Bob Leahy: Hi Steven I’ve already read some of your story through your blog. I thought a good place to jump in would be ithe point you were diagnosed - because that was a pretty hard point in your life. Were you living on the streets at that time?
Steven Tingley: I was actually living at Covenant House, a homeless youth shelter in downtown Toronto. I came to Toronto about fourteen years ago from a small town called Salisbury, just outside Moncton, New Brunswick. I was about 20 at the time.
Did you have a place to live in Toronto? How did you end up homeless?
I came with a friend and he implied I was going to stay with him but it didn’t work out so I ended up on the street. I stayed at Covenant House for a little while and started working as a security guard. When I realized I might have HIV I got tested around the corner at the Evergreen Centre for Street-Involved Youth. I was a client there and using their services because I didn’t have a doctor at the time. I went for a test and I was too scared to get my test results back.
So it wasn’t a rapid test then.
No, you had to come back three weeks later. I waited the three weeks and I was nervous. Eventually I got a phone call asking me to come back in to discuss my results. I figured it out. I was shaking. It almost made me sick. I actually stayed away from there. I didn’t want to know the answer. So after a couple of weeks of thinking about it I contacted my parents back home and they bought me a bus ticket home right away. I was counting on the support from my family as they would be the ones that would understand.
But you still hadn’t been officially diagnosed.
No after about two and a half months I went into Moncton Sexual Health Clinic – I went with a friend – to get tested and I ended up being positive. I had a partner at that time and he didn’t understand what I was going through and how I felt.
What was your reaction when they told you the test results?
My reaction was like “no, there’s no possible way. I can’t go back to my family and tell them I have HIV/AIDS.” The first thing my father had said to me when I came out of the closet at 15 was “now you’re going to end up with AIDS!” Anyway later on that evening I got into an argument with my partner and I ended up finding myself on a bridge by the Chateau Moncton Hotel. I had stabbed myself seventeen times in the arm and I was ready to jump off. My partner called the RCMP and six police officers came there. One officer offered me a cigarette and I turned around to grab it and that’s when he grabbed me.
What was it you felt that you just couldn’t manage that lead to that?
Well growing up in a small village, I didn’t think I was going to be accepted by my family. There was still a lot of stigma in the village. Queer this, queer that. And I didn’t have any resources, didn’t know where to go, so I just thought it was easier for me to end my life.
At that time did you know anything about HIV? Like did you assume you were going to die from it?
From what I’d heard you wouldn’t live too long, it was worse than cancer. But later on that night, when the RCMP officers brought me to the Moncton Hospital, I saw a doctor. He said “you’re one of the sanest people I’ve met. There is nothing wrong. You’re just really stressed out. You don’t understand everything yet. Here’s some nerve medication. Go home and think of a goal to compete within the next year”. And within that first year I opened up my first clothing store, and within four years I opened three clothing stores and two nightclubs.
OK can we backtrack to when you left the hospital, what happened?
Well my parents picked me up at 3.30 in the morning. My mother found out at the hospital that I was HIV-positive. I told her. She didn’t say too much in the car going home but later she told me she loved me no matter what and that we could work through this together. But my father was a little upset. He was telling me I was going to die of AIDS. He said “I told you this back when you were 15 – and now look!”
So have you reconciled with your parents since then?
Very much so. I don’t know if you heard the interview I did with CBC where I talk about this. Anyway, after a few weeks or so, I got a copy of Managing Your Health (a guide for people living with HIV). I gave it to my family for Christmas.
(laughs) That helped me too Steven. It was one of the first things I picked up when I was diagnosed 23 years ago. It was very useful.
Well it took my parents about six months to pick it up and read it. I imagine it was so hard for them to pick up that book and realize what their son is living with. But a year after I was diagnosed I opened up my first clothing store in Moncton and within a year or two I had another two operating from Moncton to St. John. And then I opened up a nightclub too called Warehouse 47. But during my grand opening event I was arrested for drugs and trafficking ecstasy pills. At the time I was using quite heavily – ecstasy, cocaine, marihuana, and hash – anything I could get my hands on down there. Anyway, I was sentenced to four months in jail at St John Correctional Centre but I was released after two weeks. They did not have an HIV specialist or an HIV clinic they could take me to in St John New Brunswick. I was placed on house arrest for three months.
This is quite a story! I can see why you are writing a book. So what happened next?
Well, I had to close down my clothing stores and the nightclub. But a year of dealing with that and overcoming that challenge made me more resilient. But then within a year my whole family got arrested for organized crime – drug trafficking and cigarettes. My mum, my dad, my three brothers, my brother’s wife had 57 charges against them. They were all acquitted. Just google "the Tingley Family” and you can read all about it. Anyway, it was all very personal and I felt put on the spot. So I realized the family name was known there and I had to get out of there.
Ok I wanted to ask you through all this time how was your health. Were you on antiretroviral therapy?
No I wasn’t on treatment at all. I actually started treatment about two and a half years ago.
Ok what year are we in the story right now?
This was 2009. I stated volunteering at Toronto PWA Foundation at their Food Bank and I worked with them for about a year. I also started doing acting and modelling, it was an amazing experience.
Were you also trying to find a boyfriend and how did you find living as an HIV-positive young man new to Toronto. Do you tell people you are HIV-positive?
Yes, that’s partly why I made the story public. I met a guy once before and we were making out and stuff and we started to go to the bedroom and I had to tell him I was HIV-positive and I’ve never seen a guy rum out of my apartment so quickly down the hall with his pants down his ankles. But that’s the only time anything like that has happened.
Right now you’re undetectable. Do you ever tell people that and see what happens?
I mention it to almost everyone I meet. Some people though are oblivious to the information behind what undetectable means. They don’t really understand so you have to put it out so they understand and not make mistakes with the next people.
So to get back to your story and working for Toronto PWA what happened next?
Positive Youth Outreach (PYO) picked me out from there. I was 29, at their upper limit. PYO helped me join a national advisory committee with CATIE for a youth symposium that they hosted in 2012. Just connecting with poz youth from across Canada – I never thought in my lifetime I’d ever be in that situation. And then the opportunities I’ve got from ACT have been overwhelming and have helped me go above and beyond anything I’ve ever wanted to do. Plus shortly after that Toronto Housing heard of me and got me working on their Communications Workshop Committee and I was elected as resident at 29 to co-chair that group. Then I started working on the City of Toronto’s Closing the Housing Gap campaign, advocating for money to fix backlog of repairs to social housing.
Interesting! So what have you been doing since?
Well this past winter I started writing my book. I thought maybe it’s time to talk about my stories. I’m a little way half way done. I’ve had an offer from a publisher down in New York City for the manuscript and I’m actually looking for a few more offers. I’d love to have a publisher from Canada.
So you are going to publish your book and you have a website now that you call “Life Outside the Compound, My Journey of Triumph & Recovery” Where do you see your life going right now?
I’d love to be an advocate but maybe down east. I’m thinking Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. I myself had so much trouble coming out and finding resources. I think it’s important we approach the smaller communities and rural areas.
I wanted to mention addictions. You have had to deal with addictions yourself. How are you doing?
Still a little bit in recovery. I was very much triggered a year or so with crystal meth, a little bit of cocaine and stuff like that too.
Are you finding it difficult to stay clean or no?
I’m finding it difficult but I used a program with ACT. For almost a month now I’ve been fully clean, off everything.
That’s great to hear that Steven. I want to ask you one more question. Looking back on your life with HIV, would you say that now you are a poz gay man, was this a terrible thing to happen to you or did a lot of good come out of it?
I would honestly say that I wouldn’t change a thing about my life. Becoming positive made me who I am today.
Are you happy?
I describe myself as happy go lucky (laughs). And satisfied.
That’s a pretty good place to be. And to end this interview. Thanks Steven, I really appreciate you talking to us.