happened. She then yelled at me to tell her what was wrong, so I told her. I said, “I tested positive for HIV.”
To this day, I can still picture the hurt look on my mother’s face and the heartbreak in her eyes. She fell to the ground and began to cry. I just stood there with my stepfather Robbi and watched my mother break down. My stepfather then looked at me and said, “How could you do this to your mother?” My mother excused herself, locked herself in the bathroom and continued to cry uncontrollably.
Robbi drove my mother and I to the Canton City Health Department where we would meet Joy Dugan, the nurse who would explain to my family that being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence and that people can and do live full, healthy, happy lives on medication. My stepfather, who was more inclined to talk about Magic Johnson than his own stepson, had been a source of comfort and human reality to my mother. On the drive home, I sat in the back seat and watched my mother’s reflection through the rear view mirror in the passenger side window. I watched as she wept for me. This was the moment I had learned what it was like to break someone’s heart.
What happened in the weeks and months following your diagnosis?
My mother had shared my diagnosis with the rest of my family, including my father and brothers, who were in no way phased by my diagnosis or supportive. My brother Michael, who has always loved being the bearer of bad news, decided to share with my friends, who then told their friends, and so on. By the time I had gotten back to school from Christmas break, everyone in school had known of my diagnosis because of a boy who I had been sexually active with, who was a year ahead of me in school. He and I were in show choir with one another and were always competing. The moment he realized he was out of the woods and was HIV negative, was the moment he decided to tell anyone who would listen over Christmas break, that I had tested HIV positive.
When I had gotten back to school, after taking a few additional days to myself past our winter break, I soon realized everyone knew. People were looking at me differently. People were staring and whispering. In between lunch period and a dance class, my friends had come up to me and asked me if there was anything that I needed to tell them. I of course responded, “No.” Never to be fooled, they engaged me further in conversation and told me what they had heard and that other members in choir and show choir had been overheard talking about my HIV diagnosis.
I was so angry. I was so upset. I was so embarrassed. I was so many different emotions, that I did not have an opportune moment to even deal with my diagnosis myself without everyone else finding out about it as well. Everyone seemed to have an opinion. There were others who asked to be moved away from me in different classes, as I was not someone they wanted to engage with or sit next to knowing that I was HIV positive. I was so overwhelmed and felt so alone, that I began to break down on the inside.
On the outside you would never know, as I threw myself back into my studies, finished up my junior year with a 3.4 GPA from a college prep high school where grades were weighed heavily via product and process. I was cast in a musical called ‘Big River’ at The University of Akron, student directed a production of Edgar Allan Poe’s Spoon River Anthology, and began to focus on what would catapult me into being productive and focused.
I became so focused that I had exhausted myself so much so that I had contracted mononucleosis. This resulted in more time off of school and more moments for me to focus on the reality of what had just happened. I would soon return to school and began a medication called Atripla, a cocktail medication of which I soon learned I was deadly allergic to. Hallucinations, slurring my words in front of teachers, falling down a flight of stairs, and breaking out in a rash that covered my entire body from head to toe, teachers became worried about me and began to reach out to help me in any and all ways possible.
Many teachers became a source of comfort for me during this difficult period of time and had guided me with the wisdom to stay as focused as possible regardless of the side effects of my medication. After a week and a half of trying to regulate myself on Atripla, my mother had taken me to the emergency room and I stopped medication, as I had realized that Atripla was not the right drug for me.
It had seemed as if one bad thing after another had happened. I finished my junior year of high school and began my summer break. I didn’t participate in any Summer Stock productions, so I found I had time on my hands. I was warned after becoming HIV positive that it is very normal to later self-destruct. My mother and I had a falling out, so I had moved in with my alcoholic and physically abusive father over the summer. I was now eighteen years old and was old enough to go out. I had no rules or boundaries set by my father, so for an entire summer, I went out and partied with the best of them.
Growing up and being raised by a single mother, my mother and I had always gone through everything together. She and I had good times and bad, but one thing was very clear; she loved me and I loved her. Without my mother in my life, I began to self-destruct. Summer was almost over and I knew that if I wanted to get anywhere in life and pursue a career in politics one day, that I would have to put all of this behind me. I called my mother, told her to pick me up, and moved back home with she and my stepfather. I soon began my senior year of high school, where I was extremely successful in everything I had pursued. I had auditioned for my first musical theater school the second week of my senior year and was accepted on the spot.
I was overjoyed. Finally, things were returning to normal. I was excelling in school again, was accepted into my dream college, and I had my mother back in my life. I would finish my senior year of high school, graduate with honors, as President of Drama Club, with an astounding 33 productions of musicals and plays under my belt, as well as being voted ‘Most likely to be Famous’ by my peers. Two weeks after graduating, I moved to New York City where I would start my college career majoring in musical theater at The American Musical & Dramatic Academy.
I finally began to live again. My dreams were coming true. I realized that everything that had happened to me had happened for a reason.
What would you tell other LGBT Youth about sex education?
I do feel I had lacked the information necessary to protect myself as a teenager. I would tell other kids and parents to educate before relying on the school or the “sex ed” class. In my case, the class is what led me to find out I was HIV positive. Had I known more earlier, maybe things would have been different because life can completely change in one minute.
In Ohio, there are those who believe that keeping men, women and children in ignorance of reproductive health care, contraceptives and information that children would and should learn at a young age about the ways they can protect themselves, is not something that should be included in education in public schools.
What are you planning to do now?
I am a progressive political activist, campaign strategist currently and volunteering for Ready for Hillary. I am also writing a biography called, “A Man for All Seasons: Why Equal Opportunity and Inclusive Government Can Solve the World’s Greatest Problems.” I am also getting ready to launch my own political campaign and run for Congress.
Thank you for taking the time to speak to me, Aaron.
Darr says his story is a source of personal strength as he navigates the political terrain in Florida. He moved to the Sunshine State in 2012 and immediately connected with progressive groups. He revealed his HIV status recently in an interview with the website Queerty.com in an effort to rid himself of any “skeletons in the closet.” You can read more about Aaron at www.aarondarr.com