Leading Detroit

Leading Detroit

A new generation—young, smart, and above all compassionate— steps up to the plate.

Nearly every day in Detroit, someone gets an unexpected diagnosis. The words may vary, but the impact doesn’t. You have HIV. Much of the time, the person hearing those words is a young man or transgender individual, often a teenager, who may not know where to turn.

It’s one thing to talk in abstract terms about the high rates of sexually transmitted infections among young men who have sex with men—a population more gravely affected by STIs, including HIV, than any other in the country, and certainly in Michigan.

It’s another to imagine being young and vulnerable, and learning you have HIV, and feeling you can’t confide in anyone because you’re terrified of being judged, but at the same time having no idea where to go for treatment or how to keep from spreading the virus or how to survive into your twenties, let alone the rest of adulthood.
That’s why a new project, funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and aimed at lowering the spread of HIV and other STIs in southeast Michigan, has recruited six young members of the region’s LGBT community to serve as its Youth Advisory Board. They remind academic researchers and community partners what it’s like to be young. They help point out where, when, and how to intervene.

By definition, says Emily Pingel, MPH ’09, project director of U-M’s SexLab, the administrative home for the project, the Youth Advisory Board is “like the White House. They have veto power over the decision-making of the whole coalition.”

Following are snapshots of three board members—all in their early twenties, all native Detroiters. Like the city where they live and grew up, they’ve faced adversity and are resilient. They’re also passionate about creating change, both in the city they love and within the LGBT community they call home.

The CDC has one name for the project: “Community Approaches to Reducing STIs.” But the Youth Advisory Board has another: “Michigan Forward in Enhancing Research and Community Equity,” or “MFierce.” The name says as much about the board as it does about the project.

Curtis Collins

Curtis Collins

 Curtis Collins

 "The "rated-G version" is what goes into a published paper. But you need the rated-r if you're going to make a difference." 

By his own reckoning, Curtis Collins, 24, was a rebellious child. He wasn’t angry at anyone—“I just wanted to do things my own way, ’til I learned the hard way.” He flashes a bright smile. By the time he was 16, he’d joined Detroit’s LGBT community and was hanging out at Palmer Park, a public space designed in the late 1800s by Frederick Law Olmsted, near Six Mile and Woodward. He saw others having fun, Curtis says, and he wanted “to see what this lifestyle is about.” 

Palmer Park was the center for “everything,” he adds. He made friends there, and for a time even lived at the park. In summertime it was “the hangout spot. Everybody parked their cars out there, do drinks, whatever, just have fun. But it wasn’t just us over there.” Commercial sex workers worked the alleys around the park. It was often dangerous, “real dangerous.”

One night Curtis watched a friend go off in the woods with a man to “make a little money.” He waited for his friend to come back so they could go for a drink, but his friend didn’t show. Then Curtis heard a strange voice. Suddenly his friend staggered onto the street and collapsed. “It was like blood coming from everywhere,” Curtis remembers, “like someone just maliciously hit him with some type of metal pole.” Curtis phoned 911, but his friend never regained consciousness and died later that evening.

At 6’5”, Curtis knows how to defend himself, and he’s not afraid. It’s part of the street smarts that make him who he is—and make him invaluable to MFierce. Thanks to what he calls his “street-cred experience,” Curtis is able to take MFierce’s academic partners “behind the scenes,” as he puts it, “and show them where and how things happen in Detroit, how people from the LGBT community live their life, what they gotta do to make their ends meet.” He describes it as giving researchers “the rated-R version more so than the rated-G version.” The “rated-G version” is what goes into a published paper, he explains. “But you need the rated-R if you’re going to make a difference.”

He’s known that he’s gay as long as he can remember. Unlike a lot of young men his age, he’s never had problems at home. His mother, with whom until recently he shared a house in downtown Detroit, doesn’t care how he lives his life, as long as he goes to school and does what he’s “supposed to do,” meaning be a good and productive citizen. Curtis graduated from high school in 2010 and currently holds down two jobs in the hospitality industry. “The only person I’m scared of,” he says with a grin, “is my mama …and God himself.”

MFierce allows him to be of service to both the academic and the LGBT communities, and Curtis is grateful. He’s especially keen to help young men with HIV cope by putting them in touch with resources and reminding them that HIV is not a death sentence. He’s one of a handful of people, he says, “that don’t mind being that extra ear or extra voice to help you get through whatever you gotta get through.”

D’Angelo Kea

D'Angelo Kea

D'Angelo Kea

When D'Angelo went to Henry Ford's HIV clinic to lear about treatment options, his mother and father both went with him. The three of them wept together. 

Telling his father he had HIV was bad enough. But telling his new boyfriend was worse. “I was so terrified … so terrified,” remembers D’Angelo Kea. He could scarcely bring himself to speak. The diagnosis had revived his deepest fears—who would love him now? At 18, D’Angelo couldn’t imagine.

But when he finally mustered the courage to speak, his boyfriend of a few weeks, Dasean Walters, didn’t seem worried. “Live your life,” Dasean told D’Angelo. “Stay healthy. You’re not going to die from this.” And then he said the words D’Angelo had despaired of hearing: “I’m still here. I’m not going to leave you, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Today, D’Angelo, 25, and Dasean, 26, are engaged to be married.

For D’Angelo, being gay isn’t an issue. He knew from the time he was a kid that he was attracted to men. His parents have each been in gay relationships for years. They split when D’Angelo was five, but they remain close. When he went to Henry Ford’s HIV clinic to learn about treatment options after his diagnosis, his mother and father both went with him. The three of them wept together.

D’Angelo knows that, relatively speaking, he’s lucky. He’s able to control his HIV with medications. As a member of the Youth Advisory Board for MFierce, he’s employed by the University of Michigan. He’s got loving parents and a doting fiancé who reminds him to take care of himself and encourages him to pursue his dream of becoming a video-game developer, and maybe using those same skills in the health field.

There are plenty of young Detroit kids who are struggling with their sexual identity but who have no support system, and D’Angelo wants to help them. Maybe their parents have kicked them out. Maybe they’ve got an STI, but they’re too afraid to tell anyone for fear of being rejected. Maybe they just don’t know where to turn.
D’Angelo hopes he can show them “a brighter side.” By sharing his own story with Detroit’s LGBT community, and by serving on the MFierce advisory board, where he contributes to decisions about new HIV and STI prevention and treatment strategies, he hopes to “make an impact in the world” and help the gay community. Perhaps he can even help someone younger “prevent getting HIV.”  For the first time in his life, he says, “I feel comfortable in my own skin.”

Dasean Walters

Dasean Walters

Dasean Walters

More than anything, Desean wants to help other find the love and support that eluded him for so much of his young life.

When his adoptive mother found out Dasean Walters was gay, she didn’t like it. A deeply religious woman, she’d worked hard to shield Dasean from “everything,” he says. She wouldn’t let him have friends over, or ride his bike, or go on sleepovers. “I hated feeling closed in,” he remembers. So he ran away. He kept running away, “getting in trouble.” He went to Minnesota and Atlanta. He spent a year and a half in Wayne County’s juvenile jail “for doing stuff.” After he got out, he went into therapy, but when he learned his adoptive mother still didn’t want him back, he got angry. And hurt. Shuffled into foster care as a young child, deprived of siblings and friends, Dasean wrestled with what he calls his “attachment issues.” Would anyone ever accept him?

As a kid he’d hated gays. Even though he had inklings that he “liked boys,” he’d repressed those feelings and instead “beat up on gay people. I used to bash them and talk about them bad. I was like, ‘You fag.’”

It wasn’t until years later, living in Detroit as a young adult, that Dasean realized who he really was. Now 26, he’s devoting his life to helping other young men accept themselves and their sexuality—and find the resources they need to live positive, fulfilling, healthy lives.

As a member of MFierce’s Youth Advisory Board and a former volunteer for several community organizations, including AIDS Partnership Michigan and Detroit’s Ruth Ellis Center, Dasean knows he can make a difference in young lives. “I’ve always wanted to help people … always wanted to help people,” he says.

But it was the health status of his fiancé, D’Angelo Kea, that pushed Dasean into the field of HIV prevention. Not long after D’Angelo’s diagnosis in 2009, Dasean enrolled in a program to become a certified HIV test counselor. Some day he hopes to open his own clinic and youth program in Detroit. “We don’t have a lot of those here—especially free clinics or safe-space programs that focus on the individual’s needs.”

Being affiliated with MFierce is a “game-changer,” Dasean says. “When I tell people, hey, I work for the University of Michigan, it’s, like, they have a different respect.” As a Youth Advisory Board member, he relishes the very real power he has to offer ideas and opinions and to vote “yea or nay” on plans. “We can go far with this,” he says of himself and his fellow board members.

At his most ambitious, Dasean dreams of being “the mayor of a city, or a United States ambassador, or Secretary of State, or President. I always see myself as a leader.” But for now he’s happy being “an ambassador for young LGBT individuals and couples.” More than anything, he wants to help others find the love and support that eluded him for so much of his young life.

He also relishes his role in helping Detroit grow. “The city is slowly but surely opening up itself to LGBT individuals,” he says, “and so taking a part in this great project, in this great initiative, it’s helping me guide the city to a more open policy.” And that makes Dasean Walters very happy.

Portrait photos by Rebecca Minch

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