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AIDS Jim Pickett: Man on an HIV/AIDS mission
by Tully Satre

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Jim Pickett is a man of many chapters. The walls of his downtown Chicago office are decked with paintings and photos spanning the nearly two decades-long career of a late bloomer. In one corner hangs a rainbow flag with the word "PACE" printed in bold white letters adjacent to a school globe perched atop a shelf of books and knickknacks. Photos of heroes and mentors that shed light on the advocate we know today are carefully fixated on the wall.

"I used to be the syphilis guy," said Pickett, "I was the crystal guy and now people call me the AIDS guy." These are not exactly nicknames a normal professional would boast about. But Jim Pickett has been fighting for change for years. And the names he has picked up along the way are whimsical trophies for the battles he has fought.

His family is aware of his work. They know that he does what he loves and has opportunities because of it, such as traveling, hence the globe ( "I still have to be like, 'where exactly am I going?'" joked Pickett ) . But they remain casually aloof to the details, "I don't think they totally get it," he said, "I don't come home with the latest rectal microbicide report and say 'rectal' 20 times at the dinner table." Though his family reminds him that they are proud of his work, Pickett doubts they could describe exactly what he does. "These are topics we didn't talk about growing up," he added.

Let there be no confusion: Pickett's family in Wisconsin have been very welcoming to his partner of four years, Kevin Jack, despite their hazy understanding of Pickett's advocacy. Jack and Pickett met outside a coffeeshop in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood in an act plucked right from the silver screen of a romantic comedy. "We caught each other's eye ... did the whole eye thing ... I like to joke that he was stalking me," Pickett said.

Pickett grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, the eldest of two sons in an average hardworking American family. His father was an accountant, who dealt primarily with corporate finances, while his mother was a stay-at-home mom—until he and his brother were old enough for her to pick up a part-time job.

Pickett came out at the ripe age of 18 in 1984 when the first wave of HIV/AIDS hit America. He started out as a business major at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and transferred to Marquette. "I had no direction," Pickett recalled. While at Marquette he majored in everything from communications to theatre, linguistics and English ( "there might be something else in there," he added ) .

"Just before I got into college they asked me to take a computer survey to elicit my interests and give me career goals," said Pickett, "So I did it. It's long. It took hours. And it spit out two top things: one was a minister, and the other was a social worker."

"At the time, I was disgusted!" scoffed Pickett. "Now if I look back, I am doing something in between. There's a little bit of both in the work I do."

Pickett drifted through college, floating from one major to another. "I thought, 'I can't be in school and keep changing; I don't know what I'm doing!'" Suffice it to say, Pickett was very unsure as to what he wanted to do or where to go, but he knew that he had to leave Milwaukee.

"I was wild at that age," said Pickett. "When you're wild in a small town you end up getting kicked out everywhere and you can't go back. You burn your bridges. There are not many other bridges to cross." So he moved to Chicago with nothing and got a job waiting tables.

Pickett's expectation for a sense of direction did not surface quickly. Waiting tables had no clear path for the young college dropout, but he began advancing at work rather quickly. "I got management level jobs in hotels and restaurants, but I knew that wasn't my calling. I didn't like it," he said. "I didn't want to be worried about salt and pepper shakers and horrible mothers of brides my whole life. I didn't want to serve people in that way."

In the early 1990s, a week before Christmas, Pickett was working at a prestigious Gold Coast hotel where he managed a private dining staff of nearly two dozen. After a heated argument with another manager at the hotel ( "while we had an event," he noted ) Pickett found himself without a job. "It was the best thing that happened to me because it re-calibrated me."

It was a rare moment in Pickett's life. He gained direction: "I said [ to myself ] , 'I want to be professionally gay ... I wanted to work in the gay community.' I was going to figure out how to do that."

That was what led Pickett to GAB's doorstep ... literally. Having been a fan of the magazine and a regular reader, Pickett was aware that they had been looking for columnists. "It was a very sassy weekly," Pickett recalled.

GAB ( originally called Gag and then Babble before its final name, GAB ) was a weekly rag published between the eras of the zine and the blog. Poking fun at Chicago's gay nightlife, the magazine was quite successful during its time before folding in early 2001. "I was a fan of their magazine because it was a very refreshing change from what was out there ... it was funny and it was biting."

Pickett did not have a computer or a typewriter so he handwrote the first satirical column while lying at the beach. He decided to pull from his own experience as a waiter. "I had this character when I was waiting tables called Ms. Margie. It was an underneath character. I had a friend who was Brenda ... both of us guys." Pickett and his colleague happened across nametags one day with the names 'Margie' and 'Brenda' while working an event. The two threw the nametags under their tuxedos and took on another identity to get through the day.

"Margie was this fierce waitress," Pickett detailed, "she was the best waitress ever and she was also a gorgeous, glama-zon model. So I thought, 'I could make a column out of this.'"

"I snuck up to their office and I slid [ the column ] under their door and I ran down the stairs like a total geek. It was so queer in the wrong way of being queer," said Pickett of showing up on GAB's office doorstep. "I just thought, 'well I hope they think it's funny, I think it's funny!' I laughed when I wrote it." A couple days later the publisher called Pickett asking for Ms. Margie and wanting to know if she would like to write for GAB.

"It was called 'Poop Stains with Ms. Margie,' because Ms. Margie not only was a fabulous waitress—she could be a model if she wanted to be, but she followed in the family's footsteps of the service industry—but she was also obsessed with poop stains." Pickett admitted that waiters, especially, tend to be crude in their humor, noting, "It's the stupid crap to get through the kind of work you have to do. You just play these games with each other."

For every column, Pickett's hook for Ms. Margie was a run-in with her or someone else's poop stains. According to Pickett, it fit the magazine perfectly.

Writing for GAB led Pickett to selling advertising and, eventually, editing the magazine, two things he had never done before. With his ability to learn on his feet, Pickett was able to turn his work at GAB into a full-time job. "It was not a great living ... not an adult living, but a fun living. Working for GAB was not about being a serious adult. It was too much fun."

Things were looking up for Pickett after a turbulent departure from the hospitality industry. But in 1995 just after a couple of years working with GAB, Pickett was faced with life-changing news. "I tested positive [ for HIV ] when I was 29."

"When I found out, it was terrible. I don't think there was a worst day of my life, actually," said Pickett. He remembered being very scared. The mid-'90s were a time absent of the host of drugs available now. The options were limited for people diagnosed with HIV. And the drugs then were fairly toxic. " [ The drugs ] pushed people over the brink if AIDS didn't do it," said Pickett. "I was scared as hell ... and then the drama queen comes out in you and you think you have such a short time to live. The crypt keeper is going to be coming any minute with a casket! I'm out of here! So it was really tough."

"GAB is an important part of my HIV story because I was a writer and I had been writing constantly," Pickett explained. "If I am a real writer I have to explore the hardest thing that I am going through. I can't just write catty nightlife gossip, I can't just do interviews with people and other people's stories. I can't just write satire. I have to write my own story. So a couple of years into my experience living with HIV, I decided to start writing about it." Pickett began writing a column for GAB titled, "Sick: A body of work in progress."

Making the decision to write about being HIV positive was scary, Pickett recalled. He would be putting himself out there very broadly. "I was committed to writing about it in an honest way so I wasn't going to make myself look anything other than what I was ... so that means: complicated, good, bad, ugly, angry, wrong, right ... I wrote from that perspective."

Pickett's brash writing turned a sharp corner for his career, pushing him towards the advocate he did yet not know he was. "I really thought I was going to do the magazine thing. I loved it. I didn't see myself as an advocate or an activist. But I started writing about my story and it started to come back." It was not long before Pickett began receiving invitations to show up at events and speak. "I was very opinionated," he recalled, "the opportunities just started to grow, and all of a sudden I was making this my full-time career."

Pickett's column explored all of the above ( "the good, the bad and the ugly" ) and it soon led him to writing a column called "Pickett Fences" for Positively Aware, an HIV treatment journal. He continued to write about his personal story and tie it to bigger issues. That led to other gigs. Working at the magazine during that time and testing positive merged together and within a few years Pickett realized advocacy was his calling.

AFC: Looking Forward

For more than a decade Jim Pickett has been at the forefront of Chicago's HIV/AIDS advocacy movement. In 1999 he began working with the Health Department on a project called "The Faces of AIDS: Living in the Heartland."

"I was hired to just write a few stories," said Pickett, "and it was just going to be one little book, just Chicago. And then it expanded and it became a regional thing and a photo documentary and two books and then they needed a project manager and I just fell into it." Pickett had never project managed before nor had he ever worked for the health department. Initially he was skeptical, thinking the job would be dull and that his work would be edited. But after sitting down with the department he realized they were ready to put a real face to HIV/AIDS without varnish. '

"We ended up creating something I stand by today," said Pickett. "I am very proud of what we did. We had everything from a woman in prison in Topeka, Kansas, to a Native American grandma in Oklahoma City, to a gay couple in Kearney, Nebraska ... all their stories were able to be told."

During his time with the Department of Health, Pickett worked on several projects creating a bridge between the department and Chicago's gay community. He implemented and developed marketing campaigns for the city's Syphilis Elimination Task Force, which launched in 2001 answering to the rise of the disease among gay men. The campaign was considered hugely successful after reports of infections dropped over the next year.

Pickett also pioneered a social marketing campaign against crystal meth after several high-profile cases involving gay men surfaced around the city. The project, called "Crystal Breaks," was aimed at cleaning up the mess the drug had caused for the gay community.

Pickett was with the Department of Health until 2004 when he started working with the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, where he is currently employed. He was originally hired as the director of public policy, but soon morphed his job into, "the dream job I have now," Pickett said, "which is director of prevention advocacy and gay men's health." ( The two things Pickett says he feels most passionate about. )

While with the AFC, Pickett helped plant and cultivate support for microbicide research ( what he describes as his "baby" ) , which seek to offer possible alternatives to condoms as a means of HIV prevention. Microbicides are agents with anti-HIV qualities that can be applied as a gel/lubricant in the vagina or rectum to prevent infection. Noticing a lot of effort was being put solely into vaginal microbicides, Pickett was one of a handful of people in 2005 that formed the International Rectal Microbicides Advocates to focus on and promote rectal microbicides.

Pickett pointed out that rectal microbicides are much further behind in terms of research and development. "There have only been three human trials for a total of a little over a hundred people," said Pickett, "IRMA started with four members and today it is over 1,000 members spanning every continent and over 100 countries."

Pickett explained that anal sex continues to be very stigmatized, thus the lack of interest in rectal microbicides. However it was not just for gay men that he was concerned, but also for women. ( "Women have anal sex, too." ) Simply put: there are more women than gay men.

The benefits for microbicides are vast, Pickett pointed out. "Expecting everyone to use condoms all the time is ridiculous," said Pickett. "People don't want to use condoms their whole life. As great as they can be, there are a lot of issues with condoms."

In terms of microbicides, Pickett said that women, apart from gay men, need the option for both a vaginal and rectal microbicide. "They have both," he said. "Microbicides gives them something to have total control over. It's up to the woman if she wants to use the gel or lubricant. Female condoms often require negotiation with the other partner."

The initial stages promoting rectal microbicides were tough, but Pickett and his colleagues saw it through. Initially, IRMA sought to bring visibility to the need to advance rectal microbicide research. "Now it's legit," said Pickett who recently received a call from the National Institute of Health asking about rectal microbicides.

Aside from prevention projects, Pickett's work with the AFC is greatly concerned with gay men's health. He currently works in collaboration between the AFC, the Center on Halsted, the Howard Brown Health Center, and the Test Positive Aware Network in a series of gay men's health activities funded by the Health Department.

"I am very involved in a national/international gay men's health movement which looks at gay men's health in a holistic way," said Pickett, "For a long time we focused on gay men's health from naval to knee ( HIV/STDs ) . But gay men have other health issues that matter ... top to toe matters, not just naval to knee. We are not just sick in need of being fixed."

Pickett's presence with the AFC has shed light on the negative outlook the mainstream tends to take with gay men's health. Since he started with the AFC he has taken steps towards the more holistic approach. "I believe you can address HIV, but never mention HIV," said Pickett.

The Jim Pickett we know today is a far cry from the person who struggled for direction. "I think my story is that I have just done things without really knowing what I am doing," Pickett laughed. "It's just funny because I look back and go wow that computer was actually right. If I had just listened to the computer when I was 18 I might have gone into this work much earlier."

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