When I began this journey, I promised I would offer no vindication, and to this I feel I remained true. I stripped aside the commentary and let it fall out as I remembered it–sometimes building beautifully harrowing images, other times feeling I fell short in capturing the turmoil I truly felt. But I did my best, and I’m thankful I made it this far.
But there are still more sides to this story, some that slip outside the narrow keyhole through which I looked back this past week, and these stories need to be shared.
HIV and the LGBT Community
One year ago I adamantly insisted that HIV/AIDS was not a gay issue. It angered me when people called HIV the gay disease and it made me furious when people’s first reaction to my coming out was to ask if I had AIDS. But this experience changed that. This experience made me realize HIV and AIDS are still important issues in the gay community.
Men who have sex with men (including those who do not identify as LGBT) are still those with the highest infection rates in the United States–and the rates go higher when we break down demographics, finding that youth and men of color contract the virus more often than the general population. Today people may not be given a death sentence by the diagnosis, but the costs of treatment–both physically and financially–not to mention the prevalent stigma faced by those who are HIV+ make the disease no less severe than when it first appeared in this country some years ago.
However, HIV/AIDS does not only affect the LGBT community: the virus does not discriminate, and all people–regardless of age, race, sex, anything–are at risk for contracting the disease. Especially in countries rich with poverty, the rates of infection–and the death rates on top of that–are staggering and sickening.
The LGBT community has made great strides in HIV prevention, but we can’t do it alone–and we can’t do it for ourselves alone. To defeat this disease, we must work against it from all angles: The LGBT community must continue this fight on our soil, but we must draw others to help complete the task worldwide.
Positive People? Still People
One year ago I shattered inside when I went home with two men who had HIV. In my mind this moment was villainized. How could I do that? How could I make such a stupid decision? I blamed myself more than anything or anyone else, but in retelling this story, I can’t help but feel I have villainized not only my own actions, but also the men I went home with: they paid for me to get there, there were two of them, and they both had HIV.
And that’s problematic.
The problem is not that I let someone pay for a cab: Everything was consensual, and the money didn’t make it exploitative. The problem is not that I met two guys that night: Relationships come in different shapes and sizes, and all that matters is that partners are honest and open with either, and in this case, they were. The problem isn’t even that I met guys who are HIV+: Honesty and responsibly employing safer practices can, and often do, protect HIV- partners in many relationships, whether casual or committed.
The problem is that I wasn’t in a healthy state of mind, and I didn’t go about engaging in this encounter safely. I should have met them beforehand and spoken openly about my concerns, their health and practices, and where our personal boundaries lay and what would be acceptable and comfortable for everyone involved. None of that happened, and that wasn’t their fault; it was mine. I had the option to ask to do any of this, but I didn’t. They were both honest with me. When I said no, they respected it. When I asked questions, they answered them. For as little as I had taken care of myself, they took care of me all night and made sure I made it home safely.
These questions shouldn’t be restricted to hook-ups with possibly unsafe partners: They should become a part of the conversation for anyone engaging in sexual activity–regardless of relationship status or sexual orientation. Communication protects us, but also shows each party respects and cares for the others involved. Things become safer, and when things are safer and people aren’t afraid, we are not only more comfortable, but have more fun as well. It may deter some partners, but it’s a necessary compromise.
Protection shouldn’t end there. People should make STD and HIV testing a regular habit–especially if they belong to high-risk groups, such as those who use intravenous drugs, men who have sex with men, or those who frequently engage in unprotected sex. Talk about getting tested. Take your friends to get rested. Even if you have no risk for infection at all, get tested once and use that to encourage others to do the same.
To defeat this disease, we must raise awareness from all sectors of the human community–and there’s no better way to do that than to talk about it with everyone.
Tests and Tears
One year ago I made an appointment during finals to get my three-month test. I waited at the Student Health Center after they took my blood, and I waited for the results to be emailed: still negative. My six-month test in August also came back negative. But as I’ve said throughout, I got lucky, and no one should take their status for granted.
In the prologue, I recalled breaking down when I realized the anniversary of this event was upon me. I expected to cry repeatedly as I relived these days, but despite the occasional flickering of numbness, I didn’t cry again until I watched Dallas Buyers Club on Thursday. But that’s a different story.
In fact, last Sunday I treated myself to a pint of ice cream and a movie on campus. Don Jon. Perfectly predictable and practically pornographic, but with a delightful conclusion–and let’s not kid, Joseph Gordon-Levitt? He’s nice to look at. But as I walked back to my room afterwards, as all these feelings still bubbled up and burst forth, I realized it wasn’t the pain of the day that made me fall apart–it was something else.
The thing I feared most–what terrified and made me tear-ridden more than anything else–was the thought of falling apart. And that made me start to fall apart. But then I realized, perhaps in the most unusual way–a slice a pizza, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, and a two-dollar movie by myself–I realized that the biggest thing, the thing I was too afraid to admit, is that one year ago I didn’t think I’d be alive today. I thought I was dead. I definitely felt dead–emotionally and physically. But today? Today I’m alive. And I’m damn thankful I am.
Today life is great. I’m doing well academically, I have jobs that I love, and a man that I love more deeply, more wholly than any other man before him. And life is good. Life is great. And a year ago I never thought I’d be able to say any of this anymore–but I made it.
I said this journey would begin and end with poetry. In August, when I truly began to make peace of this, when I began opening up about my experiences and sharing them with others, I wrote a poem I called “Victorious.” I spent weeks revising and memorizing every word, and in November I performed it in front of an audience of hundreds. Out of more than a dozen performances, mine received the only standing ovation.
But I wasn’t ready to share that side of me–this story–publicly online.
Now that has changed, and for joining me, I would like to say thank you.