Saturday, November 14, 2009

Remembering Howard Jacobs

Earlier this week, I posted a link to an obituary for my friend Howard Jacobs, an HIV/AIDS activist who died of liver cancer on Wednesday.

I met Howard more than 15 years ago, when he became involved as a volunteer for AIDS Project Los Angeles, where I worked. I edited Positive Living, a monthly magazine at APLA for people living with HIV/AIDS, and Howard was a frequent contributor.

Today I dug deep into my closet to find pieces that Howard wrote for Positive Living. I found nearly a dozen, published between 1994 and 2000. This is one of them:

I Want to Paint My Hair Green
By Howard Jacobs

I said to my best friend, "I'll paint my hair green if I survive this. He replied, "If I survive AIDS, I'll paint my hair green, too.

Today I'm eyeing a bright florescent green. It is a brilliant shade that says hey, world, listen to me. "MY VIRAL LOAD IS UNDETECTABLE and I have 891 T-cells." Isn't that amazing. Just think: I may be a survivor. After an arduous eight-year battle and a quick, yet difficult adjustment to a new drug cocktail that includes a powerful protease inhibitor, I want to paint my hair green. It seems simple. Get a can and spray it, but I can't paint my hair green. If I do that I won't blend in with my community. Unfortunately, not everyone is doing as well as me.

What if I paint my hair pink? Pink is a color that says you're different. It reminds me of the ACT UP marches I attended, the safer sex demonstrations I gave and the lobbying visits I made. During the Holocaust, if one wore a pink triangle it meant one was gay. People now use that symbol to represent solidarity. I want to paint my hair pink but I can't. Pink was the color emblazoned on my best friend's tattoo. It said HIV-positive. I'll never see that tattoo again. My friend is dead, along with too many others. These friends can no longer guide me with their words. They guide me with their spirits. Sometimes that makes me sad.

Perhaps I'll paint my hair blue. Blue is my favorite color and has given me luck. I wore a blue short every time I cleared customs in countries which wouldn't allow HIV-positive visitors. I never got caught or suffered the humiliation other foreigners did when entering my own country, the USA. It makes sense to paint my hair blue. It's a color which brings me good fortune although it didn't when I was originally diagnosed. I wore a blue suit the day the company I worked for fired me. They discovered I had AIDS. Soon after they took away my employer-financed, private health insurance coverage. It was a trying time. I want to paint my hair blue, but I can't. Having blue hair may not help my search for a quality job or a kinder corporation.

Maybe I'll paint my hair yellow. Everyone knows blondes have more fun and if I'm going to have a future I'll need to have fun. It's been difficult enjoying myself these past eight years, but I've tried. I visited beautiful places and met extraordinary people yet I've learned living with AIDS means I have enormous responsibilities. These have not been fun. Or easy. It's hard to disclose one's HIV status or care for a sick friend. The vision of my parents' crying eyes as they walked into my hospital room will remain with me forever. I want to paint my hair yellow but I can't. Until there is a cure for AIDS those responsibilities and painful memories cannot go away.

I should paint my hair gray. Gray hair commands respect. Many distinguished gentlemen proudly display their gray hair symbolizing a lifetime of wisdom. I feel I've lived a lifetime. Graduating from college, becoming satisfied with my career accomplishments, living dreams I thought of as a child and burying loved ones: that is a lifetime. I deserve to paint my hair gray but I can't. I'm 33 years old and too young to explain a head full of gray. My chronological age does not match my experience.

That's why I'm keeping my hair the color it is. I'm afraid to paint it. Surviving AIDS makes me afraid, too. The feelings are awesome and the obstacles seem endless. I am unsure I can overcome them but I am ready for the opportunity to outlive them.

I want to paint my hair green but I can't. Not yet.

A memorial for Howard Jacobs will take place at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 15 at Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood.


  1. Howard was one of the best men I've ever known.

    He was very proud of this article, as well as others. I was very proud of him. He changed many lives- including my own.

    I am forever indebted to him.

    Thank you for sharing this in your blog.


  2. I'm at a coffee shop in WeHo Reading this right now. In a few minutes,I'll be walking over to the memorial service for Howard. Thanks so much for posting this.

  3. Howard Jacobs was my brother - I will always keep him in my heart and in my soul - he was a great brother and taught me about love and laughter - I will always cherish the memories I have of him and will miss him dearly

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