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What It's Like to Be Black, Gay, and HIV-Positive in the South

Photos from Jackson, Mississippi.

Photos: Arkie Tadesse HIV infection rates across the US are on the decline overall, yet a CDC report from earlier this year projects that one in two black men who have sex with men (MSM) will contract HIV in their lifetimes. In Jackson, Mississippi, up to 40 percent of black MSM are infected with the disease.

This portrait series captures faces from the HIV crisis in the US—those who live with the illness and those who are helping to fight it.


They are also the subject of the Tonic Special

No Access: Young, Black, & Positive.

This is Rovoskie "Ro" Mays. He is 20 years old and HIV-positive.

He stands in front of the Mississippi state Capitol Building, where Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed Bill 1523 in April of this year. The bill allows churches, religious charities, and private businesses to decline services to LGBTQ people if they claim that providing this assistance would conflict with their religious beliefs. Outlining more than a dozen services that can now be legally denied, including medical services and counseling, the law runs counter to same-sex marriage legislation, and gives religious groups the right to discriminate based on gender and sexuality.

Cedric Sturdevant was diagnosed with HIV in 2005.

Like many others, he initially refused treatment, convinced that his diagnosis was a death sentence. After a year without medication, Sturdevant was hospitalized. By that point he had acquired AIDS. After getting healthier, he starting volunteering in Jackson clinics, and went on to found a support group, My Brother's Keeper, in 2008.

Sturdevant invited us to one of his regular meetings, where he discussed the intricacies of living with the illness with eleven other HIV-positive men and one woman, all of whom refer to him as Dad. Among other things, Sturdevant provides sexual health information in a state where teaching sex education beyond abstinence is not allowed in public schools. His meetings also serve as the only available mental healthcare in the area for those affected, and a critical opportunity for solidarity.


Jermerious Butler has been hospitalized "over ten times" due to complications from AIDS, since he was diagnosed in 2008.

His lack of both a support system and access to medical care led to severe ill health and a deep depression that repeatedly threatened his life, he says. Although his family rejected him, help from friends like Sturdevant has encouraged him to fight back and treat the disease.

Despite undertaking antiretroviral therapy (ART), his viral levels remain detectable—but he's hopeful that continuing treatment will get him to a better place soon.

Alexis Santi is a 24-year old trans woman with HIV.

Santi ignored her illness for years, until she collapsed in the dressing room after a performance in 2012. At that point she found Sturdevant, who encouraged her to begin treatment. Within a week, she felt noticeably improved, and she continues to battle the virus and work in Jackson's nightclub scene.

Santi's gender identity places her at a still greater risk of discriminatory violence. Just this summer, Dee Whigman, a trans woman of color who worked as a nurse, was stabbed to death in her hotel room in nearby Biloxi, Mississippi.

Mays lives in Grace House, a nonprofit residential facility in Jackson.

It serves as a safe space for local people who are living with HIV, many of whom have been abandoned by their families, leaving them homeless. He shares a dorm-style room with another HIV-positive man, who did not wish to appear on camera.


Catherine Sullivan is the director of Grace House.

She says the biggest service Grace House offers their HIV-positive clients is case management, in which they develop a plan with long- and short-term goals. She aims to help people rehabilitate and then reintegrate into society, helping them battle the South's often overwhelming obstacles of poverty and racial politics.

Mays describes Grace House as the only place in Jackson where he feels safe and is able to be himself. After leaving once before, he's glad to have returned, and says the progress he has made allows him to begin to imagine a life beyond the facility's gates in the future. Watch now: