In the summer of 1986, Larry Bryant was an athlete just finishing his freshman year at Norfolk State University in Virginia. As part of the service work that came along with his scholarship, Bryant routinely donated blood through the local Red Cross.
One day, a doctor pulled him aside and told him that he could no longer give blood—the Red Cross had found HIV antibodies in his system. As an otherwise-healthy, straight male, Bryant was flabbergasted when he was told that he perhaps had just nine years to live.
That was in the early days of a global pandemic that would eventually infect 60 million people. Thirty years ago this week, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report about a perplexing medical oddity—a smattering of young homosexual men in New York and California suffering from pneumonia and cancers that were normally seen only in those with compromised immune systems.
By the time Bryant was diagnosed, the ailment had a name—acquired immunodeficiency syndrome—but was still largely shrouded in mystery. Many people took their cues from the horrific images published in newspapers of men covered in the lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer afflicting late-stage AIDS patients.
“I was diagnosed five or six years before Magic Johnson—there was no road map, no example to follow,” Bryant remembers. “All the people that I had known of with [human immunodeficiency virus] were white gay men and black gay men who had then died. So it was terrifying.”
For years, he kept the diagnosis a secret, trying to live his life normally. Although Bryant remained healthy (25 years later, his diagnosis still has not progressed from HIV to AIDS), soon the burden became too much to bear. He dropped out of school, sank into a deep depression, and moved on and off the streets, experimenting with drugs and even attempting suicide. “It was like being whispered to in a dream of the exact day and moment you were going to die,” he said. “I was a 19-year-old athlete keeping that to myself. It just ate me up.”
Ultimately, the clouds cleared for Bryant and he decided he wasn’t ready to concede defeat. He told friends and family about being HIV-positive and began to rebuild his life. He went back to school to study psychology and became a teacher. Around the same time, he began attending support meetings and dabbling in HIV/AIDS activism, but was frustrated with the environment.
“I remember being in a support group in Charlotte and they met in a basement in a church and you would go in through the back side door,” Bryant said. “I just got the really strong sense that people were hiding in these support groups. And I thought, ‘Why are we sitting down here in the basement complaining about things that we choose not to change? We need to do something to be our own advocates.'"
Bryant made AIDS advocacy his full-time profession in 2000, starting as a staff member for the People With AIDS Coalition in Houston. He is now back in Washington, his hometown, as the national field director for Housing Works, a New York City-based advocacy organization that seeks to address the AIDS epidemic as well as the social ills that surround the disease, chief among them poverty and homelessness.
Much has changed in the quarter-century since Bryant was diagnosed. Medical breakthroughs have transformed what was once a death sentence into a chronic illness for those with access to treatment. Yet much remains to be done.
Bryant looks forward to the day when grim anniversaries like this one no longer have to be commemorated. He has one goal in mind: to end the epidemic altogether. “We have the science to end the epidemic. We can see in our lifetime an end to this,” he said. “We need to remember to keep fighting.”
Julia Edwards contributed. contributed to this article.
This article appears in the June 3, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.