Kia Labeija's Firsthand Account of Growing Up HIV+

The artist shares her essay 'Eleven' titled after the 11th anniversary of her mother's passing.

by Kia Labeija
01 December 2015, 9:00pm

Baby Kia at ACT UP. Image courtesy the artist

This World AIDS Day, VICE is exploring the state of HIV around the globe. Watch our special report, "Countdown to Zero," tonight on HBO at 9 PM, and to get involved visit and shop (RED).

In the womb we share everything with our mothers. This is by definition our first home. We are connected by blood, flowing and pumping oxygen into our small developing bodies, and before we even have a conscious, we have love. When my mother died, I cried just as hard as the day I met her. I became homeless. Not because I had no where to live, but because the body that had once been my first home had stopped breathing. When I arrived at the hospital that night, she laid there so quietly. I grabbed her in attempt to hold her in my arms, but her body was too heavy, her face was too purple, and she had already left. So I didn't get to say goodbye.

I can recall early memories of dancing around hospital hallways. Spinning in circles amongst shadows, casted by yellow fluorescent lights. I could pretend that these moments were sad, but the beauty of the setting sun, drenching the walls of the 9th floor of Roosevelt Hospital in New York City were so familiar, that they felt like home. This was the early 90s when the word AIDS still smelled of wasting bodies, still looked like dark Kaposi sarcoma lesions, and the world had turned its back on human beings for acquiring a deficient immune system. I was three when my mother got the news. She had struggled some weeks with a cold that wouldn’t go away. When she was finally tested, she was assumed to be in a low risk group; heterosexual, female, of Asian and Native American decent. The day she arrived for her results the nurse told her “whatever you want to do with your life, you should do it now.”

This was not the worst my mother had faced. A child of incest and a survivor of a brutal rape in 1985, my mother's trauma ran so deep that HIV was just one more thing. But this time she had a choice. She chose to stray away from Western medicine and go on her healing journey by way of spirituality and holistic medicine. She died 10 years later. I could tell you that I felt as if she didn’t choose me, maybe she didn’t recognize that this disease was a product of man and not a product of God, so God only had so much pull. But I’ve never felt betrayed by her decision, and in fact, sometimes I even believe that she sacrificed her own spirit to give me a stronger one. My mother was my biggest support, and through her work with ACT UP and APICHA, she never made me feel that I should be ashamed of being positive.

Image courtesy the artist

My earliest memory of HIV is from elementary school with my best friend in kindergarten, Melissa— whom to this day is still one of my dearest friends, ex-college roommate and soon-to-be mother. We were walking down the halls of PS 11, our Chelsea elementary school located between the projects and the gay bars. I recall her being the first person I ever told. There must have been a conversation about it in school, possibly in Ms. Pollock's art class discussing one of my favorite artists Keith Haring, his dancing figures and his life as an artist. I remember whispering to Melissa, "I have that too," and her asking me "AIDS?" "I think," said my six-year-old self. I remember this moment of not understanding that there was a difference between HIV and AIDS and being confused about the two until middle school.

Seventh grade was when I first came out publicly about my HIV status during my school's AIDS assembly. I found myself standing up in a sea of my peers, alone, as the guest speaker prompted questions to have students stand up. When he asked if anyone was positive I just naturally raised out of my seat. I was in complete shock that I was the only one. I remember fearing for my life in that moment, as my fellow classmates glared at me with watery eyes. I sat back down and cried. I felt ashamed, and stupid that I would put myself out there like that. But it was one of the best things I have ever done. I received nothing but kind, empowering words from other students and I didn't have to hide anymore.

After graduating high school, I set out to conquer college, and there I became liberated. I found myself at 19, being introduced to the nightlife scene and feeling the reminisce of the 80s. This is where I began my journey into voguing, politics, and fine art. I was outside of a church praying for a job, as my work-study money had run dry. “Anything,” I asked God. Two days later, God showed up in a familiar face. I ran into a friend of mine on the train, while I was on my way back to my New School dorm on 8th Street. While we chatted, he told me he was the general manager at Webster Hall, a venue I had never been to. I asked jokingly if he was hiring, and he said “Can you start tonight?”It was the opening of Circus, a brand new party in the main ballroom. There were aerialists, jugglers, drag queens, dancers, and lots of confetti. It felt like a dream.

ELEVEN. Image courtesy the artist

I began my experience at Webster Hall as a back waiter, carrying heavy buckets of ice to the tables of old and unfriendly promoters. I later found myself sitting behind the reception desk, answering phone calls, and staying as far away from drunk party goers as possible. It was from behind that desk I met Celso. Celso, was one of the hired drag artists for Circus, and would come mingle with me as we both prayed for the night to be over. This became a regular event, and we began spending lots of time together at work. She told me about all of New York’s lavish underground parties, and I fantasized about being there with her, running away from all the Long Island kids who terrorized the city during the weekends. Celso and I bonded on a whole other level. And when she asked me to be a member of her House, I said “House like Paris is Burning?” "Yes" she replied. This is when VOGUING became a part of my life. 

I spent the rest of my nights at Webster Hall waiting to get off so that Celso and I could enjoy breakfast and recap. As the sun was rising, we were just making it out of work. It was here that she first introduced me to other positive people. Young like me, and I felt accepted and at home. Going out to the newest parties, drinking champagne, and voguing till I could barley stand became my new reality. In the darkness, I could be anybody. Three years later, I joined the House of Labeija, and through my persona as Kia Labeija, began to share my story, under the comforts of this new identity. I found a new home within the hearts of my new brothers and sisters, some of whom carry the burden of a kind of positivity that can only be understood by blood.

I was gifted my first Canon camera during this time, and I documented these nights, my friends and new family. I began self portraiture as a way to archive my being, to reach immortality, and to be viewed as beautiful and not as toxic. My art and my life have since become synonymous, my story has become public once again, only this time on a larger platform. My mother's spirit dances with me every time I take the floor, and through my courage, her voice is heard around the world. The wounds have begun to heal over, settle in, and I have been reborn. 

To learn more about the artist click here

Check out our VICE Special Report: "Countdown to Zero" (Trailer):


Kia Labeija Tracks the Influence of HIV/AIDS on Contemporary Art

[Exclusive] Hip-Hop, Voguing, and Heraldry Meet in Rashaad Newsome's New Video

The Ballroom Pentecostal Video Art Church of Minister Akins