“Young people have very, very powerful voices,” Aaron Darr says. “We just need to speak up.”
The 23-year-old Democrat has worked on campaigns for Hillary Clinton and Anthony Wiener. He’s currently living in Largo, Florida, where he’s weighing a 2016 run for the Florida House of Representatives in District 66.
If elected, he will be the youngest person, the third openly gay person and the first openly HIV-positive person ever elected to a district office in the state of Florida.
Queerty chatted with Darr over Skype about his political ambitions, his chances of winning in a Republican dominated state and district, and how his HIV-status actually enhances his candidacy.
You’re considering a run for the Florida House of Reps.
I’ve been in the process of laying some groundwork for myself and to help other Democrats to win some local and state races down here. I’m a campaign coordinator for Shawna Bercher, which is right under campaign manager. [Laughs] Which is funny, at 23, that that’s what I’m doing.
How did you get involved in politics?
But I’ve doing things in politics since I was 16 years old. My first experience ever working on a political campaign was when this very, very remarkable, extraordinary human being named Hillary Clinton ran for president. I worked on her campaign and did a lot of stuff for her in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana throughout the whole Democratic primary process. It changed my life.
So many young people seem to be about “me, me, me, me, me.” My generation, at least. You know, that’s not always a bad thing. But with everything that’s going on in the world, younger people, in general, need to step up and makes some kind of contribution.
You have to play a little more moderate down here. I was born and raised Baptist for 19 years of my life, so I understand the views and opinions of those with whom I disagree. I understand them and I respect them. But I find that the more you educate people on these things called math, science, and facts, I think you can persuade them to come around and swing to your view.
If I do run, I’m going to win. I really do think it’s possible. And I’m going to try my darnedest. I think that it’s very important that LGBT people run for office. My idol is Harvey Milk. Right now we do not have a Harvey Milk, and we need a Harvey Milk. Someone in the gay community needs to step up and step forward and speak on all of our behalves.
If I’m elected, I will be the third LGBT person elected to a statewide office in the state of Florida, I will be the first openly HIV-positive person, and I would be the youngest person elected.
You’ve mentioned before that you are HIV-positive.
I like to look at myself as a people’s candidate. I understand these things. I’m not ashamed of this at all. I was diagnosed HIV-positive three days before Christmas in 2008, my sophomore year in high school. I had only ever had sex with three people and its forever changed my life.
I remember thinking of Samantha Jones when she had been tested for HIV on an episode of Sex and the City and I thought “Well, I’ve only been with two people. This isn’t going to happen to me.” And, sure enough, it had.
HIV/AIDS is very real to a lot of people. HIV/AIDS is not a gay disease. The highest infection rate of people living with HIV are heterosexual African American women. The two states that are having the highest infection rates are Mississippi and Louisiana, right here in the South.
I don’t know if this is necessarily going to help me. It’s a part of me. It’s not who I am. I hope, if anything, it encourage others to know their status. You have to know your status and you have to protect yourself.
I do feel I had lacked the information necessary to protect myself as a teenager. The reason I got tested in the first place was because of the information I learned about unprotected sex in a health class I had taken the semester before during my junior year.
In Ohio, there are those who believe that keeping men, women, and children in ignorance of reproductive healthcare, contraceptives, and information that children would and should learn at a young age about the ways in which they can protect themselves, isn’t something that should be included in education in public schools.
In reality, the infection rate of HIV/AIDS and the rate of teenage pregnancy actually increase dramatically, according to the work that The Campaign Against Teenage Pregnancy has conducted, when you deny others access to reproductive healthcare, contraceptives, sex education in schools, and proper family planning.
What was it like learning you had HIV at such a young age?
If anything, it forced me to grow up. I remember driving home and looking at the tree branches with snow on them. I had always noticed them before, but not how beautiful they really were. I learned to appreciate life, my surroundings and my family. I learned not to take for granted a single moment the struggles and hardships that I had faced in life. Yes, what happened to me was very unfortunate, but it is nothing in comparison to what is going on in the lives of others around the world and that this was a blessing from God for me to help others not have to learn some of life’s hardest lessons the way I had to.
And what about your family? How did they respond?
My mother could tell I visibly upset when I had got home. She asked me what was wrong and I wouldn’t answer. She then yelled at me to tell her what was wrong, so I told her. This for me became a defining moment in my life. I learned what it was like to break someone’s heart. In that moment that I had told my Baptist mother I was HIV-positive, at 17 years old, I broke her heart. I will never forget the complete and utter shock on her face and the hurt in her eyes. My stepfather then looked at me and said, “How could you do this to your mother?”
I threw myself into theater and school to keep my mind off of my new diagnosis and try to adjust to it the best way that I could. I then had finished the rest of my junior year of high school and had the summer off to really learn about myself. I had become very sad, depressed and had so much resentment towards myself. I turned 18 and had gone out all summer, became friends with the wrong people and gotten into alcohol and became quite promiscuous. I was very sad, so sad that I actually moved in with my father whom I hadn’t had a relationship with due to the fact that he was an alcoholic and had beaten my mother, brothers and myself for the first eight years of my life. It was the worst decision I could have possibly made, but I learned from these mistakes.
What should the state and federal government be doing about the rising infection rates among young gay men?
I believe that both state and federal governments and elected officials must start a dialogue. Start a conversation, about the importance of reproductive healthcare, teenage pregnancy and sex education in public and private institutions of education. HIV/AIDS is still very taboo in America and around the world, which is truly a shame. We need to be investing money into programs like Planned Parenthood, local Health Departments, HRSA HIV/AIDS Programs like The Ryan White Program and ADAP. As a voter, we also must ask these questions of our elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans. We have a moral obligation to take care of one another and we need to elect public officials who understand the importance of investing in healthcare, because Democrat or Republican, we all get sick.
If you could give one piece of advice to sexually active gay teenagers today, what would it be?
I would tell young gay men that just because you are young that you are not invincible. Gay or straight, this can happen to you. I had only slept with three people before I had learned I was HIV-positive and to just remember that it only takes one time.
[HIV] isn’t as simple as just taking a pill every day, which sounds easy. You have to worry about what you eat, your personal and social habits, the protection of yourself and your sexual partners, and making healthier choices in life to ensure that your CD4 count is high and your viral load is always low. I think if anything, this is the hardest part about becoming HIV-positive, adapting to the diagnosis.
I know there is a lot said about the rate of teenage suicide among LGBT children and what they feel of their own self-worth. Younger LGBT people, in particular younger gay men, need to know they can grow up to be whatever they want to be and that they are valued members of society, and that they do have a voice, and that they need to stand up and use it, while being smart about the choices that they make in the process, which includes practicing safe sex, always.