On Being Open and Moving Forward
Coming out is a lifelong, iterative process. It’s not something you do only once. You do it over and over and over again. With every new situation, every new job, you make a conscious decision about how you present yourself and how you want to live your life.
And, after some time, where you end up might look very different from where you started.
For me, two pivotal moments have defined my process: the loss of my best friend to suicide in high school, and the experience of being diagnosed with HIV as a U of T undergrad student.
I was born in Fort Frances, Ontario, a small town of about 7,000 people halfway between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay on the Minnesota border. I was raised in and around Dryden, Ontario, a nearby town of similar size. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows each other and their business.
My childhood was not a completely happy one. My father passed away when I was 12, and I lived with my mother and sister, moving from place to place, from trailer park to subsidized housing. We were poor and regularly visited the local food bank. I was an outgoing and outspoken kid and I didn’t get along with my mother’s new boyfriend. In Grade 10, when I was 15, I left home and moved in with my grandmother.
I knew in high school that I was gay, although I wasn’t public about it. I confided in only a couple of people I trusted, including my best friend.
When he died of suicide near the end of Grade 10, I was shattered. I can’t put into words how much it devasted me. My already-disrupted world seemed irreparably broken.
Even thinking about it now is painful, but through this tragedy I did gain an important perspective on my own life. I asked myself some big questions: What was I going to do with my life? How did I want to live? Did I even want to live?
This was the first moment of truth, so to speak, in my coming out process.
I decided I wanted to live, and more than that, I wanted to do something with my life. I didn’t want my past experiences to determine my future potential. I was going to live somewhere I could be proud of. I was going to live openly as a proud queer person.
After graduating high school, I moved to Calgary and started an undergraduate commerce course at the University of Calgary. I also got a job working at AIDS Calgary doing education and outreach. For the first time I lived my life as an openly gay man.
After five years in Calgary, I moved to Toronto to refocus on my academic potential and to broaden my horizons. I hadn’t yet finished undergrad, and I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew I had the capacity and the interest to do meaningful work. I started a BSc in biochemistry and sexual diversity studies at U of T in 2011, with an eye towards HIV research down the road.
Then, two years into my degree, in an ironic twist of fate, I was diagnosed with HIV infection.
Leaning into my experience at AIDS Calgary, I was perhaps better prepared than most to manage the news. I knew a lot about the disease, but, in that moment, I felt very alone with my diagnosis.
Again, I found myself at a crossroads. I could keep my HIV-positive status private and reveal it only on a need-to-know basis. Or, I could be open about it.
I decided to come out yet again. I wanted to continue to live openly and move forward, and to set an example for others fighting the stigma of HIV and AIDS.
It wasn’t an easy decision, and it has presented me with plenty of challenges over the years, but it has in part also afforded me some incredible opportunities.
My diagnosis did not stop me from pursuing HIV research. I completed my doctorate in immunology at U of T, involving my leading a Health Canada clinical trial in people living with HIV, and conducting a set of clinical studies aimed at better understanding their immune health.
While pursuing my PhD I also spent three years as an appointed advisor on the Ministerial Advisory Council on the Federal Initiative to Address HIV/AIDS in Canada, providing scientific and lived-experience advice to the Federal Minister of Health on matters relating to HIV and AIDS.
Having a role on that council prompted me to think differently about immunology. While I had done research through my PhD that was interesting and valuable, I wanted to be involved in broader and higher-level health issues with impact on a global scale. So, after completing my doctorate, I went on to complete an MBA degree at the University of Oxford.
Now, 15 years after losing my best friend, and nine years since my diagnosis, my identity as an HIV-positive gay man doesn’t have the same prominence. I’ve been in a loving relationship of almost 10 years with a wonderful man, and I am a caring parent to our six-year-old child. I’m working at the cutting-edge of globally-impacting immunology in medical affairs at one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies. What we’re learning through COVID-19 research and vaccine and immunotherapy development will have an enduring impact on humanity’s ability to overcome future infectious diseases.
There are many other dimensions to my life and work these days, as well as considerations to make as I navigate my future — including deciding when, where and how to come out to those I meet along the way.
Life is a series of crossroads. We don’t always get to decide on our route, or even our ultimate destination, but we can consciously choose the values we want to embody as a traveller on this journey.
Rodney Rousseau (PhD '20) is a medical science liaison specializing in infectious disease research at AstraZeneca.