Tyler Tom
Photographed Exclusively For A&U By Tim Courtney

Playing   for  Keeps
Classical Pianist Tyler Tom Fights HIV With Education And Support

You have the first signs of AIDS and you'll probably be gone in one year," announced Tyler Tom's neurologist, revealing the results of the HTLV-3 test which the doctor had taken without Tom's consent.  Tom had sought professional help due to loss of peripheral vision.  That was 1985.

Today, forty-two-year-old Tyler tom is an acclaimed classical pianist with a special love for the great romantic composers of the early twentieth century.  "The period which I feel I have the most keen insights, that which I feel a great depth of understanding, is the music cetnered in Paris of 1906—Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Scriabin.  We call these Greats, either modern or contemporary composers, but actually, only in the field of classical music does one consider something near one hundred years old to be modern."

As I near Tyler's charming bungalow home nestled high in the rugged San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles, commanding sounds erupt from his Steinway.  The music of the Great Masters provides a wonderful backdrop to this serene California landscape.  Tyler looks dapper garbed in a Sonneti T-shirt, skintight 501s, and pointed alligator boots.  He has an energetic presence and his pumped up physique could easily propel him to the pages of GQ.

Tom received his doctorate from the University of Southern California and also attended Juilliard and the Eastman School of Music.  Presently teaching at the prestigious Chapman University, he also performs around the world in such countries as Italy, France, Spain, and Singapore.  His first CD, entitled Prokofiev Live!, will be released in May.  Tyler has struck those ivories for many AIDS benefits and has delivered food to PWAs for the organization Project Angel Food.  (A profile of the work Project Angel Food does can be found in the January 2000 issue of A&U)

After Tom's shocking diagnosis back in 1985, a friend who was also HIV-positive comforted him and advised him to find a gay doctor who specialized in HIV.  Tyler learned that his vision problem was being caused by Bell's Palsy, which usually affects the facial muscles, but in Tom's case, had affected the optic nerve.  With treatment, it soon disappears.

Tyler briefly tried AZT.  "The side effects were so severe that I decided I would rather die sooner than live with this drug."  So he terminated treatment.  His next course of therapy included one of the first protease inhibitors—the drug is called Fortavase—which he continues to take today.  At the time, it was known as Saquinavir and Tyler visualized this virus eater as the actress Sigourney Weaver.  "I used to work with visualization techniques, and one in particular included Sigourney Weaver in that metal contraption-Dykes-on-Bikes thing—taking full charge on the alien in [the movie] Aliens.  But in my movie, she is in my body taking on these nasty, heinous virus cells called HIV.  All my T cells would come out and sit in the bleachers—they were little Pac Man-shaped guys with my initials, TT, on them.  Each time the Saquinavir would make a good hit on the alien HIV, the TT cells would yell 'Bravo Saquinavir, Bravo!'  The whole scene would take place back in ancient Rome in the grand Colosseum.  The mind can be startlingly creative, albeit a bit zany, when it is brought to the task of battling disease.  And at the time, HIV was known as a fatal and incurable disease," he says with a shudder.

Tyler's T cell levels are currently high and his viral load is undetectable.  He supplements his drug regimen with vitamin and herbal therapy.  "I've drawn my support from people with HIV.  Probably the largest contribution to getting a perspective on HIV for myself, and just universally, has been all the funerals I;ve been to and watching these friends die.  That's been the place where I've found my strength or my despair, dealt with HIV head-on as deeply as one can, and worked through many different emotions."

How does Tyler deal with loss?  "Sadly, I have to say that it does not get easier.  In fact, in some ways it gets harder because while you consciously strive for a healthy and whole approach to it all, there can often be bitterness, and a sense of disparity, which relieves the real situation that you don't want to face.  Emotionally, I have gone through so many stages with HIV," he says with a sigh as he stares at the sleek, ebony grand piano that dominates the living room.

Over three separate Christmas seasons, Tyler was committed to telling his parents, who reside in San Francisco, about his HIV status.  His fear kept him at bay.  "Most Asian families are not communicative, or warmie feelie types.  Emotions are not shared," he says, taking a sip of coffee.  Once Tyler received a good report from his doctor, he felt more compelled to tell them.  "They didn't react that strongly.  I knew at the time that it didn't sink in.  I think that they went into denial for two years, until I was sick, then they started asking HIV questions."

Since Tom's diagnosis, he looks at the process of life instead of viewing life as a series of accomplishments.  "I now ask myself how did I get through it?  How well did I face and accept challenges?  How much love did I express, share, and bring into my life?  Many times I've thought out what I would be like on my deathbed and what I would want to say for myself.  I hope it is a peaceful death," he says wistfully as he strolls into the backyard.  Tom's passion for gardening is manifest in the manicured lawn and the abundant flowerbeds.  As we sit down at a wrought iron, forest green patio table, a four-year-old boy playing ball next door spots Tyler and shouts, "Hi, Taywer."

Tyler pours himself more java and continues.  He has witnessed several friends who died in fear and embitterment.  One was in denial, using crystal meth, and by the time he finally sought medical help it was too late.  Not wanting anyone to know, within three weeks he died alone.  "It was the saddest thing I ever experienced," Tom reflects.  Consequently, Tom and his friends had the difficult task of calling his family and friends after his death.

What does he think about barebacking (purposely going condomless)?  "I'm mesmerized, appalled, and thorougly shocked.  I absolutely don't understand it!"  He has quizzed several guys who partake in it, and received a variety of responses.  "But they really didn't answer the question for me.  Barebacking is a trend like the latest sunglasses or the way you wear your hair.  It's just become the thing that everybody wants."

Tyler wants a boyfriend, but presently he's not romantically linked.  In the past when Tyler dated, he would tirelessly wrestle with the burning question—when do you tell someone you're involved with your status?  "I'm in a good place now, though.  If a guy asks me about my status, I don't even want to talk about that anymore.  Because if people are asking what your status is then they don't understand, haven't dealt with or thought it through enough.  It doesn't really matter what someone's status is.  You should assume that everyone is HIV-positive regardless of what they say."  In the initial stage of dating, he doesn't feel the need to divulge information until it is appropriate.  "And appropriate means until dating looks like it will be in the forefront for a while," he giggles.  "At this point for this particular issue, I can no longer educate people.  I've worked very hard to get to the place where I am emotionally and I can't convince somebody that it doesn't matter what my status is—why are you asking?—I can't go through that process any longer.  If they're not there, I would just rather not see them."

With periodic screeches from his parrot, Dextor, the squealing of the kids at play next door, and the loss of daylight, Tyler closes with some advice.  "If you are recently diagnosed, or going through the beginning stages of your first awareness of your own relationship with HIV, surround yourself with all the love that you can.  And if that's your computer, or your bird, or your cats, or hopefully your family and friends, do that first.  Don't think that you can face this without love, nurturing, and support.  Then, educate yourself!" he says emphatically.  "Learn what you are experiencing and what you need to face.  And if you have nothing else but these two things, you will get through HIV."

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