In the new issue of aTEEN, the world’s first digital magazine for young gay men (available now to download from Pocketmags.com/aTEEN), former America’s Got Talent contestant Branden James talks about coming out, reacting to his HIV diagnosis, and finding love.
Branden grew up in a deeply religious family, and when he left home, he reacted against his strict upbringing by going down a destructive path. In this excerpt from our full-length interview, Branden opens up for the first time about dealing with his HIV diagnosis, reuniting with his family and finding love with his musical partner, James Clark.
OFF THE RAILS
From age 20 forward, I’ve certainly exercised my right to be an individual. I was rather grounded at home as a serial monogamist, jumping from one long-term relationship to another. Out of the house, however, I lived a sordid life experimenting with drugs of every kind and having my fair share of extra-curricular sex. These acts of self-sabotage seems to be a rite of passage for many in the gay culture. But then again, I’m a product of Generation X, and maybe we’ve all been there, regardless of sexuality. About halfway through my twenties, I found out I was HIV positive.
About halfway through my twenties, I was in a free STD testing clinic called, The Spot in West Hollywood. I was no stranger to getting a routine panel of examinations to make sure I was rid of anything sexually transmitted. I’d had relationships with HIV positive guys in the past. Sometimes we slipped up. It happens. It was the mid 2000’s and this was at the time in HIV care when doctors thought it was better to wait to take medications until you had to. There was nothing like PreP available at the time, so the risk of transmission was likely. The most daunting thing about becoming positive was not the supposed death sentence (which even ten years ago didn’t really exist). It was the guilt and shame that I carried with me which was daunting. After all, I lived in Los Angeles, the land of judgmental people; according to many. I felt like I had done something wrong, when in actuality, I was just having sex and wanting to be loved like all of us. I formed a major complex about what people would think of me. It became so bad that I was concerned that people could actually ‘see’ I was HIV positive. I kept it a deep dark secret to everyone except the trusted few.
Fast forward 10 years and here I am now. I’ve decided that I can’t allow myself to feel isolated anymore. I’ve grown up my entire feeling different, feeling like I didn’t belong. Being different sets you apart from everyone else. I realized that we’re all given circumstances in life, and if we don’t share those stories which make up who we are, we miss out on so many opportunities to inspire people and help people. So I decided to be brave and write about it in this very visible magazine. I recently stood up in front of a crowd of 140 strangers the other day and told them. I had planned to tell America’s Got Talent about it when I was on the show, but my partner at the time was afraid of the backlash it might cause for his own life.
The biggest obstacle of all was telling my parents, just a couple of months ago. I had been through nearly ten years of worrying what they would think, how they would react. When I told them, all they could say was, ‘I’m sorry we weren’t there for you. I’m sorry you felt like you couldn’t tell us.’ After telling them, My Dad walked across the living room of my house and gave my boyfriend James a big hug. He said, ‘thank you for being such a good friend to my son.’ I can’t tell you how much that touched me. I was suddenly free from pain I’d been carrying around for more than a decade. I’ve spent so much of my life being someone else in order to spare people’s feelings.
When I was in my twenties and early thirties, when I met guys, I used to beat around the bush and really suss the other person out before I told them about my status. I felt they didn’t need to know my very personal business minutes after meeting me. But now things have changed. The stigma in many places is not as severe. So I decided a few years ago to be transparent about it with prospective dates. It was liberating actually, and I was shocked to see that people took it a lot less harsh than I ever anticipated. Honestly, I’ve only had one guy who said he couldn’t date me. One. So it was a breeze when I told [partner] James. He said to me: ‘A few years ago, you would have seen me run the other direction when you told me this. But now I’m educated about it and am completely comfortable.’