Caring for the gay male community of New Orleans has been my priority for nearly two decades. This act, however, has not been as selfless as it sounds. My work saved me and provided me with a purpose and a family. And this family is worth fighting for.
My journey started like the typical closeted gay man in the late ‘90s and early 2000s…by cruising the park, French Quarter, and adult bookstores.
My education was limited to the physical and sexual side of gay culture. I was desperate for something more meaningful. One night, at age 17, I had the courage and curiosity to go to the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann.
I was wearing my high school letterman jacket. I was approached by a group of young gay men who teased me for what I was wearing and made lewd statements like, “Whatcha doing here, kid? You like sucking dick, huh? Yeah, you look like you do. Haha.”
I ran away as fast as I could. For the first few blocks, I could hear the voice of a man yelling, “Hey, kid, wait! I know what it’s like. Wait! Let me help.” But it was too late. I had been spooked and didn’t know where I fit in.
I graduated from Jesuit High School in 1998 and then UNO in 2003 with a Bachelor’s degree in business. College years were spent managing several Smoothie King stores by day, delivering newspapers for Times Picayune by night. Any free time was spent on schoolwork. There wasn’t time to learn what it meant to be gay in New Orleans. No time and no courage…not yet.
That all changed with Hurricane Katrina.
I came out to my family while evacuating New Orleans.
I remember sitting in traffic on I-10 in the backseat of my mom’s minivan. The emotions were so intense because of the looming natural disaster, and everything seemed to have a different perspective. Life and freedom seemed more precious.
My news was not well-received.
I had been the apple of my parents’ eye…their youngest of four who was their star athlete and only child to graduate college. I had been living with my female fiancé for several years, and my parents were anxiously awaiting the news of marriage dates and grandchildren.
So, my parents and siblings did not take the news very well. There was a lot of screaming and crying in that minivan. The dog didn’t even want to sit next to me. My family made it crystal clear that they would always love me but would never embrace my being gay. I stayed with my family for the weeks and months of evacuation, then helped them get resettled into their newly gutted home in Metairie, then set off to learn what it meant to live as a gay man.
Because of the storm, I had no possessions, no money, no job. I had the phone number for a gay hustler whom I had met months prior while cruising the French Quarter. He invited me to stay with him in Baton Rouge.
I then spent several months as a male hustler and “depending on the kindness of strangers”. Cocaine and crystal meth were omnipresent and practically forced into me by rich older gay men who cared nothing about me as a person but were only interested in showing off their new “pool boy”.
This was my first glimpse at what it meant to be gay…and I was totally miserable.
Maybe because I missed New Orleans culture or maybe because it was my Catholic guilt for living as a male hustler, but I started volunteering at one of the FEMA trailer parks outside of Baton Rouge. Rosie O’Donell’s wife at the time was Kelli Baker, who was from Baton Rouge, so Rosie’s nonprofit, Rosie’s For All Kids Foundation, was providing services to the children in the FEMA trailer park. By luck, I became friends with the family of Kelli Baker, and they invited me to stay with them to be a “manny” to their young kids and to assist with work projects related to the FEMA trailer park. Over the next 2 years, this snowballed into my working full time for Rosie O’Donnell’s nonprofit and traveling with her staff back and forth between NYC and Baton Rouge.
This was a new exposure to gay culture. I was surrounded by affluent gays and lesbians who were raising children and living their lives openly and proudly. I now had a glimpse of hope that my life as a gay man would not have to be spent in shame and isolation.
After another year of a little hard work and a lot of luck, I moved with Rosie O’Donnell’s nonprofit to New York City. There I was in November 2006, living in a company apartment in midtown New York and ready to take on the world. I called my mom in New Orleans to share in the excitement.
She replied, “But are you still gay?”
“Yes.” I replied.
“Then it’s better if you don’t come home for the holidays this year,” she said
I hung up the phone, poured a glass of vodka, and swallowed some pills.
I then had a little more…and then a little bit more…and a little bit more…whatever it took to make the pain go away.
But it never did.
The next thing I knew, I woke up in a NYC hospital. But I didn’t wake up with any shame or regret. I awoke with an ardent fury at my family, at my God, and at the whole world. I made a vow to myself to never again let my happiness depend on someone else’s approval. I had left my family, my friends, and my city to search for acceptance. But their acceptance didn’t matter, I realized. What mattered was that I knew my family, friends, and the City of New Orleans needed me. And I needed them. And I loved them all too much to let them throw me away or flood me out.
So, I left NYC with nothing but a backpack and came home to New Orleans. My grandmother, my best friend and biggest ally, took me in. I slept on the floor of her one-bedroom apartment for months while I put my life back together. I applied at the NO/AIDS Task Force for a job as a Community Specialist. I knew that it was something I needed to assist in the healing of my own mental struggles. I told the interviewer, “I have no idea what this job entails, but I know I can do it.” I needed to do it.
I spent two years facilitating support groups for gay men, doing HIV counseling and testing in the French Quarter bars and bathhouses, and teaching harm reduction strategies to anonymous participants in gay chat rooms. This was my education into the gay culture of New Orleans.
I then worked seven years as a Case Manager for NO/AIDS Task Force where I helped navigate HIV-positive patients towards community resources for pretty much anything and everything. This was my education on the economic, medical, and psychosocial hardships faced by gays in New Orleans.
Then, I worked four years as an AIDS Certified Registered Nurse at NO/AIDS Task Force. This is where I was mentored and inspired by nurse practitioners, some of whom had dedicated the past 4 decades to caring for the gay community of New Orleans.
Lastly, I spent the past 4 years as a nurse practitioner at NO/AIDS Task Force. This time was mostly spent listening to the medical and psychiatric needs of patients, learning which medical interventions they prefer and which ones they need.
Part of my own personal mental health healing required some additional training along the way, of course. I spent 3 years volunteering for NOPD’s Crisis Intervention Department where I would be called out to meet with victims of acute mental distress, de-escalate the situation as best I could, then transport them to the local emergency room.
I also spent one year working as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner in the Emergency Department for Tulane Medical Center.
And for two years, I volunteered for the Archdiocese of New Orleans where I facilitated pastoral care to gay Catholics and organized social events in the French Quarter.
It was at one of these events where I met my husband. Ten years ago this month, while standing on the steps of St. Mary’s on Chartres Street with a nun and two monks, God blessed me with the man that would sacrifice all he had to help me serve our community.
These experiences helped me better understand the tremendous psychiatric, sexual, and spiritual traumas endured by gay men in New Orleans.
And now, we come to the present.
After 17 years, I resigned from NO/AIDS Task Force in 2023 with tremendous gratitude for their patients and staff, and I have started my own primary care practice. My goal is to provide quality medical care tailored more to the needs of my community. After all, these are not just my patients but my peers, my friends, and my former lovers. I want to be their neighborhood nurse. Someone they can go to for help with any medical, psychiatric, spiritual, sexual, or cosmetic issues without embarrassment or judgment or awkwardness.
The name of my clinic is called Integrity Health and Wellness.
I chose “Integrity” for several reasons. The first is the more obvious definition related to moral character. The second is because of the importance of the “integrity” of the human body in medicine and how optimal human performance depends upon the sound structural, physiologic, and psychologic cohesion of body parts. Lastly, my clinic’s name highlights the importance of the “integrity” of the community.
I spent the past 2 decades in awe watching the gay community nurture each other through various plagues and oppressions. I watched neighbors bring food and medical supplies to each other. I saw bartenders and shop owners of the French Quarter provide comfort and counsel to patrons when no one else could be bothered.
This is the community that I cherish. And it’s this “integrity” that I am committed to maintaining.
Integrity Health and Wellness is located at 3637 Canal Street, Suite 100, New Orleans, LA with a second French Quarter location at 914 N. Rampart Street, New Orleans, LA.
For more information go to https://www.integrity-hw.com/
Jacob Rickoll is a licensed APRN, a board certified Adult/Geriatric Nurse Practitioner with Doctorate in Nursing Practice, and an HIV Specialist certified by AAHIVM. His experience is in managing the primary care needs of adults, including chronic HIV, HIV PrEP and PEP, HCV, substance abuse, hormone supplementation, sexual health, behavioral health, and anal cancer screening / treatment. Born and raised in New Orleans, Heis a graduate of Jesuit High School, University of New Orleans, and Louisiana State University Health Science Center.