DML dean on HIV: ‘The greatest gift I’ve ever received’

By Kyle Coombs

For World Aids Day, new Dean of Multicultural Life Christopher MacDonald-Dennis delivered a talk as part of the Lealtad-Suzuki Center’s SPEAK! series in which he conversed openly about being diagnosed with HIV in 1996. This week he sat down with The Mac Weekly to chat about the talk, his history and the legacy he hopes to leave at Macalester. TMW: Were you apprehensive about giving your World Aids Day talk? CM: You know, I’ve actually been a speaker, kind of a “Motivational Speaker”—although I hate that term because it sounds so cheesy. But I’ve done speaking to classrooms, to groups, to AIDS Prevention Organizations … but there was something about a small community, especially in a place that I didn’t quite understand. I had heard people say, “We don’t do that in Minnesota.” You know people say that a lot here. I’m from the East Coast, but I didn’t know how this was gonna be received in the Midwest in a place where people are extremely friendly, but also very reticent in talking about their personal lives. So I wasn’t quite sure what that was going to be. I remember waking up that day and being a little like, “Okay, so this could either go really well or…”—I knew it was going to go well, but I wasn’t quite sure what the impact was going to be. TMW: Why is it so important to you to give “Living With HIV” talks? CM: Someone reminded me that we are entering the fourth decade of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, because it was 1981 when we found out. And I think that for a lot of people, HIV and AIDS are topics that people don’t really talk about, that people don’t think about; I think they think about it somewhere else. They think about Sub-Saharan Africa or they think about it happening to other people. And for me, I want people to always know that they know someone with this disease. So it puts a human face to this disease. And it really allows people to say, “This is something that we as a community need to tackle.” It also allows people to come out about their own experience. I’ve met people who’ve come up to me that their fathers have had HIV. I met a woman once whose grandmother had HIV. Even after this talk here, there were people who came up and said, “Can I tell you about the person that I’ve lost?” And they’ve never talked about that before. So it’s nice to be able to say, “I want to bring who I am to this place and I want to talk about my losses.” I also think that oftentimes we focus on intellectual intelligence, kind of like academic intelligence, but we don’t talk about emotional intelligence. And I hope that I showed that [cultivating] that is just as important … to become more aware of yourself, to really understand who you are. That doesn’t mean you’re not to make mistakes, but it just means, “Okay I understand who I am and I am comfortable in my own skin.” And people really commented after the talk that it was unlike anything they’d really ever seen at Macalester. TMW: In your talk, what’s the most important point for you to make? CM: I want people to see themselves, so I talk about the decisions that I made when I was having unprotected sex with the person who infected me. I remember thinking (and I said this) that he didn’t use a condom. And I remember thinking, “Maybe I should say something. But what if he leaves? What does that say about me?” I want people to hear that because I know I’m not the only person who has ever thought that. And I always say that I was just the unlucky one. I want people to locate themselves, because sometimes I think that in this society in order to protect ourselves because we say, “Oh this won’t happen to me because I would never make that decision.” And when I said that, and when I told people what I was thinking, you could see people’s faces, like “I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve made some of those poor decisions.” So it’s just really to help people to realize that that’s why you need to really protect yourself because it’s not like I did something so horrendous. I just met this really cute guy at a club. You know, that’s all I did. And a lot of people do that and don’t think about the consequences. I also wanted people to take from the talk that we ultimately can choose—while we can’t always choose what happens to us—we choose how we accept it and deal with it. I always say that HIV was the greatest gift I’ve ever received, because I’ve had to learn about myself. People kept being really surprised, but I said, “We can do that with anything in our life. When we have disappointments, how do we ultimately choose to deal with that?” That doesn’t mean we don’t get upset or frustrated, but it does say that ultimately, how we choose to really deal with it is up to us. TMW: Would you say your experience as a Queer Person of Color with HIV has been different than other people’s? CM: You know, it is different and it’s not different and let me explain what I mean. I explained in my talk that when I was first diagnosed, I joined a support group and there were people from different walks of life there. I remember there was this rich, gay, white male lawyer. Very nice guy, but totally came from a different world than I did. I had HIV, he had HIV. There was an African American woman whose husband had been in jail, there was a Latino woman who had been an IV drug user and some folks who had had unprotected sex and I think they were from poorer communities. You know, Audrey Lord says, “There is no hierarchy in oppression.” It’s a phrase that we in Social Justice say all the time, and I didn’t really get it until that moment. I realized that we all faced different issues, but we were the marginalized in society. Ronald Reagan didn’t say the word ‘AIDS’ until I believe it was 1987 or 1988, even though he had gay friends, even though he knew gay people. A lot of us who lived through the early years of the epidemic remember what that was like. The fear, and really just the other-ing that happened. While I think that my experience might be different, there really is a commonality. I really feel a common bond with other people with HIV, because often we can talk about those feelings of internalized depression that we have, the shame, and ultimately the way that we are treated now. So there really is a common bond that I feel with people. TMW: You are very comfortable talking about your life and how HIV has affected you. Were you always that way or was that a process? CM: I have always been talking about my experiences in my life, in order to help others, especially students, see themselves and understand themselves and the choices they make. That did become a process. Having grown up in a really dysfunctional family, I think there was a big question of, “Why me? Why did I go through these things?” And then I kept thinking, well I can help other people heal from their own stuff and be comfortable in their own skin. With the HIV, I would say that it took a couple of years. I would say that it was probably two years that I had what was called the ‘Pity Party,’ where I was just feeling bad for myself and all of a sudden I said, “And what do you wanna do with this?” And that’s when I [decided]—because I was in Student Affairs—[to] work with college students. I know about some of the decisions that college students make, both good and not so good. So if I can make a difference and help people to think about their decisions … I remember when I was in college I thought I was invincible. And all of sudden you’re like, “Oh no, I can’t do whatever I want.” So just to get people to reflect on that and also to know that they too have that strength, when life is going to offer them challenges, they are going to be able to rise to it. I think that we all have it within ourselves. That doesn’t mean that everything is always rosy, but it really can be ultimately be our choice about “How am I going to choose to face this situation?” TMW: You’re legally married. What was that commitment like? The conversation? CM: That was difficult because my partner is HIV-negative. And when I met my partner he had lost his mother a year and a half before and he is a sel
f-described “Mama’s Boy,” he was very close to his mother, and it was really hard for him to say, “Okay, I’m falling in love with a man who I don’t know how long I have on this planet with.” And there was a lot of fear. When you’re a zero discordant couple—that’s what they call us—at a very early stage in your relationship you’re talking about some very deep stuff. We really had to talk about life and death and things that were really profound at a very early stage. I do think that it brought us also very close. He’s still HIV-negative, and I think we’ve really grown together. And I think in many ways HIV has really enriched our relationship in that way. TMW: How soon do you tell a person after you meet them that you are HIV-positive? CM: With friends, it depends if it comes up. Usually not too—like if we’re really gonna become friends—usually not too, too long, because it’s an important part of me and it’s who I am. In terms of dating, I told people right away, because I wanted people to know, like I don’t want to get emotionally involved. And I used to have friends who would disagree, they’d be like, “You don’t need to tell people” and I’m like no, I need to not get emotionally involved with this person. I want them to reject me if they’re going to right away. That’s just how I learned to protect myself. There are other people who don’t tell for a while until it gets really serious. I just would never want to fall in love with someone or really have strong feelings for someone and then have that chance, because while there are some people who want to believe love can conquer all, I know there is also deep fear around this, so I rather would be safe than sorry. TMW: You say HIV is the greatest gift you have ever received. Do you incorporate HIV in everything that you do? Does it inspire you? CM: It does, because I realized that in 1996, I had no idea how long I was going to be on this planet for. And that doesn’t mean that every day, I’m always like “Yay.” There are days when I feel really crappy and I don’t wanna go do anything. But I do think that I think about this larger thing, “What is my impact on this world going to be?” That’s the biggest thing, the gift that I got, that I really thought about my legacy. It’s one of the reasons that I really did work around Social Justice and Activism, because I didn’t know how long I’d be on the planet and I wanted people to remember that Chris made a difference and I know that I’ve done that. And I look forward to the many, many years that I will be here at Mac and to help students understand that they have it within themselves to make a difference. So for me, that’s really the legacy. Really, honestly, it inspires me. While I’m very, very healthy and everything is great, I don’t know how long I have on this planet. So for me, I will always make sure that I am always doing the best work I can and inspiring people and making a difference. TMW: So what are some of your plans for your next years at Macalester? CM: Well I really want us, as a campus, to really actualize Multiculturalism. I’m still figuring out what that would look like here, because I think that it looks different at every place. You know, the beauty of Macalester is that Multiculturalism is one of its values. I think it happens in so many places on this campus. This is a vibrant multicultural campus. I also think sometimes it’s our personalities. We’ll talk about what is wrong and not what is right. I think there needs to be a way that we really connect with the great things that are going on and really create a synergy and say, “Wow this is a really dynamic, multicultural place.” It feels like there are pockets of people doing it, but my job is to really coalesce all those folks together and to say how do we move forward together? I have twenty years of experience in social movements and activism, so for me, I always joke that part of my job is community organizing, because it is really about getting people on board and saying, “Folks, we’re doing this.” Great stuff is already happening on this campus, but how do we all realize that we’re doing it … how do we recognize each other and say, “Wow, we’re really making a difference on this campus”? Because I think that students really come here for that Multiculturalism.