By: JESSICA THOMPSON
A blonde haired, six foot two, Caucasian male stands tall amongst the crowd, but what makes him noticeable is the big smile he gives to whoever wishes to talk to him. He holds his hand out and introduces himself, “Hi, I have HIV.”
As a gay man, Grant Cobb not only lives with a serious illness, but also faces a life of the judgment due to his sexual orientation.
Living in a small town in Saskatchewan, the first challenge for Cobb was learning how to tell people how he felt.
“I knew I liked boys romantically from a young age, I also learned that was bad around the same time,” he said.
In high school, it became apparent that being homosexual was unacceptable. So he left, at 16.
“Homophobia was rampant and to protect myself I had to leave,” he explained.
After he moved to Vancouver at 25, Cobb began to build a strong sense of self-worth.
“Learning that gays are accepted and acceptable, I learned that I was a worthwhile person, a person of quality and an equal to the world.”
Then, Cobb’s life took yet another turn when he was diagnosed with HIV. Filled with shame, embarrassment, and fear of hatred, Cobb hid his illness from his family and friends for 10 years.
“At the beginning, it was about me, but as it went on I felt like I was betraying my family,” Cobb said.
When Cobb finally felt the courage to confront his family about his HIV positive status, their acceptance gave him more confidence with his illness.
But though Cobb has come to terms with his illness, he still suffers from stereotypes and judgments that come along with the disease.
35% of Canadians would be somewhat or very uncomfortable if their child was attending a school where one of the students was known to be living with HIV, according to a study from University of Toronto and the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research.
Even in the legal system, Cobb says, HIV-positive patients experience prejudice.
“There is a judge in Barrie, ON, who refused to let the defendant go on the stand because he wasn’t wearing a mask and gloves and he refused to have someone with HIV that close to him,” said Cobb.
Though there is a world full of prejudice surrounding him, Cobb accepts his illness and lets his sexual orientation thrive. Cobb felt it was his duty to lend his voice, through the Human Library project, to those going through something he had finally mastered.
“My boss suggested that I’d be a good book, I was flattered and petrified, but realized to some degree that it is also my responsibility,” he said.
The Human Library is an event that was started in Denmark to “promote dialogue, reduce prejudice and encourage understandings,” according to the Human Library website.
Opening in Canada last year, the Human Library gives people, who usually are to be silenced within society, the opportunity to tell their story.
“The more you’re exposed to something, the more your eyes are opened to something,” said Jane Venus, manager of Lifelong Learning and Literacy at the Ottawa Public Library and one of the people who brought the Human Library to Ottawa, “Our main goal is to open people’s eyes to the community as a whole.”
“This is the space where you get to be the safest; the best place to ask a personal question is when you are safe.”
Though Cobb is confident to tell his story, he fears the judgment that is associated with HIV in society.
The people who ‘read’ the books were excited about the event and admitted there were some preconceived ideas about what the books would be like.
“I thought that he would be white and middle aged, he was actually black and a little younger than I though,” said Chris Burke, one of the readers who talked to a criminal court judge, “He was not what I expected.
“I think that talking to somebody that you know absolutely nothing about can be a incredibly positive and rewarding experience,” said Burke.
Cobb smiled, recollecting his experience at the Human Library, “I had the opportunity to put it out there that there are people out there living, loving, thriving with HIV, it is a local thing.”
Cobb felt most inspired after being embraced by one of his readers, “With her I felt the deepest sort of connection to understanding each other.”
“People living with HIV are…middle aged white guys, are recovering drug users, are scientists, are politicians, are regular people.”