LeRoy Whitfield: A Hero for Our Times

LeRoy Whitfield

LeRoy Whitfield, a writer who focused upon the battle against AIDS among African-Americans, has died after living 15 years with the HIV virus, all the while steadfastly standing by his commitment not to to take HIV medications. He was 36.

Whitfield, a contributor to Vibe magazine, died Sunday at North General Hospital in Manhattan from complications related to AIDS.

“He was unusually committed to exposing the truth about AIDS in the African-American community, and he was unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom,” Keith Boykin, a widely-read commentator on race and sexual orientation, wrote on his Web site.

Some might doubt the wisdom of one of the conventions that Whitfield challenged or defied after being diagnosed with HIV in 1990, namely the use of antiretroviral drugs. It is true that there are number of known side effects associated with HIV,which range from fatigue and nausea to blurred vision. However, it is also now known that additional psychopharmalogical interventions are able to manage or even ameliorate most of those side effects quite well. Therefore, this observer worries that Mr. Whitfield’s personal commitment against the use of antiretrovial medication may have conveyed a dangerous or damaging message to those very groups to whom his work was devoted.

In fact, toward the end of his life, LeRoy Whitfield expressed serious doubts about the wisdom of his decision. “My T-cell count has plummeted to 40, a dangerously all-time low, and my viral load has spiked to 230,000. I’ve argued against taking [medication] for so many years that now, with my numbers stacked against me, I find it hard to stop,” he wrote in the August issue of HIV Plus magazine. “I keep weighing potential side effects against the ill alternative, opportunistic infections and I can’t decide which is worse to my mind. I just can’t decide.” This is perhaps where a steadfast commitment at some point manages to cross over a fine line and becomes a dangerously maladaptive personal obsessive defense, riddled with a deep sense of personal doubt that, in turn, makes it almost impossible to carry out adaptive decisions.

Nevertheless, from a more generous, broader perspective Whitfield will be remembered for using his personal experiences, including relationships with both men and women, as a prism to clarify many of the larger issues surrounding the disease.

He linked AIDS among African-Americans with public housing, poverty and violence, which he said contributed to the rise of HIV in the African-American community. He also debunked the absurd notion, voiced by a number of African-American tunnel-visioned and paranoid groups, that AIDS was a “white conspiracy” to spread the disease among blacks.

“Widespread violence, for example, is not a reality in upscale gay communities. Gay white men do not overpopulate public housing. Gay communities have no shortage of HIV services nearby,” he wrote in the September 1997 issue of Positively Aware magazine. “AIDS is the gripping issue of the gay community. For African-Americans, it’s the atrocity du jour.”

According to the 2000 Census, African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population. However, they have accounted for 40 percent of the 929,985 estimated AIDS cases diagnosed since the first ones were reported in 1981 by the federal Centers for Disease Control.

A Chicago native whom Boykin remembers as a man with “beautiful locks” and “an infectious smile,” Whitfield attended the University of Chicago and then later worked as an associate editor at the Chicago-based magazine Positively Aware and as a community educator for Positive Voice, an AIDS awareness organization.

He moved to New York in 2000, contributing to Vibe and becoming a senior editor of POZ, a magazine aimed at providing support for HIV-positive people.

Among his admirable ventures was a trip to a South Dakota prison to interview Nikko Briteramos, a black young person who had been convicted under that state’s HIV transmission law.

But in the end, Whitfield was forced to focus on his own illness, while writing about it. He dubbed himself the “Marathon Man” after a Harvard Medical School researcher studied him as a rare longtime HIV survivor who had “never popped AIDS meds”, as Whitfield wrote three years ago in a POZ article.

The doctor “has stopped short of shakin’ a Magic 8-Ball to understand specimens like me,” he wrote. Whitfield himself attributed his survival to “better nutrition, good exercise and a low stress level.”

Revised Adaptation from:
Newsday, copyright 2005

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