Like many people who test HIV-positive, Matt Florence took a hard look at his life and decided to make some changes. One of the biggest was leaving his career in computer consulting for AIDS service work.
He brings black, gay, and HIV-positive people together
The 29-year-old Florence has been interim executive director at Positive Directions and program manager at AIDS Housing Corporation, but his newest stint -- only three months old -- is as executive director at Men of Color Against AIDS (MOCAA). As he puts it, the job entails "exactly what I want to be doing" -- working on issues of AIDS and homophobia in communities of color.
One in Ten: Do you remember when you first heard of AIDS?
Matt Florence: I really didn't hear about it until my senior year in high school (in Tennessee), right before I was coming to Boston for college, which would've been '85. It was sort of a "them" kind of thing, because I was fundamentalist Christian. It wasn't until I got to Harvard and started experimenting with gay sex that it started having any relevance to me.
OIT: When did you find out you were positive?
MF: November 14, 1991. I had put myself at risk. I knew what was going on with AIDS and with my having unsafe sex, but I just wasn't capable of saying no. And I knew I was in this sort of passive suicidal spiral. I had been in therapy before that, dealing with a lot of issues, sexual abuse issues, low self-esteem, and I made a lot of progress that summer. I broke up with the guy I was seeing, and I came to some sort of resolution about why I was having unsafe sex. In September I got this cold, a flu kind of thing that didn't go away. My doctor said, "You've had this for about two months now, you should get an HIV test." And I did, and it was positive. It was the fourth HIV test that I've had. The last one before that was in January, so I know it was in that time period.
OIT: Is it strange to know that it must have been one of just a few encounters that infected you?
MF: It's strange. But it's also really telling in another way, because I know what I was going through at that time. It's so clear that I had no community at that point, that I had a lot of issues I was dealing with, low self-esteem and very little support in my life. Knowledge is not everything. It doesn't always translate into action.
OIT: What do you think some of the most significant developments in this epidemic have been?
MF: One would be the whole thing around safer sex. Medically, there hasn't been really anything that significant in terms of treatments until recently. There was AZT, but I never trusted AZT. And interestingly enough, a lot of black people have never trusted AZT. It's been pretty much a community response. I never trust the first thing out, anyway, and a lot of black people don't trust the medical establishment. But more recently, there has been all the good news about the protease inhibitors, the cocktails. And generally, how all the different services have developed around AIDS and have seen that AIDS is not just a medical thing, but a sociological phenomenon -- that has been significant. We have to deal with issues of poverty, issues of dependence, lots of things that have nothing to do with HIV in itself but have everything to do with HIV. For people who are disempowered, it takes the opportunity to assert itself. So a lot of our work has been around those other things.
OIT: What have some of the biggest stumbling blocks been?
MF: Some studies have shown that people who have a good mental outlook, who are empowered, who have all those pieces of their lives taken care of, survive longer than people who don't. Which is why AIDS housing is such a wonderful thing. It takes care of so many of those needs. Or meals, like Community Servings at the Living Center. But it's been hard to get the government to go along with those things. That's been a huge stumbling block. You look at Medicare or Medicaid. The majority of people with AIDS are on Medicaid or Medicare, so when people think of cutting that, it affects not just people's health, but their lives.
OIT: What would you categorize as the biggest victories in the fight?
MF: The Ryan White Care Act is obviously one of the huge victories. Getting the media to really pay attention to HIV and AIDS. Ironically enough, one of the tragedies, but also one of the victories, is Magic Johnson. I think that gave AIDS a totally different perspective. Suddenly, normal black folk were talking about HIV and AIDS.
OIT: Do you think Boston has been different from other cities, has distinguished itself in any other ways?
MF: You know, Boston is actually one of the best cities around HIV and AIDS. Boston has its politics in the AIDS service industry, and I will call it an industry, but the politics are I think minimal compared to some other cities. On AIDS housing, we're so far ahead of the curve. We've had a lot of really strong agencies that have strong people and personalities, agencies that have been really wonderful.
OIT: Let's talk more about how AIDS has affected you personally.
MF: After I found out I was HIV-positive, I was working as a computer consultant at MIT, and this made me think, "I really need to do something with my life, especially if I'm going to die soon." I needed to do something creative or socially oriented, because those are my two things, and I got the job at Positive Directions, which is what got me started on a professional path around HIV and AIDS. The job I'm doing now is not just about HIV and AIDS but black people's issues around sexual orientation, community organizing. I'm very passionate about all those things.
OIT: Where do you think we might be five years from now when it comes to AIDS?
MF: Five years down the road, maybe there will be two vaccines in Phase III trials -- one for people who are positive, and one for people who are negative. I'd also like to see AIDS as a chronic manageable illness, which is pretty much becoming more of a reality. We're not exactly there yet, but we're almost there. Agencies are all talking about this. Where are we after AIDS? Are we needed after AIDS? Have we done what we're supposed to do already, or are we filling gaps that are needed beyond that? We at MOCAA are thinking about that, AIDS Housing Corporation is thinking about that, the Living Center is thinking about that. For agencies to be thinking that, not in any concrete ways, but sort of having it at the forefront of our minds, I think shows the optimism and hope for five years down the road.
P R O F I L E S, Boston-area AIDS activists: Larry Kessler | Max Essex | Denise McWilliams |
Matt Florence | Ray Schmidt | Ken Mayer | Barbara Gomes-Beach | Brian Rosenberg
T I M E L I N E, 1981 - 1985 | 1986 - 1989 | 1990 - 1996 | The N A M E S | AIDS L I N K S