I attribute my survival to the healing that comes with community.
I don’t remember the year; I was 24, maybe 25, when I went to visit a friend in St. Vincent’s Hospital on 7th Ave in New York City. I never found him. The hospital was overrun with AIDS patients and didn’t have enough beds, so those who didn’t have a room laid on gurneys in the hallway. It was a sight that was forever seared in my mind. I never thought I would experience anything even remotely similar in this lifetime, until March 2020, and COVID-19.
My name is Vincent Anthony Crisostomo. I am a Queer Chamorro man who has been living with HIV since October 1987 and an AIDS diagnosis that came in September 1995. I was told in May 1989 that I most likely would not live to see 30. Yet, as I write this, I am 59 years old.
I am often asked how I survived the death sentence that claimed so many of my peers. While I think luck and good genes had something to do with it, I would mostly attribute my survival to the healing that comes with community—a place where you are accepted and feel like you belong, where you draw strength and nourishment. A place where you can identify who you are, what and who you love, find your purpose, be yourself, and, ultimately, return-to-center. In my case, my community is also a place where I have learned to age gracefully.
I first met APIENC in 2013. I left the SF Bay Area in January 2001 to live, and possibly die, in my native Guam. When I returned to the Bay a decade later, a friend suggested I would be a good candidate for APIENC’s faith-based Pink Elephant Project, a story-telling and education project for LGBTQ+ API people of faith. There, I discovered—despite the scars I held from being raised Catholic—that I identify as a person of faith. Revisiting my Catholic heritage with that group, I also learned the healing power of forgiveness, which greatly improved my relationship with my parents and other activists.
Next, I joined APIENC’s Dragon Fruit Project, an oral history project documenting the stories of LGBTQ API people. Sharing the stories of my life with others validated my life’s experience as an activist. Through this, I was reintroduced to my community with a new aspect to my identity: an API LGBTQ elder. This experience empowered me to accept a role at the SF AIDS Foundation as a Program Manager of the Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network.
As gratifying as that work was, I often found I needed to draw on my QTAPI community for rejuvenation and perspective. More often than not, APIENC initiated these opportunities. A day that stands out is November 29, 2018, at a panel that we held shortly before World AIDS Day. After living with HIV for over 30 years, it wasn’t until that night, when I stood in my workplace surrounded by friends, mentors, GAPA, and APIENC—in other words, my community—that I felt I could claim my identity as a Long Term Survivor.
My experiences didn’t stop there. In 2019, APIENC and I both won the popular vote to become SF Pride Grand Marshals. Connecting with APIENC members throughout that process, I learned many of the younger QTAPI activists of today experience the same things my generation experienced coming out in the 70’s and 80’s. Whereas for me, those experiences seemed to hinder my development, I see this new generation using those experiences as an opportunity to come together, to grow, support each other, and show their true, authentic, and glorious selves.
This opportunity came back to me later that summer, when I was asked to emcee the 10th Anniversary Celebration of APIENC’s Summer Organizer Program. I was trained as an actor, but when I stepped onstage that night, I was confronted by 20 and 30 years-olds who looked like me, but who seemed so much more comfortable in their skins. Intimidated, I wondered what I could possibly offer that they would be interested in. As those old feeling of inadequacy, fear, and insecurity started to fill my being, Sammie, my co-emcee and APIENC’s fearless leader, offered: “just be yourself.” For just a moment, it occurred to me how different my life would have been if—as a 24 or 25 year-old—I had a place where someone encouraged me to just be myself.
I am writing this under the Shelter in Place ordinance. I will not describe how similar this feels to what I experienced in the AIDS epidemic. I will not go into how the leadership of this country has let the people down, as it did in the 80’s—especially those who are Black, Indigenous or People of Color, and are queer and trans. I will not describe further because one thing I know is that we will get through this.
And when we do, we will need the healing that comes with community: a place where you are accepted, and you feel you belong. Where you draw strength, nourishment, and ask for help. A place where you can identify who you are, what and who you love, find purpose, be yourself, and, ultimately, return-to-center. For me, that community is APIENC.
Today, APIENC needs your support to raise $10,000 as part of our Roots of Resilience campaign. I am asking you, for all the QTAPI youth who will live through this COVID-19 period and for those who will come after us. Imagine a world where we lead by being who we are. Where we can all age gracefully. Can you support us in building that world?
With love and in solidarity,