Living Out: On Being HIV Positive in the Work



Editor’s Note: At 29, Tyler Helms is a former television journalist-turned-award-winning advertising executive. Originally form Atlanta, GA, he is currently a vice president and group account director at Deutsch Inc. and lives full-time in New York City. Outside of Deutsch, Helms writes a column for The Advocate called “Living the Questions.” He first appeared in The Advocate on December 1, 2009, when disclosing his HIV status. Helms has been HIV-positive since 2007, on medication since June 2009, and sharing his story since the last World AIDS Day. As we approach his year anniversary of going public with his status, Helms writes for dot429 about being HIV-positive in the workplace.

The Deutsch I Know– A Lesson in Gaining Tolerance and Encouraging Diversity

The Deutsch I know started five years ago. In those five years, clients have come and gone, work has been good and bad, but the agency I have come to call home has not waivered in its core values. Values that in today’s environment, and on the heels of World AIDS Day, I believe should not be taken for granted.

Being a professional, out, and an HIV-positive gay male is no doubt easier than it was just five years ago. Medical advances, legislation, and progressive thinking have made being gay more acceptable. What was once considered a terminal illness is now a chronic one. But, as I often say, that is only half the healing and wellness that comes with HIV. The other half can be found in the social and mental challenges that diagnosis brings. I know because I am HIV-positive, diagnosed in 2007, on medication since 2009, and in just a few weeks will mark a year since I disclosed my status in a very public way. My disclosure started as a Facebook post that encouraged a simple conversation. This quickly became the news story of the day for The Advocate. From there, the worldwide web took that conversation to places I never thought it would go. And whether they were ready or not, Deutsch had to be along for the ride, one that many feared would impact my career and my clients.

The issue of who to tell does not stop at the bedroom door. In the workplace, while privacy is encouraged and laws are in place to protect us, it doesn’t always work. I was often conflicted. Is it too personal, unprofessional, or an “over-share?” Regardless of where you work, there is an innate fear of being treated differently, being judged or simply feeling exposed. This fear ultimately leads to secrecy. But I argue the impact on my career would have been far more negative if I had not disclosed my truth. Deutsch was a say-it-like-it-is transparent environment, and I was lying every day. Workplace discrimination exists and judgments are made that impact a person’s career path once it is discovered that s/he is HIV-positive.

The first time I had complications, which involved a large infection on my face, I told co-workers an elaborate story that involved a spider bite while on vacation. I told this lie out of fear, to cover my greatest truth, a truth that was manifesting on my face, one I didn’t want to impact the career I was working hard to build. When I began to get sick, I lost nearly 25 pounds at a rapid speed and struggled to go far from a bathroom, the comments around my weight loss were covered with a gay pun: “being skinny for summer.”

And when I went on medication, I told only one person. She is now our COO, Erica Grau, and has known since the beginning, when the medicine was hard to adjust to and the mental strain was ever-worse. Like Erica, Deutsch, as an agency, was there from the beginning, my second home, a place I would learn to live and work with HIV, a place I would rely on for support they didn’t know they were giving. My planning director on Kodak and Novartis accounts would be one of the most influential people in my life. We traveled together, he saw me at my worst, supported me at my best, and is an advocate for me to this day. His name is Brent Vartan. He is straight, negative, but human. One morning, in the early days of taking medication, I was severely sick. As if it had been rehearsed, Brent and his counterpart, Sarah, helped guide a client meeting of 25 people while I struggled to keep from sweating in the back of the room. Brent, like so many others at Deutsch, handled each instance with care, tolerance and compassion. That’s the Deutsch I know.

Nothing illustrated this more than NYC AIDS Walk. As I have been gathering materials for some initiatives on December 1st, I came across the amount raised. It should be noted that my team ranked 9th and I ranked 14th out of 40,000 walkers, but mainly because of Deutsch. Nearly half of the $36,000 raised came from this agency. Dozens of people quietly gave money out of their own pockets. Beyond the money, the agency quietly but confidently supported my efforts on all fronts, creating the logo, designing all the fundraising signage, shirts and collateral on top of their heavy workloads, with my having to ask. Leading up to the night of my IMPACT Red fundraiser, the studio handled the work like a new business pitch, printing boarded signs, menus, raffle banners, and never once asking how many, how much or how long. They only asked, “How else can we help?” The proofreaders pitched in without being asked to correct or reprint. The team made sure every last detail was perfect.

The night of my fundraiser, close to 20 Deutsch employees attended. Some I knew and some I didn’t. They bought raffle tickets, socializing with people they didn’t know, and proudly saying they worked at Deutsch. Bill Gray, former Ogilvy CEO whose daughter was in attendance, pulled me aside and said, “The support you have from Deutsch is astonishing. It’s like you really are a family.” Donny Deutsch’s reply would simply be: “I’m so fuckin’ proud.” That was the Deutsch he knows, the one he built.

This type of company doesn’t happen overnight. It is created by leadership. Donny, a staunch advocate for the LGBT community, CEO Linda Sawyer, and President Val DiFebo are walking examples of what every major company’s leadership should be: instilling tolerance, encouraging more than acceptance, and settling for nothing less than a place where anyone will feel supported.

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