Remembering LeRoy Whitfield

Posted in: News 2005-Older

LeRoy Whitfield, a pioneering young AIDS journalist who lived with the virus for 15 years, died from AIDS-related illnesses on Sunday, Oct. 9. He was 36 years old.

Whitfield had for years been among the most recognized journalistic faces of the epidemic. He wrote for publications ranging from Vibe magazine to the Institute’s suite of publications about the epidemic as it impacts African Americans. He had been a columnist and senior editor at POZ magazine, and at the time of his death wrote a monthly column, called “Native Tongue,” about living with the virus for HIV Plus magazine.

The Associated Press, in its obituary for Whitfield, described his writing as having “linked AIDS among blacks with public housing, poverty and violence, which he said contributed to the rise of HIV in the black community.” His Native Tongues column was among HIV Plus magazine’s most popular features, editor Michael Edwards said in the New York Times’ obituary for Whitfield.

Whitfield’s final column — commenting further on his fateful decision not to take antiretroviral medicines — appeared in HIV Plus just days after his death.

Until 2003, Whitfield had been among those commonly called “long-term non-progressors,” or someone who has been positive for many years without the virus advancing in his body. During that time, he wrote and spoke regularly about the oft-overlooked nuances of AIDS treatment. He was among a minority of voices who questioned whether doctors and AIDS service providers pushed people to start taking the demanding meds too quickly, disregarding their legitmate concerns about the difficulties of side effects and the emotional weight of the decision.

When Whitfield developed an AIDS diagnosis, he faced those choices himself. By his own reckoning, he never found a compelling answer. With his t-cells spent and his viral load climbing, he succumbed to a series of opportunistic infections before he resolved the matter.

At the time of his death, Whitfield was a finalist for a National Association of Black Journalists’ magazine writing award, for a February 2004 article on the challenges that people living longer with HIV present for the AIDS care safety net, which he co-authored with BlackAIDS.org editor Kai Wright.

His family held memorial services in his hometown of Chicago, Ill. on Saturday, Oct. 15. A memorial in New York City, where Whitfield lived and worked, is planned for this Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m. The service will be held in Harlem, at a venue that will be announced later this week.

Memorial statements from Institute director Phill Wilson and author/activist Keith Boykin are on the following page.

From Phill Wilson, executive director of the Black AIDS Institute

The email was direct, to the point, matter of fact—blunt actually. “LeRoy passed away this morning”. It took me back to another time, when the deaths of young gay men were commonplace, a time that was supposed to be over.

LeRoy Whitfield was just over 30 years old when he died of “complications from AIDS” on Sunday. He was among a very small fraternity of Black journalists who cover the AIDS epidemic in the African American community.

I met him in 1997 when he and I were both on a workshop panel at a conference in Baltimore. He was one of the first people I hired in 1999 when we started the Black AIDS Institute. He was the editor of the first issue of Kujisource, the Institute’s prevention and treatment newsletter. He was smart, AIDS educated and connected to the HIV treatment world, and he died yesterday from AIDS —- not twenty years ago, not ten years ago, yesterday. His death is yet another reminder that the AIDS epidemic is not over for Black folks in America. LeRoy’s life and death with AIDS is a commentary of how complex HIV/AIDS in “Black Face” really is.

Diagnosed with HIV in 1990, LeRoy, like many African American’s, was not on treatment. I keep struggling with the question why wasn’t he on treatment. LeRoy was not an AIDS dissident. I remember speaking with him about this many times. He would often point to the potential side effects to justify his reluctance. I would always shoot back, “AIDS has an enormous side effect that trumps the side effects of ARVs any day.” But I don’t believe LeRoy resisted going on treatment because he was afraid of the meds.

LeRoy may have been afraid, but if so his fear was of all the things young, poor, Black gay men are afraid of —- rejection, loneliness, disappointment, marginalization, the invalidation of their lives. As fearless as LeRoy was as a journalist, as open as he was about living with HIV, perhaps LeRoy was never able to escape the demons that haunt us all. And how can we, when those fears are confirmed everyday?

In his last column for HIV Plus magazine, LeRoy wrote of his home health aide, George, “I can help you, brother, but I can’t save you.” Maybe we can’t “save” all the brothers. But I can’t help believing that we should be able to help more of us.

From Keith Boykin, author and activist

Just days after he published an article about his experience with AIDS in HIV Plus magazine, my longtime friend and journalist LeRoy Whitfield passed away this morning.

A native of Chicago, LeRoy moved to New York in 2000, where he became one of the nation’s leading journalists reporting on AIDS among African-Americans. A frequent contributor to Vibe magazine, he formerly served as associate editor at Positively Aware and later served as senior editor of POZ magazine before becoming a freelance journalist.

I had not seen LeRoy in several months, but I remember his infectious smile, his beautiful locks (which he later cut) and his engaging personality. He was unusually committed to exposing the truth about AIDS in the black community, and he was unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom.

I remember sitting with him over coffee in New York and talking about the state of black America, and I remember lounging with him on a friend’s sofa in Los Angeles as we talked about the politics of sex parties. Roy even traveled to a South Dakota prison to interview Nikko Briteramos, a young black man who was the first person convicted under that state’s HIV transmission law.

LeRoy was very candid in writing about his life as an HIV-positive black man. He wrote about moving into a convent, looking for an apartment, hiring a caretaker and his decision not to take HIV meds. Diagnosed with HIV in 1990, LeRoy lived without drug treatment for the rest of his life, a decision he struggled with in his last years.

In August of this year, LeRoy reflected on the wisdom of his decision to refrain from medication. “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 meds for so many years that now, with my numbers stacked against me, I find it hard to stop. 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.”

A working journalist to the end, LeRoy wrote in the October issue of HIV Plus about his recent decision to get someone to take care of him. “After weeks of feeling conflicted about it, I finally came to terms with the fact that I need the assistance of a home health aide to help me manage my unwieldy life with AIDS. Someone to help out with household chores, for example, which because of my fatigue might slide for weeks on end. Someone to answer my calls when my harried friends grow tired of me speed-dialing the numbers to their cells in order to phone in a favor. I knew I had to do something.”

LeRoy wrote about his personal life but also saw how his life experiences fit into the larger issues around HIV and AIDS. In a February 2001 interview with the New York Times, LeRoy explained “there is no black gay Mecca, no black Chelsea. And because the community is so decentralized, prevention and outreach efforts are even more difficult.” He also offered a critique of the AIDS establishment. “I don’t think the larger AIDS groups give the voice to the black gay community,” he told the Times. “A lot of these men don’t have a grip on what they are feeling sexually, and I don’t think many of the organizations have a grasp on how to communicate with them.”

He also saw the connection between AIDS and public housing, poverty and violence, all of which he said contributed to the rise of AIDS among African Americans, LeRoy wrote in the September 1997 issue of Positively Aware magazine. “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.” In contrast, he explained that black neighborhoods have ample liquor stores and drug alleys. “AIDS is the gripping issue of the gay community,” he said. “For African Americans, it?s the atrocity du jour.

Keith Boykin has posted a number of LeRoy´s recent articles on his website.

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