Unbroken Promise

A young woman raises her voice in the face of despair

Jul 18, 2001 at 4:00 am
Promise was a 6-year-old tomboy when she emigrated from Botswana to St. Louis. She remembers spending much of her first school year up in a tree, hiding from other children. The English she spoke came out with a heavy Setswana accent, and the unstylish little bows her mom put in her Afro puffs made her feel as if she didn't belong. Even harder for a little girl to understand was why other kids had a problem with her white African stepfather: "He can't be your dad," they said. "You're black."

As a teenager, Promise was still trying to fit in. She was a 15-year-old freshman at Brentwood High School in August 1995 when she began dating a 23-year-old "neighborhood guy" she'd seen hanging out on the streets. "He was older, and he was cute," says Promise. "Really, I think we started dating because all the other girls that I knew were dating guys. I wasn't interested in sex."

On the afternoon of Nov. 17, 1995, Promise fell asleep while watching television on her boyfriend's bed and woke up with her hands tied to the bedposts. Before untying her, the man raped her three times. The first two times, he used latex condoms; the third time, he used a lambskin condom, she recalls. Promise doesn't remember how long she was tied to the bed: "All I know is, when he was done and he untied me, my eyes were red from me crying, and I put my clothes on and left. I never went back to his house again."

But Promise would have to confront the man again. Soon after the rape, she was found to have gonorrhea and genital warts. "He said it wasn't him, that I must have had sex with someone else," she says. "I was just thinking, 'Who else would I want to have sex with?' I don't even want sex anymore. I even provided him with pills [for the gonorrhea], and he wouldn't take them." Unable to hide the diagnosis from her mother, Promise lied and said she was having sex, disclosing nothing to her mother about the rape. "I know that I didn't do it, that it's not my fault, that no one deserves this -- I know all that," she says. "But I was the one who was with a 23-year-old. I was the one who went to his house. I was the one who fell asleep on his bed. One of the things was that I was terrified my mother would be, like, 'You did it.'"

Promise left Brentwood High at the end of the school year and transferred to South County Technical High School. For a year-and-a-half, Promise, sexually confused and depressed, masked her pain behind a series of meaningless sexual encounters. "I'm not going to lie to you," she says. "Because of my depression and everything, I had sex with 12 people between '95 and '97. I didn't want to have sex; I didn't care for it. I was doing it more for attention and love."

In May 1997, during the second half of her sophomore year, Promise became violently ill with flulike symptoms. She says, "I was dehydrated, my temperature was high, I couldn't keep anything down and I was losing weight." She was given several tests, but the only one that came up positive was the one for HIV. "I didn't know too much about HIV then -- actually, I didn't know anything," Promise says. "When I found out I was positive, I was thinking, 'Give me my pill, so I can go home.'" She sank into despair as the doctors tried to explain what being HIV-positive meant: "I didn't take it lightly. I was, like, 'I don't want to die.'" She immediately notified her previous sex partners, none of whom had contracted the disease. The only one she couldn't locate was the man she says raped her. Promise suspects it was his use of a lambskin condom, effective only against pregnancy and not HIV, that led to her infection.

Four months later, having used her summer to learn as much as she could about the disease, Promise, now a junior, decided to give a presentation on HIV to her biology class. Many of the students, she remembers, were giggling and saying, "It's a gay disease."

"I showed them a videotape, and they were still laughing and making fun of people who have HIV, so I turned it off and said, 'Look, it can happen. If it happened to me, it can happen to you.'" Her classmates were speechless. Says Susan Gummersbach, Promise's biology teacher, "The jaws just went down. They [the students] said, 'Oh, you're joking.' That was their first reaction. Some kids would no longer talk to her. They were angry; they felt they had been exposed to HIV, which was not true."

With the gossip mill working overtime, everyone knew by the end of the day. High school would never be the same. Throughout the next two years, rumors about her alleged promiscuity spread. Promise was subjected to "people spitting, people cussing me out, people trying to hit me, piss on me."

Promise says, "I had friends. After I told them I was positive, most of them were no longer my friends."

Word of her biology-class presentation soon reached other public schools in St. Louis, and Promise was asked to tell her story to more students in the metro area. "She did little engagements, and it just blew up. She really is the only youth who's living with HIV who's willing to speak," says Jessica Forsyth, coordinator of Health Education for Youth, a health-care and community-education program for youth ages 13-24. By the time she graduated in 1999, Promise had spoken at dozens of public schools in the metro area. "I'm trying to get young people's voices heard," she says. "People are not hearing what they want, but they want to regulate what should be done with the youth, especially those that are HIV-positive. Right now, I'm targeting how to reach out to them."

Though she uses a pseudonym -- "Promise" is not her real name but the English translation of her Setswana name -- Promise is neither secretive nor shy about her story. "When everybody walked in, I gave you guys a red ribbon," she tells a human-sexuality class at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. "As a person who's living with it -- found out in '97, was infected in '95 by my first sex partner, who raped me -- I feel that everyone should be wearing a red ribbon with me, because, whether you know it or not, you are being affected by HIV."

In recent years, HIV/AIDS has deeply touched the African-American community. According to the St. Louis Health Department, of the 1,558 men living with HIV in St. Louis and St. Louis County, 787 are African-American; of the 329 women, 259 are African-American. "The population that's most at risk in our city is African-American women and African-American young gay males," Forsyth says. "It is critical for people to be able to relate the epidemic to themselves."

Today, Promise works for HEY as a peer health counselor and tours the country, telling her story and educating youth about HIV, safe sex and self-esteem. "For a person who is positive, I don't think of my illness as a disease, or a curse from anybody, or a punishment; I look at it as a gift that I use in a good way," Promise says. Her viral load is approximately 43,000, and her T-cell count has been stable at 558 since 1999. "As long as it's not 50,000, I'm not worried, and as long as my T-cells are no lower than 300, I feel OK," Promise says. She has experienced no more than a common cold since 1997.

"Promise is an incredibly brave young woman and has had a difficult young life and many challenges more than most of us face," Forsyth says. "She brings a lot of dedication and honor and integrity to her work."

Last month, Promise was the youngest of 20 recipients of an AIDS-activism award from St. Louis AIDS Foundation. "She's using her status as an educational tool to whomever she meets, which is phenomenal," says Thomas Adams, executive director. "She really was awarded because she's so courageous, and she's a voice in that community that we don't hear very often."

Promise stood ready to receive her award at the "Night of 20 Heroes," a benefit dinner commemorating the 20 years of AIDS activism. It wasn't until she received the only standing ovation from the 140 people who attended the private event in Tower Grove's Piper Palm House that the tears began to pour down her cheeks:

"I felt honored because I was the only young person to get the award -- and the standing ovation, I was crying then."