How Becoming HIV+ Turned Me Into a Playwright

It took the worst news and deepest doubts of my life to lead me to my voice and my subject: exploring Black queer love.

BY DONJA R. LOVE

December 13, 2018 marked 10 years of me being HIV positive. Looking back over the last decade and my journey toward feeling whole again, I wanted to reflect on my experience living with HIV and how it shaped me as a person and writer.

December 13, 2008.

I walked into a North Philadelphia clinic with a chronic cough. I sat in a tiny, dull grey room across from a nurse, who reminded me of an auntie. After telling her about my cough and a knot I noticed on the left side of my neck, she suggested I take an HIV test.

Having taken one a few months prior and learning I was negative, I wanted to say no, but felt obligated and said, “Okay.”

After the nurse swabbed the insides of my mouth and left, the wait started. It was only 20 minutes, but it felt like forever. So I prayed to lighten the weight of the wait. The nurse returned with a serious look on her face that she tried to mask with a smile. She sat next to me and opened a manila folder and read a small sentence that felt so big: “The test came back reactive to HIV antibodies in your system.” She could tell I didn’t know what that meant, so she said, “Mr. Love, you are HIV positive.”

I froze.

All I could think was, ‘I’m a statistic.’ A study from the CDC reported that one in two Black gay men would be diagnosed with HIV. I kept thinking, I’m one of those men. The nurse tried to comfort me by sharing what I imagine she shared with countless others, saying, “It’s not what it used to be. Having HIV is no longer a death sentence,” and, “This diagnosis doesn’t define you. You define it.”

None of that mattered. It felt like I was falling on the inside while sitting completely still. I was sinking deeper and deeper away from the person I thought I was going to be. I couldn’t say anything; I had no voice. So I forced myself to smile. I smiled all the way out of the clinic, hoping no one would think I tested positive. I smiled, hoping it would stick.

As soon as I got outside, just like in a melodramatic movie, it started raining. I don’t know if that was a metaphor, or God releasing what I couldn’t, but I walked home in that rain. When I got in, I turned on the shower, hopped in, and immediately cried. It felt like I was in that shower forever. I don’t remember getting out. I don’t even remember what I did the rest of the day.

Not wanting to believe my results, the next day I went to another clinic hoping to hear something different. I didn’t. They confirmed what I already knew. Defeated, I spent the next week holding back tears to tell my loved ones my status. I was scared, but I knew I could be scared with them. I knew I was fortunate enough to share what I was going through with them. Similar to sharing my truth of being queer, there was an assembly line of sharing my status.

I cry every time I think about my mother’s reaction. It put me in mind of the old saying “look like you’ve been hit by a Mack truck.” I never saw anything like that before. Her chest caved in and her arms flayed out as, if being pulled in two different directions. Maybe she was. Maybe as a mother thinking about her child, she wanted to cry; and maybe as a mother thinking about her child, she wanted to be strong. I don’t know what it was, but I do know we hugged and neither one of us wanted to let go.

Most of that time, around my initial diagnosis, is a blur. I started drinking heavily, and with each drink, years flowed into each other. I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I started throwing myself into beds, wrapping myself in men, hoping I would find a home. I never did.

I came close to finding one when I got back into the church. At the end of one service, the pastor and I started talking. She took a very unexpected turn in the conversation and said, “God is telling me to say this to you. God is telling me that you need to get back into the arts. Producing, directing, writing.”

I was new to this church, and this was only my third time ever seeing this pastor. She didn’t know me from a can of paint. She didn’t know that I went to school for theatre, that I spent years writing poems, short stories, and monologues. That I wrote and directed a musical in high school for the drama club. That when I was little I would create plays, in my Nana’s basement, and make my cousins perform them. How would she have known that to say what she said? God.

As soon as I got home, I wrote my first play. It was a hot-ass mess, but I wrote it. It was about a man who found out he was HIV positive and how he tried to navigate his status. After that play I wrote another, and another and another. I read more plays. Talked to playwrights, took classes, found mentors. I did whatever I needed to do to be a great playwright. Not because I wanted to say I was a great playwright, but because I realized writing was saving me.

Along with my amazing support system, writing plays offered me healing. The more I wrote, the more I found myself. I was being introduced to a version of myself that I could look at in the mirror. I was becoming a Donja that made me smile again.

I started to feel wholeness as a playwright. I felt proud of what I was writing, of the voice that was forming. While still living in Philly, I submitted my work to different theatres, organizations, and festivals. I had readings of my work and small productions, for which I’d steal some of my parent’s furniture for the set. I met actors who helped bring my words to life. I directed my plays and had other directors direct my plays. I found a community. Life started feeling “normal” again. I liked this feeling. I wanted to grow in it. So I decided that the next step in that growth needed to happen in New York.

But the transition from Philly to New York was tough. On top of becoming financially unstable, I became emotionally and spiritually weak. I fell into such a deep depression that I stopped taking my meds; even with having incredible support from people like my husband (at the time my partner), the Donja who had lost his smile and his voice resurfaced.

One day things were so bad I took a handful of pills and went to sleep hoping never to wake up. I was so mad at God when I did. I laid God out. And all I remember hearing back was, “I gave you life to live it fully.” It didn’t click right away, but a few months later I realized what God meant when I decided to apply for a playwriting fellowship. After writing my first play in more than three years, applying for this would be my first real attempt at trying to be a playwright in New York.

Thinking about the required essay for the application, I challenged myself to live fully in my truth. So I wrote:

I’ve gotten to a point where there are no words, characters, dialogue, or subtext to hide behind anymore. Fear can no longer overshadow truth. And the truth is, I’ve been too afraid to share I’m HIV positive. Ironically, for so long I’d create stories surrounding HIV, but I would never admit that those stories are authentic to me.

That was the first time I ever wrote about being HIV positive myself. I felt so free and alive. I felt an instantaneous shift in me. I felt it not only in my spirit but in my writing. I started believing in me again. I started believing in my writing and, for the first time, I heard my voice.

I began receiving fellowships and awards, I got accepted into a school for playwriting, landed two off-Broadway productions back to back for a trilogy exploring Black queer love, and one of those productions helped me become the first Black male playwright to have work produced on the mainstage of New York’s Atlantic Theater Company.

I learned what type of writing excites me. Thinking about James Baldwin using his  marginalized identities to tell his story, and Toni Morrison writing specifically to and for the marginalized people she writes about, liberated me as a writer.

I realized what I wanted to write about: marginalized people who exist within already marginalized communities. What does it mean to be queer in the Black community? Or HIV+ in the queer community while being a part of the Black community? Living on these intersections can be arduous. Those stories, that unique experience, mattered to me. They needed to be told.

I found my voice.

Thinking back to when I tested positive—the confusion, the shame, the defeat, and the suicidal ideations—it was a journey for me to get to this liberated place. To my voice. I can honestly say that, along with love, writing has gotten me here.

As I reflect on my journey, I’m encouraged for what the future holds and the stories it will offer me. Most of all, I’m excited to meet the Donja of 10 years from now and all that I’ll learn from him.

Tim Gibson