The following blog post is adapted from the prologue of my memoir, Words Never Spoken.
The first man I developed real feelings for contracted HIV during the relationship he had prior to us meeting, but he found out two months after we met. It was Oct. 1, 1999, to be exact. I'll never forget that date, because it also marks my youngest nephew's birthday. In truth, Saleem didn't know if he'd contracted the virus from his ex or from a stranger, because they did whatever with whomever while in that arrangement. It was dysfunction from the outset. That relationship encapsulated all the fears that I harbored about being with another man intimately: continual heartaches, one after another, fueled by a series of love triangles, cheating, and, of course, HIV. After all, haven't we all been programmed to believe that the gay community is the breeding ground for this disease? I imagined that being gay would mean being lonely, because it meant isolation from family and a life fraught with short-lived relationships ending prematurely, because men are believed to be incapable of monogamy even in heterosexual relationships. So the idea of two men living happily ever after was inconceivable for me. I didn't want anything to do with being homosexuality, and for years I prayed that I wouldn't grow up to be gay.
Saleem and Wayne never determined who was responsible for bringing the disease into their lives. All Saleem knew was that during an argument that lasted until 4 a.m., Wayne, his ex at that point, told him that he needed to be tested. I had just begun exploring my sexuality the year before, so for me, dating someone who was HIV-positive was the equivalent of a girl getting pregnant during her first sexual encounter: a nightmare realized.
I had an idea of what being gay entailed long before I ever acted on the feelings that had followed me through childhood, because family members teased me, calling me "sissy," "fag" or "punk," when upset with me, and because while seeing Paris Is Burning for the first time, despite my cringing, I identified with the people in the documentary.
The sneers and taunts from family were packed with enough power to shatter the most robust self-esteem, and they were confirmation that being gay was wrong. It's the reason that many of us grow up despising other gay men, refusing to date those with feminine qualities.
I know a great deal of men who struggle with their sexuality because they were molested as children. A percentage of those men are confused about whether or not they are gay because they were victims of molestation. The answer to that question is deeply personal and specific to each individual. I wasn't molested, and I know that I was born gay. It wasn't a choice. It wasn't a decision, nor was it learned. I knew at an early age, but I chose to avoid it.
I thought that all gay men were interested in becoming women and wearing women's clothes and were flamboyant and destined for hell. I wasn't. So from puberty through my college years, I concealed my feelings and innermost thoughts. I actually believed that if I never acted on what I was avoiding, then I wasn't really gay, and I would somehow escape being gay. It was denial at best, which is quite possibly how some men slip into double lives. I thought that suppressing the feelings was the remedy and the route around all the labels that would come with being gay. As a teenager I was never attracted to any male in particular. I was simply intrigued by the male physique in gym class, and in porn, when my friends and I happened to watch.
My first sexual experience was with one of my childhood friends. His family had a motor home parked in their backyard, and from time to time his mother used it to watch the soaps or to nap. We climbed in one day when it was unoccupied and took turns humping each other on the bed with our pants around our ankles and our penises pressed against each other. For years I chalked it up to normal childhood experimentation. I pushed the experience so far to the edge of my memory that I almost forgot it happened.
It was difficult denying to myself that I'm gay when my wet dreams were no longer about girls but about boys. Dreams aren't planned. I couldn't control them. Then there were the trips to Owings Mills, Md., to sneak peeks at Black Inches magazine. This magazine wasn't as tasteful or as artistic as Playgirl in the models were photographed. These men were black, completely naked, with erect penises, and posing in a sleazy, leave-nothing-to-the-imagination kind of way. My heart raced and my palms sweat as I carefully removed the magazine from the plastic cover while keeping an eye on the unassuming store clerk. I would stuff the plastic somewhere on the bookshelf, grab a copy of Fishing and Hunting magazine to conceal the smut, then find a corner in the store to enjoy. It would have been easier to buy the magazine, but I could only imagine the puzzled look on the store clerk's face when I appeared at the counter to purchase a magazine full of naked men, not to mention the fact that all I needed was for my mother to find it stashed someplace in my room. She's the kind of mother who'll say that it may be your room, but that room is in her house.
After years of concealing my feelings and thoughts, I finally drummed up the courage to go to a gay bar back home in Baltimore after I'd moved away for school at Hampton University in Virginia. I don't think I could have gone to a gay bar in Baltimore had I not moved away, because I never considered venturing to one in Virginia for fear of running into someone from campus. I was home visiting one weekend and decided to go to Club Bunns. Paranoia convinced me that someone would recognize my car or even memorize my license plate number, so I parked a street or two away from the club. The mind has a wonderful way of convincing us that our fears are fact, and that what isn't fact is.
I wore a wool newsboy hat pulled low to help me avoid eye contact, and a teak-colored pea coat with the collar popped to make it difficult to see my face. What I failed to realize was that my attire would create an aura of mystery that would draw attention to me in the tiny, dark, sparsely furnished bar. I sat in a corner looking and observing. I didn't have enough sense to order a drink to appear normal. Instead I gave the impression that I am a recluse. One of the other patrons came over and asked if he could buy me a drink. I declined, and he retreated to his place at the bar.
The club was dead with the exception of the bartender, the DJ and two or three patrons who appeared to be regulars, so I left. I returned months later on a night when the club hosted strippers, because I liked the idea of men being comfortable with being naked while other men looked on and touched them. During my visits home I got into the habit of making the 45-minute drive to D.C. for the sake of seeing the strippers at The Edge and Club Wet. For the first time I got the chance to actually touch another naked man. I got a rush from fingering the dancers' asses and holding, feeling and caressing their dicks. I rarely tipped. I just touched for the experience and the satisfaction of knowing what it felt like without being judged, for wanting to look and touch without shame.
Moving to Atlanta after college cemented my ambition to become a writer but encouraged apprehension about having sex with men. Although my first boyfriend was HIV-positive, I wasn't concerned about my health, because I wasn't in the practice of having random, wanton sex. I prided myself on having self-restraint. Saleem and I hadn't done anything more than kiss. In fact, there was no sexual contact of any sort with anyone if I didn't think we'd graduate to a relationship. Jerking off was even excluded. My friends teased me, calling me "Mother Teresa," but I didn't care, because they were all recovering drug addicts who were 10 years my senior and all HIV-positive. They grew up in a generation that had sex first and got to know the person later, so I wasn't concerned about what they thought. It seemed to me that they should have encouraged me to continue being selective to avoid following in their footsteps. They were in the practice of sleeping with whomever they were attracted to, including strangers. Personal safety didn't seem to be of any concern to them.
One of the things that I said I would never do was date someone who was HIV-positive, until I was faced with that reality with Saleem. I consistently spoke in absolutes, saying what I would never do and what I always did. As a result of that relationship, I learned not to speak in absolutes, because we often find ourselves doing the very things that we say we'll never do, only to wonder how and why it happened to us. That relationship changed the trajectory of my life, and it set the tone for my work and a few of my relationships that stared HIV in the face.
For more on Words Never Spoken, visit the Amazon page.