One summer Sunday night, after a full day of frolicking at Chicago's Hollywood Beach, a friend and I were walking along Sheridan Road in Edgewater, having a kiki. Well, I can't really call it a kiki, because there was no calming my nerves. "Damn, JR, how the hell do you not know this?!" my friend asked, which freaked me out. He is a surrogate gay big brother to me, the one who gets me tipsy at bars, the one who tried to teach me how to swim and the one who looks out for me. So that night I shared with him that I had never been tested for HIV, and that that was something that had been in the back of my mind for a while. You see, moving to Chicago, to Boystown, was liberating for me, as it is for many LGBT people seeking a safe haven in the form of a gay neighborhood. I was now living in a place where I could openly hold hands with another guy and smile at, kiss and even grind up on men on the dance floor. There was no shame. There was only bliss, and my sex life took off.
Today I live in New York City, and it's even gayer than Chicago. I've kept my friend's advice about HIV/AIDS prevention, and since I've been here and meeting guys, I've been stopping myself when I know it's going somewhere, because I'm afraid. "For chrissakes, JR," I tell myself. "You're 25, and you don't even know what you're doing. You don't even know your status." These are the thoughts that have been racing through my mind.
Before I left Chicago, I promised my friend that I would get tested. I said that I would do it once I got to New York. He said I shouldn't wait any longer. His insistence touched me, though I did wait three more months until I got my first test. My neurotic mind needed all that time to review every sexual encounter I'd ever had, and to mentally prepare for what had always been unknown to me.
Last week I found a testing site close enough to my workplace that I could walk to it. When I got there, I filled out some paperwork that asked, "Have you ever been tested for HIV?" I checked "no," and that seemed ludicrous to me. "How foolish and selfish of me," I thought.
I was called back into a private room with a young, kind woman who quickly put me at ease. She went over more questions with me -- "How many sexual partners have you had in the last year?" "Have you ever met someone online?" "Do you have sex with men, women or both?" (that last one made me chuckle) -- and I told her that this was my first time getting tested. She responded that getting tested shouldn't be about worrying, "Oh my God, I'm going to test positive," but about taking control of your health.
So we did it. After the questions, she gave me the mouth swab test, and we chatted the whole 20 minutes it took for my results to come back. I at least found comfort in knowing that I couldn't be pregnant. The conversation was very reminiscent of the one I had had with my friend in Chicago. I started asking questions: "So‚ if I do this, will I get this? What happens if..." Needless to say, the conversation killed my anxiety -- and the time.
When it comes to my sex life -- sorry, Mom (this funny Filipina woman doesn't even think I drink!) -- I've always been careful, so I believed I really had nothing to worry about. I joked with my new friend that this test would turn me into a nun. She laughed and said I could keep doing "my thaaang" as long as I was practicing safe sex and making smart decisions.
Here's the thing: I'm kind of serious about that. I lost my virginity to a complete stranger in a Viennese sex theater, and it breaks my heart that that's how it happened. I was 20 years old, in college, studying abroad, a closeted gay boy who could "safely" explore his sexuality in a foreign country. It wasn't even with the guy I wanted it to be with, the guy I had secretly fallen in love with. (That's how I definitely knew I was gay, by the way. I realized I was capable of loving another guy, not just lusting over one.)
Although things have been getting a lot better for LGBT people (e.g., greater exposure on television and in the media, the passage of pro-LGBT legislation, and fierce advocacy for our rights by the president of the United States himself), I can't help but think that until full equality is realized, and until there's universal acceptance and recognition that people of the same sex can be in love, LGBT people will always carry a feeling that we are less than, that our love, our physical expression of love through sex, must be thrown away in a dark, emotionless back room because there are anti-gay pastors, Dan Cathys and groups like One Million Moms out there implicitly saying we should.
I grew up in a household where sex was never discussed. Even at my age, when I watched Kurt's dad on Glee talk to him about the meaning of sex between two men and equate heterosexual love with same-sex love, I cried. I couldn't help but think, "Damn right, Kurt! Every young gay person has the right to live in a world where they, too, can experience sex for the first time -- heck, their first kiss, even -- with someone they love!"
That's why I'm partially serious about becoming a nun when it comes to sex. Knowing my status has helped me reclaim something. I now know that my love and my body are things that I want to give to someone who loves me, not to some random guy I meet at the bar, on Grindr or in a dingy adult theater. No one should feel the shame I felt that night for what was supposed to be a special moment in my life.
I know I'm not the only one who's been scared of getting tested, especially for the first time. There's such a social stigma around HIV/AIDS in the gay community. But the reality is that men who have sex with men, of all races, are the group in the U.S. that is the most severely affected by HIV, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
But we've got to overcome that fear, as Carl Sandler, CEO of the MISTER app, wrote in September in a poignant HuffPost blog post titled "Dating and Fear in the Age of HIV: 'I'd Like to Sleep With You -- and I'm HIV-Positive.'" Sandler notes:
We need to address our own fears and shame around HIV and do it in concert with other people, both HIV-positive and HIV-negative. Only by being honest with ourselves about our fears and our demons can we begin to overcome our own prejudices. We must ask ourselves how we are perpetuating ignorance and shame in our community, regardless of our HIV status, through the actions we take and the decisions we make around dating and sex.
Whatever it takes to prompt you to get tested, just know that there's always a time to prioritize your health and well-being. For me it took a friend's persistence and World AIDS Day (a little over a week ago) to finally step up and take control. Honestly, writing this, revealing an experience I've been embarrassed about, was difficult, but I feel like other LGBT people could relate in some way, so I hope that everyone reading this, especially those who've never gotten an HIV test, will see an opportunity to empower yourself simply by knowing your status. It's an amazing feeling. Hey, I'm no angel, and I'm not perfect -- again, sorry, Mom! -- but having been tested gives me a choice in how I want to move forward, and the ability to use that knowledge to make informed decisions.
To find out your nearest testing location, visit hivtest.cdc.gov.