WORLD AIDS DAY
The signs that something was wrong began to appear in mid-August.
“Today has been the worst day ever,” O’Ryan Moss posted to his Facebook page, in what to most people would seem like everyday social media griping until a post two days later. “I’m not dying but I’m ready to go!” he wrote, tagging himself at Grady Memorial Hospital. Then nothing until Sep. 4, when he wrote “Sombody [sic] buy me a new stomach.”
The posts from Moss ebbed over the ensuing weeks and into October as posts from his friends and family asking for prayers multiplied. By November, he had entered hospice care. On the evening of Nov. 10, he was gone.
Moss, 26, died from complications from AIDS, leaving his loved ones to wonder why the openly gay Atlanta man didn’t tell anyone about his status and how someone that age could succumb to the disease with so many resources around him.
‘He loved to make people laugh’
Darline Dodard met Moss in 2009, when she and a group of Moss’ friends were hanging out at MetroPointe Lofts (now known as West-Mar Student Lofts) in West Midtown. The man they called “Oboi” loved to dance; that was his passion. And he made an impression.
“The thing about O’Ryan is he didn’t tell anyone [that he was HIV-positive]. So I’m still in a state of shock that he had full-blown AIDS. We had to learn that through the GoFundMe page that his father put together. That’s how we all found out. It was just mind-blowing.” —Darline Dodard, a close friend of O’Ryan Moss
“He was funny, very outgoing,” Dodard recalls of Moss. “He always wanted to go out, he never wanted to sit around. He loved to make people laugh. He never wanted people to be unhappy, he would do silly things just to make people laugh.”
Dodard would later move to New York City, which is where she was when she got the call that Moss was in the hospital.
“He was just saying that he had an infection, that something’s wrong with his stomach and his throat,” she says.
After numerous questions from friends, he finally let them know the truth—he was HIV-positive. But it was worse than that. A GoFundMe page set up by Moss’ father on Nov. 9 to pay for medical expenses confirmed the worst—Moss’ health had deteriorated to the point that the disease had progressed to AIDS.
“The thing about O’Ryan is he didn’t tell anyone [that he was HIV-positive],” Dodard says. “So I’m still in a state of shock that he had full-blown AIDS. We had to learn that through the GoFundMe page that his father put together. That’s how we all found out. It was just mind-blowing.”
Financial hardship a common barrier to access
The bigger question is whether, with a strong support system and the number of local resources available, a 26-year-old man should be dying of AIDS in Atlanta in 2015 in the first place.
“The obvious answer is no,” says Craig Washington, AID Atlanta’s prevention programs manager. “But beyond the no it drives the why. It did happen and it does happen. The goal is that we move to a place where that doesn’t happen at all.”
He cites a number of ways in which to get to that point, including having more of an inter-generational approach, making the messaging less simplistic and getting other players in the community to take more ownership over the issue of HIV/AIDS in Atlanta.
“One doesn’t have to be a NAESM or a Sister Love or an AID Atlanta—if you have young black gay men in your midst, then you have a responsibility to provide some support in whatever form you can,” he says. “It may be opening up and reaching out to the Health Initiative and saying, ‘Hey we’ll have 100 young guys here at Einstein’s this Friday. Could you come out and do some enrollment work?’”
As to Moss’ case, Washington can only speculate, but his financial situation could have been a factor. He reportedly did not have a steady income and was living at friends’ places, with Dodard saying that to her knowledge Moss “had nothing to his name.”
“With any of these major health conditions and disparities, the most common factor has to do with lack of resources or poverty, that always pops up,” Washington says, also noting that people with more resources often take them for granted. “We don’t have to worry about where we’re going to sleep, where we’re going to eat, how we’re going to pay that light bill, what we’ll have to do to pay that light bill, and that can get in the way of coordinating your schedule and staying in care.”
‘We all could have helped him’
Moss’ friends don’t know how long he knew he was HIV-positive or why he didn’t tell any of them. His father did not respond to interview requests. It leaves Moss’ circle of friends to question what was going on behind the laughter.
“He was always looking for love in a way. Not having a steady long-term relationship, not having a steady career, not having his own place, not having anything to call his own. I think he just gave up,” Dodard says. “Maybe when he found out he was positive, he just didn’t care anymore. We all could have helped him. A lot of people act like they’re really happy and want to make people laugh to cover their pain. There’s a lot of underlying issues and now we can’t do anything about it.”
But Washington sees hope in the trail of social media posts as word spread about Moss’ deteriorating health and subsequent death.
“In the midst of this loss, that’s a win, that people can so publicly embrace this young man while he was in decline,” he says. “And even in his parting be open about his illness. That suggests a certain kind of power. If they can do that, what else can they do in their respective social networks and families?”
Friends of O’Ryan Moss say the openly gay 26-year-old Atlanta resident was funny, outgoing and loved to make people laugh.