James Kingstan Wilson’s electric yellow hair and warm smile light up the desk where he sits, with a stack of files in his arms, ready to run from one task to another. Even before he graduated the Peer Recovery Education Program (PREP) in 2011, Kingstan was at the AIDS Service Center of NYC’s (ASCNYC) main office nearly every day, filing paperwork and asking for any work that needed help getting done. Now he’s a Peer Educator and Peer Consultant at the agency, an HIV Testing Specialist, supply clerk, group leader of Words of Wisdom, and Executive Officer of SWAG.
“I love to work,” Kingstan says, “so I stay busy.” He found ASCNYC when an agency client introduced him to SWAG (Sexy With A Goal, a program for young MSMs) in October of 2010, a few weeks after he moved to New York City. He had just finished serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, completed his Bachelors in Chemical Engineering, and was looking for a new adventure. He started working at McDonald’s Corporation, earning over seventy grand a year, but soon quit to volunteer full-time at ASCNYC. For the first time in his life, Kingstan felt like he was doing something that truly mattered. “This agency gave me so much,” he says, “and I feel like all of that precedes money.”
As a Peer, Kingstan reaches out to clients who come into the center worn by life and silenced by stigma. He counsels people on risky behaviors and harm reduction. He shares his story to give others courage. “I want to help the little guys out that don’t have a voice,” he explains.
The idea of having a voice is so important to Kingstan that he teaches it to his son, a seven-year-old with a tuft of curly hair and a contagious laugh like his father’s. “I’ll always ask my son his opinion on something, even though he’s a child,” he says. “I never will tell him, you have to do this because I said so.” Kingstan has seen too many people stripped of their voices. “If my son can exercise his voice now as a child,” he says, “when he gets older no one’s going to be able to take that from him.”
Kingstan’s own voice was stolen when he was five. It was in Chesapeake, Virginia; he lived in a small house with his mother, Debra, and two brothers. This was long before Debra got her nursing degree and pulled the family off of public assistance, before she settled down with Kingstan’s stepfather in a nice house and could afford to purchase her sons brand name sneakers. At the time, she was seeing a man named Robert.
Robert was on the couch watching TV, with Kingstan and his little brother lying on the floor, when Debra announced she was going to the store. The air was strange. Kingstan jumped up: something was telling him that he should go with his mother. He begged, he cried, he grabbed onto her legs, but she wouldn’t let him go. “What’s wrong?” she said, “I’ll be right back.” She left Kingstan sitting with his back against the door. That was when Robert told his little brother to go into the bedroom. He looked at Kingstan. “Do you want to play a game?” he asked. “It’s called Mr. Lollipop.”
Kingstan went numb. He watched himself as if outside his body, numb as Robert pulled out his penis, numb as he took him to the bedroom at the back of the house and undressed him, numb as Robert forced himself onto his girlfriend’s five-year-old son.
He must have heard Debra at the front door. Robert picked up a towel and turned on the water in the bathtub. “Get in the bath,” he said. “If you tell your mother anything, I’ll kill you and I’ll kill your mother.”
Kingstan didn’t doubt him. He had seen his mother’s black eyes and the finger-shaped bruises around her neck. Once he had come home from school to find Debra on the floor with arms flailing and Robert standing over her, his hands grasping her neck.
For more than two years, Robert molested him almost daily. It ended the day Robert was arrested. Kingstan was seven or eight then, trying to distract his little brother as SWAT teams surrounded their house and the blocks around it. He never asked what Robert had been charged with, just thankful that he was gone.
He was silent for fifteen years. He finally told his mother while deployed in Afghanistan. Their relationship had been rocky, and when he called her from six thousand miles away to confess, she was devastated. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said. He said, “Ma, he was going to kill you.” Kingstan had never known his biological father, and so the thought of losing his mother was more terrifying than any abuse. He hid his pain with smiles and laughter—a mask that would become a fixture throughout his life.
When Kingstan started coming to ASCNYC, many at the center noticed his hard work. “It’s really admirable that you’re working in this field and you’re negative,” they would say, “You have such a passion for helping people who are positive.” Kingstan would nod and laugh along, his happy mask in place.
The truth was that he had been diagnosed with HIV over a year ago. He had developed strange lumps on his neck and face, abscesses the size of golf balls. At the hospital, they drained the pus and took some tests. One of them was for HIV.
It was stigma that silenced Kingstan this time. “People think, oh he’s dirty,” he says, “he must have been a drug dealer or he must have been a ho…he must have deserved it.” But Kingstan was none of these things. Shortly before going to Afghanistan he had fallen in love with a man named Jordan. They corresponded during his year in combat, and when he returned Jordan was there, waiting alongside Debra and his brothers. Kingstan picked up his life in Virginia to live with Jordan in North Carolina. Four and a half years later, he discovered that Jordan had been cheating on him with an ex-boyfriend. Still reeling from his heartbreak and recovering from a feeling of worthlessness, a year after he left his first love he discovered that Jordan had also infected him with HIV.
Once again, he told no one. He was close to finishing his Bachelors degree, and so he lost himself in work, pretending that nothing had changed. Even after he came to ASCNYC it was easier to put on his mask than to admit his status.
The mask was about more than just hiding: it was about staying strong and seeing the good in things. Kingstan remembers a time when his family had nowhere to sleep but their car. He woke up in the night to find tears streaming down his mother’s face. “I can’t even take care of my own children,” she’d said. Kingstan comforted her. “Mom, I don’t need much,” he said. “I like this, it’s like we’re on a camping trip.” At school, he put on his A-game, always working hard and trying to do the best he could. He wanted everyone to see that his mom was a good mother. His teachers noticed. His third-grade teacher said to him, “Well, you’re masked pretty well, young man.”
It became harder to pretend that all was well. He started to get sick more often, and it was beginning to affect his work. One day, Jane, an ASCNYC staff member who started out as a client, asked him why he was so sick all the time. After struggling to cover it up, Kingstan gave in. “I’m HIV positive,” he said.
Jane looked him in the eyes. “So this whole entire time,” she said, “you’ve been walking around here like your shit don’t stink. This has been affecting you in more ways than you know. It’s not just your health but mentally, this has been weighing so much on you. You need to start taking care of yourself.” She took his face in her hands. “Son, I’m telling you, this virus does not have you, you have this virus. And you’re going to live.”
Jane told him her story. Through the agency, she helped him connect to a doctor at St. Luke’s Hospital. She sat with him as he opened up his first lab results, explained to him the meaning of T-cell counts and Viral Load, helped him understand that even though he had a clinical AIDS diagnosis, it didn’t mean he was going to die. Not now, not if he didn’t want to.
Kingstan remembers the feel of Jane’s hands on his face, her voice alive with concern and compassion. He had been a part of the agency and seen its effect on people’s lives, but up until that moment he had never quite gotten it. “It was like I saw a light,” he said. “That day, I knew this agency was really a life-saver.”
There must have been at least fifty people in the room when Kingstan stepped up to the podium. It was ASCNYC’s fundraising meeting with Front Runners New York (FRNY), and they were looking for someone to tell their story. Kingstan had never spoken to more than two people at a time about his status, but remembering how hearing Jane’s story had helped him in his time of need, he agreed to tell his.
Though he still struggles occasionally to find the courage to speak, every new day at the center affirms his belief in the need for stories like his to be told. That day with FRNY, he felt like he took in a breath of fresh air. When people came up to him afterwards with open arms, thanking him, he realized that to hoard his testimony was to be selfish. Now he encourages others to share their stories in Words of Wisdom, the spiritual support group that he leads (he is also a minister). “There are so many people who are like me, who are paralyzed by stigma, and they hurt people because they don’t know any better,” he says. “It brings me pleasure to see them have their ‘aha’ moment.” And, just as Jane had helped him find his feet when he was struggling by sharing what she went through, he has helped mentees by sharing his own experiences. “If I can do it,” he once told a young man who, like himself, presented a tough exterior, “anybody can do it.”
Twenty-five years later, the mask is finally coming off. Kingstan’s learned that there are safe spaces where he can be himself at his most vulnerable. At the agency, he feels like people have seen him at his best and at his worst, at the lowest of his lows. Rather than judgment, weakness is met with concern, compassion, and love. “It’s the attitude of ok, you’re going through something,” he says, “but we’re going to dust you off and we’re going to get past this together.”
At ASCNYC, Kingstan has not only found his own voice, he’s also discovered his passion for advocacy, for passing on the gift of voice to the voiceless. One day he hopes to run for public office, fulfilling his childhood dream of being a politician and bringing this clamor to the ears of those in power. He looks out over the main floor of the office and points out the hallways and desks where someone has helped him or where he has helped someone, points out the people who have changed his life. He recalls seeing his mother look at him for the first time during a parent-teacher conference with her eyes full of pride. His heart was beaming. As he watches the people stream through ASCNYC—clients, peers, staff—his eyes overflow with that same look his mother gave him so many years ago, when he was just a little guy who hadn’t yet learned to speak.
*Some names have been changed for the purposes of confidentiality.