By Jeff Walsh
Troix Bettencourt was one of the most visible gay teens when I was first coming out in the early 90s. Like most things back then, I don't quite remember how or why I knew about him. He had appeared on Maury Povich and other shows, but I don't recall having seen them. I just knew he existed.
I remember once that I had called BAGLY for some legitimate reason, and asked the person if they knew Troix. They said they did. I thought it was so cool that I was talking to someone who knew Troix.
When I came home in April 1993 from the March on Washington, I immediately watched the tape of the C-SPAN coverage that had been going on while I waited in endless lines, waiting my turn to march past the White House.
One of the first times I stopped the tape was when I saw Troix's name flashed across the bottom of the screen. He was there, speaking. There was no reason why this should have mattered to me, but it did. For some reason, I really identified with queer youth then, despite being 23. Everyone else my age was already dealing with things, had ex-boyfriends they bitched about, knew whether or not they had a gag reflex, and I felt like I had nothing in common with them beyond chronological age. (For the cynical readers, I do not still have this identification to queer youth. I'm a happy old fag comfortable with my age as much as can be expected.)
In his speech, Troix spoke of a vision. He imagined himself among the Stonewall rioters some 24 years prior, and wondered what they would think if they saw nearly a million people in the nation's capital in 1993. He then went in the other direction, and imagined what life would be 25 years in the future, and what progress had been made.
He went on to win a Power of One award that year from the Human Rights Campaign Fund (it was still a fund back then).
What no one but Troix knew when he was speaking was that he had a secret.
A month before the March, he had tested HIV-positive after his first-ever HIV test. After having been thrown out of his house by his parents years earlier, living on his own and being the gay teen role model to the media, it was something he didn't want to deal with.
"I was just finally getting my shit together," he said. "I got my GED. I was going to Northeastern University, and here I am really political, active and out there. Life was good, but then came along HIV. I didn't tell anybody I was positive for a year, no family or friends. I had just reconnected with my family after being kicked out."
His secret was uncovered in September by his sister, who was a dental hygienist. She used to give him free teeth cleanings, and when she went to clean his teeth, she found he had thrush, which a person with a healthy immune system wouldn't have.
"She closed the door and asked me if I was tested for HIV, so that's when I broke down and cried and told her I was positive," he said. "That's also when I told my family."
But unlike his coming out as gay years earlier, his family reacted differently to his being HIV-positive.
"It actually brought us closer, they didn't have an adverse reaction to it at all. My mom said she suspected, so she was talking to her doctor about it and had read up on it," he said. "She cried, it was horrible. My dad, who doesn't speak English, didn't know what to say. He dealt with it in his own way."
His mother even went back to school, became a nurse and now works in a state hospital AIDS ward.
"I thought it was pretty amazing that she did that," he said.
For his second year in college, he decided he wanted his life back. He had been openly gay and visible since he was 16, now he wanted to be treated like everyone else.
"I wanted to be a college student, and feel like I fit in. I never felt like I fit in because sitting in a classroom with people my own age, they were all fresh out of high school with their parents supporting them, and that wasn't my experience at all. And I was HIV-positive at that point," he said.
He fulfilled his need for activism by speaking at conferences out of town, and never near where he attended school. But then, he realized something had changed.
"I got really bored. I realized there was a reason why I was active and political. Because I love it and I'm good at it," he said. "So, I started working for the Boston Living Center, which is a HIV organization. I never said I was HIV-positive, but it came out over time, and no one ever talked about it or said anything. First, I was the gay teen poster child, so I didn't want to now be the HIV-positive poster child. I was afraid that would happen."
At about that time, he was contacted by a book publisher and asked to write his autobiography.
"I was like 'You're kidding me? I'm only 19. I'm not dead yet,'" he recalled.
So, he took their advance, went to Europe and wrote his autobiography, entitled "No More Secrets, No More Lies."
He got bored writing the book by himself and asked to finish writing it with an editor. He moved to Los Angeles to be near the editor. While there, he got a job as the HIV Education Coordinator for the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Community Center. He stayed with that job, appeared on Ricki Lake in an episode he'd rather not talk about and last April, he applied for a job as the Executive Director for the Bay Area Young Positives, a peer-run support services group in San Francisco, which handles cases of people under 26 with HIV.
Looking back now on his time as a gay youth activist, Troix said he enjoyed himself.
"It was a lot of fun. I got to meet so many different people. Being kicked out of house and losing all my friends was traumatic, to say the least. And I was angry, had a lot to say. I didn't know a lot about politics, so I said things when I wanted to say them and not when I thought the timing was right," he said. "Being out there and getting all the attention made me stronger. I gained a lot of respect for myself, and I learned more than I could have in college. I wrote a column in Bay Windows, and I wrote an autobiography and I'm thinking, 'I failed English Lit, why am I doing this?'"
But while he is no longer the gay youth poster boy, he says the issues involving gay youth are still given little consideration in the larger gay community.
"I remember when what happened in Utah happened last year and no one, not the Task Force, the Log Cabin Republicans or Human Rights Campaign did a damn thing. It's all about gays in the military and domestic partnership," he said. "'Those are the issues of the gay community.' No it's not. Those are not the issues of the gay community. They way I look at it is that I didn't come from the gay community. I came from mainstream society and found my gay community, my ghetto, that's my niche. But the reality is that I came from the world around me, and that's what happened to Kelli and other people, but the community was still afraid to do anything about it.
"I used to think it was about recruiting. But now, I think older gay people don't want to deal with reality as much. Because when I think about some of the things that get said at these dinners, and I think 'why is this important?' 'The freedom to love anyone you want.' Yeah, okay, but what about high school? Do you remember when you felt alone and confused? Don't you realize people still feel that way? That's how I look at it."
But he's not just lashing out at a community that embraced him. When he first came out, he was shunned by the community.
"When I came out, I turned to the gay community, and the community center told me they didn't serve adolescents. I went to the Gay Lesbian Advocates and Defenders and they said they didn't do adolescent law. And that still happens today," he said.
And Troix is also thinking of using his real name again. Troix, if you don't know, was a name he made up the first time he attended a meeting of the Boston Area Gay and Lesbian Youth.
"I had a crush on this guy in high school, and his name was Troy. Isn't that sad? I wasn't friends with him or anything, I just saw him the first day I went to BAGLY," he said. "I walked around the block, and watched people going in, and some guy stopped me and said 'Are you looking for BAGLY?' And I said, 'What's BAGLY?' I knew what it was, but he was like 'Boston Area Gay and Lesbian Youth.' I said, 'Do I look gay?'"
The person asked for his name, and he said Troy and made up a location. The spelling later became Troix after St. Croix.
"I legally changed my name when I was pissed off at my family and friends, but I'm over that. I'm changing it back. I was young and angry, but now everyone knows me as Troix," he said.
He decided to change it back after his father died a year and a half ago. Troix is actually a junior, Renaldo Bettencourt Jr., and now he wants to be a junior again and honor his father.
And while Troix has no regrets being the gay teen poster child, he said he could have never planned any of it.
"When I was 16 years old and couldn't sleep, I wasn't thinking 'I want to be a gay activist and speak at the March on Washington and I want to be involved in a movement that's going to change the law.' And here's how I'm going to do it. I'll get kicked out of my house...," he says, laughing. "You don't plan it or think about it. I was in the right place at the right time. And a lot of it has to do with... I think I was pretty smart about things. I was articulate and got the message across."
And in that regard, he hasn't changed.