Tye Fortner has fine, delicate ears, a newly pierced eyebrow, and a trim beard. He’s wearing honey-colored contact lenses and a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. “I wanted to be presentable,” he explains as a photographer snaps his portrait. “I was going to buy an outfit, but it was so hot.”
We are standing outside his apartment block in the Fordham area of the Bronx in New York City on a muggy Friday afternoon in June, a few days before Pride. A woman walks by pushing a wheeled cart from which she’s selling Italian ices. “Hey mama!” Fortner calls to her and asks for a scoop of mango and cherry that stains his teeth red. Refreshed, he leads the way up the stairs to the roof of his building, where he takes out a packet of Newports and, perched high above the city, begins to tell his story.
Fortner was 22 and homeless when he started feeling weak, with crushing stomach pain and terrible headaches. A sex worker from the age of 16, sometimes too high on crack to remember to use protection, he had been putting off the inevitable for weeks before he finally decided to get tested for HIV. The result came back positive.
“My whole world changed,” Fortner says, recalling the moment six years ago when he received his diagnosis. At first it changed for the worse as he struggled to come to terms with his diagnosis.
But then, it changed for the better.
After years of homelessness and a day-to-day existence, Fortner, now 28, was faced with the tantalizing prospect of a place to sleep, regular meals, and more thorough New York City services provided to people who reach a certain stage of the disease. First he would have to meet their diagnosis requirements; then he would receive help.
“I didn’t know about the services,” he says. “I didn’t know that once you have AIDS you’re entitled to all this other stuff.”
That silver lining was a surprise to Fortner. And while it might seem counterintuitive, contracting the virus has made life easier for other young homeless men in New York City, who in return for developing full-blown AIDS gain a roof over their heads and basic services.
This cruel paradox — having to get really sick in order to enjoy a better, more comfortable life — has not gone unnoticed. “I have experienced people [who are] grateful that they have HIV,” says Sage Rivera, a research associate at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who has worked with hundreds of LGBT youth. “It’s sort of like a sigh of relief or an extra boost,” he says. “There are a whole bunch of different names for HIV within the [LGBT] community: ‘the monster,’ ‘the kitty,’ ‘the scratch,’ ‘the gift that keeps on giving.’ So people say, ‘I have the kitty — so now I can get my place. Now I can get hooked up; I can get my food stamps, I can get this, I can get that.’
“Other people say, ‘I do not know what I would have done without the monster.’ I can think of five boys, automatically, who’ve told me this.”
And it’s not just those who already have AIDS who view it as a lifeline; some young men who test negative aspire to contract the disease as a way out of trouble. Rivera knows at least one man who planned to have unprotected sex on purpose, an attitude he sums up thus: “My life is not getting better. I need a helping hand, and it seems like the only way I can get a helping hand is by getting sick.”
For Fortner, the phenomenon of young men deliberately contracting HIV is dispiriting but not surprising. “When you’re on the streets every day — winter, summer, spring, and fall — and you find a way to have an apartment of your own, it looks better,” he says. His own experience is instructive: Once his AIDS was diagnosed, he was astonished at how much easier it was to live in New York City. “Right now the rent for my apartment is $1,150, but because I’m on the program I only pay $217, which leaves me with about $400 a month,” he says. “That’s still a struggle, but I feel gifted, because one way or another I pull through.”