OUTstanding Virginians 2015

Rodney Lofton – Author and Healthcare Activist, Richmond

Back Photo

The organization Rodney Lofton leads offers retreats for people with HIV/AIDS. Both the newly diagnosed and “returners” spend several days in peaceful locations participating in large and small group gatherings, workshops, creative expression, storytelling, shared meals, interactive activities, and periods of rest and reflection. The objective of these events is for each participant to develop a more meaningful and complete approach to living with HIV/AIDS.  The events are called Transformation Retreats, and the name of the organization is The Renewal Projects.

Before he could bring spiritual healing to others, Rodney had to achieve his own transformation and renewal. The process was long and difficult. Rodney was born in Seaboard, North Carolina (population 632) on his grandmother’s bed. He grew up in Richmond and moved to Baltimore at the age of 10. At the age of 16, he returned to Richmond to live with his father and enroll in school until his mother’s return to the city. At 16 in Richmond, he met gay black men for the first time and started hanging out with them. Empowered by an episode of the show “Dynasty,” he came out to both parents. It went well with his mother (“I always knew,” she said), but not well at all with his father and his father’s wife, who forced him out of the house. Until his mother’s return to the City of Richmond, Rodney lived with his boyfriend. At 20, Rodney left Richmond for Northern Virginia and then New York City, where he began a career in the entertainment industry. He became a publicist for a boy band and later Kool and the Gang and Mary Wilson of the Supremes. At the time, rumors about the “gay disease” started spreading, but Rodney did not pay much attention because it seemed that only white men were getting infected. His complacency came to an abrupt end on December 6, 1993, when in the course of a regular checkup, the 25-year-old found out he was HIV-positive.

Rodney remembers that day with perfect clarity: the time he got the test result (2:58 p.m.); his case number (1277597); what he was wearing (a “Born Jamerican’s” t-shirt); and what he did next (smoked two packs of cigarettes, downed a fifth of Bacardi, and listened to a Toni Braxton song with the line “didn’t have the strength to live but much too young to die”). Shortly after the diagnosis, he returned to Richmond “weighing 125 pounds and ready to die.”

To his amazement, a specialist at MCV told Rodney that he would be OK if he took care of himself. After that unexpected reprieve, Rodney set out on a personal journey back to physical health and simultaneously an outward journey into community involvement.  He began volunteer work with a theater group that taught HIV prevention to teens and soon found himself in Washington, D.C. with a national youth education and advocacy program.  He spent a year and a half as a Case Manager in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before homesickness brought him back to Virginia and case management work in Farmville and then Richmond.

All was not well with Rodney, however. “I didn’t know how to pace myself,” he says, and burnout took its toll. Depression led him to attempt suicide. As Rodney tells it, two things saved him: an “incredible support system of friends who could always see the best in me when I couldn’t see it in myself” and a talent for writing. In the wake of his near-suicide, Rodney wrote his memoir The Day I Stopped Being Pretty, which he describes as an “intense read.” The memoir and a novel No More Tomorrows were published and both were nominated for Lambda Literary Awards.

The mid 2000s brought unexpected endings and beginnings. After Rodney’s father died in 2005, a woman at the funeral told Rodney what he never knew: that his father loved him and talked about him every day.  The next year, an anonymous reader of the memoir wrote with congratulations, and Rodney learned that it was the boyfriend who had infected him in the early nineties. They talked on the phone and reconciled before the man succumbed to complications of AIDS in 2007. There were delightful discoveries too: Rodney met a brother he had never known, and when he least expected it he fell in love. Rodney and Faron, “a tall, blue-eyed Midwesterner” will be married on July 4 in their Richmond backyard.

Rodney cites the aphorism “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Having survived against tough odds, Rodney is determined to give back all he can. He is deeply engaged with Virginia’s communities of color to address racial disparities in HIV awareness and access to health care, and to declare that “black gay lives matter.” With the Renewal Projects, Rodney serves an exceptionally broad constituency: young, old, black, white, gay, straight… 

Despite their many differences, the people who come to the retreats have a common need for “affirmation not judgment,” in Rodney’s words. This is something Rodney Lofton can readily supply because he succeeded in affirming himself.

Celebrate the freedom to marry and honor the 2015 OUTstanding Virginians by joining us at this year’s Commonwealth Dinner!