Queer TikTok star Zach Willmore opens up about homophobia at university and his parents support after HIV diagnosis

by | May 29, 2024 | Your Child's Identity | 0 comments

Zach Willmore moved to California for university and faced adversity as a young gay man, including anti-LGBTQ+ hate, homesickness, and even an HIV diagnosis. He attributes his adjustment to all of these life changes to his parents’ undying support.

Zachary Willmore sported a soft and stylish scarf to school in first grade. The scarf was a relic from his mothers closet, and although he got some stares, he was the happiest little boy in his class. Zach’s teacher pulled his mom aside and warned, “don’t let him wear a scarf, it’ll turn him gay!”

His parents were never fussed about making Zach fit in, since it was obvious he was born to stand out.

Zach grew up in Columbia, Missouri, and his parents didn’t allow him to explore social media until the age of 15. Nobody could have known about the two million followers he’d later accumulate on the popular social media platform, TikTok.

20-year-old Zach first gained TikTok fame for his bright pink outfits he put together and his positive attitude he exuded on the internet. Being a gay University student in America can be difficult in itself, but when you’re as unapologetically flamboyant as Zach, watching him take on life’s challenges is inspiring for young queer people.

Despite all of the opinions from their surrounding social ecosystem, Zach’s parents gave him unconditional support when it came to self expression.

He says, “My childhood was pretty good. I grew up always with an eccentric style. I remember taking my mom’s kitten heels to preschool. I would dig through her wardrobe for that stuff. My mom has always been very, very supportive. My dad has too. We’ve always had a good relationship, which I’ve been very blessed with. 

“To be completely honest, I didn’t really face a lot of backlash way back then for the way that I dressed and the way that I saw myself. When I got to high school, I remember there was a little bit more backlash, just because that’s also when I started really exploring my style. That’s when I wore crop tops, rhinestones, and all that stuff.” 

For Zach, secondary school was when the first Covid-19 lockdowns went into effect in the USA.

He says, “I didn’t really fully form my style until Covid happened. That’s how I started social media with my style journey during lockdown. So I was doing that for so long that when I finally came back to go into in-person classes, I thought, ‘I’m not going to just go back to the way I was. It’s too late’.”

After surviving high school in the Midwest, Zach decided to seek a little more sunshine for his higher education. He now attends San Diego State University (SDSU), a university on the coast of southern California. 

Due to the very close nature of Zach’s relationship with his parents, he was worried about how his parents might handle the distance. 

He says, “My mom, on multiple occasions, would just come into my room and she’d be like, ‘I know that this is what you have to do, I know you have to go to California, but it’s so hard.’ Right away we had a lot of talks. I had been kind of prepping her for almost a year and a half at that point, though. That helped a lot.

“I thought it was going to be crazy accepting here. When I moved here, I had the idea, ‘Oh California, everyone’s going to be dressed in rainbows and parading in the streets.’ So it was a bit of a shock for me, especially coming to this school. The people who are actually from San Diego have been amazing but what I’ve been told is, it’s the people who transfer here to go to SDSU, which is a very Greek Life-centred school, that are the bad ones. 

“It’s interesting, though, because I got a called a fag probably around three or four times in all of my childhood years, whereas at SDSU, its like once or twice a month, which is been a little bit crazy for me. Moving from Missouri to California was a shock to say the least.”

To deal with all the hostility and unfamiliarity, Zach said he relies on his parents being there for him almost every single day, especially in his first year at SDSU.

He says, “I was calling my parents every day back then, especially during fraternity initiation because of how nervous it was making me. But in a lot of ways, I also lean on social media when hard situations come up, because it helps me process to make videos and just hear myself talk through these situations. I didn’t have close enough friends at that point in San Diego to talk to anyone, so I really did rely more on my people back in Missouri at that time in my life.

“First year, I had a very tough year in general because I was super homesick. I cried almost every single day thinking about my parents, my friends back home. And along with that, I was diagnosed with HIV last February, so that might have been the nail in the coffin at that point. There were so many overwhelming factors.”

Zach was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 19. He attributes his ability to handle the situation to his family’s support.

He says, “I felt like my world was collapsing as soon as I got the diagnosis. It was terrible. My parents flew me back right away. You know, statistics show that HIV-diagnosed individuals are at a much larger risk of suicide, specifically those first two weeks after the diagnosis but before you know what’s happening. So I got whisked back to Missouri, my friends and my parents were there for me, but even though I was processing it through my online platform, I didn’t really become wholly okay with the diagnosis until I would say February of this year.”

Zach’s father, an emergency response doctor, was one of the first people to help destigmatize HIV for him. After Willmore told him over the phone that he had tested positive, his father calmly talked through the realities of daily treatment and medication. The unwavering support made the diagnosis easier but it was still a difficult mental shift for Zach.

He says, “For me, I was lucky enough to not have people on the outside just telling me disgusting stuff, which I know happens to a lot of people. I was the one who was giving myself those comments. So I would be fine, and then all of a sudden I’d be in bed and I would just feel disgusting, I’d think, ‘this is with you forever. You are never going to find someone who supports this because who would want someone like you?’ And it’s just those inner thoughts that really are the most difficult to get around.”

Many viewers on TikTok praised Zach for his transparency on the platform since his videos help destigmatize HIV for other young people.

To this he says, “I was surprised. Honestly, I didn’t expect that posting my videos would get that sort of reaction from people, but it feels good. Initially when I started TikTok, I would always tell my parents that I wanted to be well known for something good, that I wanted to produce change in the world. So it has felt really good to be able to make an impact on people’s lives.”