Hardship seems to follow Shelton Jackson like a wanton stray dog.
He spent a lot of time during his childhood waiting in a park with his brother while his parents bought drugs, he says. His father died of AIDS-related pneumonia, and his mother, who is still a drug user, is HIV-positive. In high school, when he told his family he was gay, they stopped speaking to him. He fell in love at a tender age only to lose his partner to AIDS six years later. He is HIV-positive. He is 28.
But there's another story, too. Jackson, an on-again, off-again student at Morgan State University, is funny and excitable. He's lean and bouncy and has a big, toothy smile. He has been sick in the past, but now he takes medication daily and is buoyantly healthy.
Hoping his redemptive tale might inspire a lost soul or two, he is busy sculpting a career out of telling his story. He has self-published two books of memoir-style poetry with uplifting titles about acceptance and the future. He is also part of a group of young, HIV-positive men and women who are on a cross-country college campus tour, raising awareness about the epidemic by sharing their histories.
Jackson spoke at five colleges in April, including the University of Maryland and George Washington University. This week, he rejoined the tour for its last five stops.
"I like to make sure people know it wasn't an overnight turnaround," Jackson said in an interview in his Baltimore home between speaking engagements. "Yes, you see a nice, strong person now, but it's the end result of a long process.
"It was not that I woke up one day and said, 'I'm positive, I'm going to get over it.' It wasn't that way. ... It took me three years to say out loud that I was HIV-positive and it shouldn't take people that long," he said. "But I have accepted it. I really think this is finally me doing what I was meant to do. This is where I'm supposed to be."
The speakers on the tour, which was organized by the New York-based nonprofit organization Hope's Voice, are between 19 and 29. Some, like Jackson, were infected by partners or through other sexual contact. Others were infected perinatally from their mothers or from blood transfusions.
At stop after stop, they have told their stories and answered questions. Sometimes, audience members will approach the speakers privately, afterward, to ask how to talk to friends about their HIV status or deal with a parent who is infected. Or just to quietly say thanks.
Todd Murray, the executive director of Hope's Voice, founded the organization two years ago. Murray said he started the group because it seemed that though young people have never lived in a world without AIDS, they are woefully uninformed about the disease. He felt that peers would take the issue more seriously if it were personalized with real teens and 20-somethings.
All too often, young people don't pay attention to statistics, as scary as they might be, experts say.
A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study investigating new HIV diagnoses in 25 states showed that the incidence of HIV among 13- to 24-year-old girls and women decreased between 1994 and 2003. Among males, however, an initial decline was offset by significant increases in more recent years, driven primarily by increases among men between 20 and 24, the majority of whom were black.
"It's a huge epidemic in the gay African-American community, but it's little talked about," said Murray, who had difficulty finding people from that demographic group for the tour. "But Shelton Jackson has the ability to stop the rumors and start to put truth to it. ... He is not afraid to be honest."
Jackson doesn't like secrets; that much is clear. Just about anything anyone wants to know, he'll tell them, and the rest is in his books. He has told his story enough that most of the time, when he is talking to groups, he can get through without crying.
Jackson says that after his father died, after he came out and just after he graduated from high school, he spotted Conan Tyler - his future boyfriend - walking down a New York City street. "The first time I saw him, he was literally glowing to me," Jackson said.
He wondered what it meant at the time, but he says he now knows.
"I honestly believe my relationship with Conan set up the rest of my life," he said. "If you can go through having your partner die in your arms and come out on the other end and draw strength from that, there's nothing you can't do."
Tyler beat back pneumonia three times. But the fourth time, he couldn't do it anymore, Jackson said. He died in June 2002, three weeks shy of his 30th birthday.
It took a little while, but eventually, Jackson emerged from a fog of grief and realized, as he recounted: "You mean I don't have to die? For real?"
He started talking to his family again after Conan's death ("They came around out of 'Let's talk to Shelton before he dies,'" he said), and in 2004 he moved to Baltimore. He did it, in a way, to test himself; to see if he could make it on his own, he said.
He has battled loneliness, but he has also had two solid relationships in the years since Tyler's death. His grandmother, the only relative who never cut him off, checks in on him most days - sometimes just to see what he's been eating.
When he first arrived at Morgan State, Jackson was open from the get-go about his HIV status and sexual orientation, prompting some teachers to pull him aside. "Are you sure you want to do this?" they asked.
He's not the only gay person on campus, though it sometimes seems like he is, he said. "I'm the only one who talks about it," he said. "But someone has to be willing to be the first."
At a speech he gave this fall on campus about HIV and AIDS, he was discouraged by how little students seemed to know about the disease. On the other hand, at least he was talking and at least they were asking questions.
"A couple years ago, it didn't seem like people wanted to know this stuff," he said.
When he returns from the tour, Jackson will get back to work on two novels he is writing simultaneously. He also plans to publish a third book of poems, which will complete a trilogy.
And he is starting a magazine for and about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students at historically black colleges. He is calling it Invisible, after Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man, which captivated him when he read it last semester.
"Here he is, a living black man, and no one saw him," he said. In the same way, he said, people often don't see the black gay community.
"But I've chosen to be visible," he said. "I'm trying to counteract that response and be seen. We are here and I don't want to be invisible anymore. I don't have to be."