On September 27th we marked National Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. It's not exactly a celebratory event; however, it is an important one where we acknowledge the bond that exists within the community because of this disease, and that the fight against HIV is far from over. This day, as well as a comment that was posted on my last Huffington Post entry, got me to thinking about HIV and how it has impacted my life as a gay man.
I came out a few months shy of my eighteenth birthday in 1989. AIDS was an epidemic that I was well aware of thanks to the news reports that I saw on television throughout my teens. Only back then, AIDS was sometimes referred to as the gay cancer. My coming out process was even more traumatic because of an irrational fear that I would contract this cancer once I identified myself as gay. Fortunately, there was enough information at my disposal to dispel all the silly myths that were in my head. I quickly learned about the importance of condoms, and the value that lies in protection and prevention.
I continued to practice safe sex all the way through my mid-thirties by which time I had relocated to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the combination of being miles away from family and the place I once called home, as well as feelings of isolation and loneliness, began to take a toll on me. A new boyfriend came along, and when he walked through the door, the condoms went right out the window. He didn't seem to have an interest in using them, and I naively followed his lead with very little discussion. We both declared ourselves to be negative, but with no proof of recent testing, we just took each other's word for it. I started to equate our lack of condom usage as a representation of the intimate bond we were developing. I fooled myself into thinking that the absence of that piece of latex meant there was a greater connection between the two of us. My clouded judgment derailed the most important lessons I learned about sexually protecting my health. It was an incredibly stupid decision.
When the relationship fell apart months later, I was left to face the reality of HIV and STD testing on my own. I tested negative for everything and was given a clean bill of health. That should have brought me back to reality, but it didn't. I casually dated one guy before I stumbled into a relationship with another man. Condoms were not part of the sexual equation with either one of them. The warped message that condom-free sex represented the bond that existed between my partners and me became embedded in my mind. Years of knowledge about safe sex were falling by the wayside as I descended into a dangerous, downward spiral.
It's hard to put the lid back on Pandora's Box after it's been opened, especially when you are not in the right frame of mind. The notion of possibly compromising my health never really registered with me while I was lost in the moment. Then the relationship ended, and I had to face another round of testing. That was when my luck had run out. I was still HIV negative, but I tested positive for gonorrhea. It was the wake-up call I so badly needed. I felt ridiculous for thinking unprotected sex was symbolic of any level of closeness I could experience with another man. The words "I love you" are great to hear, but they don't provide the same protection as a condom. My ex was gone, and I was left with a parting gift to remember him by. Thankfully, it was curable.
There are others who wind up in similar circumstances. A percentage of the MSM community willingly engages in unprotected sex. It's hard to pinpoint what's the logic behind their choices. Some, like me, trick themselves into using unprotected sex as a way to measure intimacy. Others think that HIV is no longer a death sentence thanks to medications that make it a manageable condition. Whatever the reason, these men feel that condoms are not necessary. They've taken to online forums and banded together as some sort of bareback brotherhood in an effort to share their interest in forgoing protection with other likeminded individuals. In doing so, they are taking us backwards in our awareness and prevention of the spread of HIV.
I addressed the mentality of this bareback brotherhood on my personal blog last year. Even though I emphasized that I don't condone unsafe sex practices, I tried to be as non-judgmental as possible about this group of men. I had been there myself and didn't want to be too harsh, so I took the tone of "to each his own" since these are adult men who are fully aware of the choices they are making. However, I'm a blogger not a journalist, and as such, I have the luxury of being passionate and opinionated about the subject matters I choose to tackle. The truth is, we've won several battles, but the war against AIDS wages on. There is a new generation of gays that are becoming sexually active and not fully understanding the value of condoms. The HIV infection rate is still too high among gay and bisexual men. Clearly, there is a disconnect somewhere. As a result of my growing awareness about the seriousness of this situation, I can no longer sit back quietly and not be part of the dialogue that stresses why practicing safe sex is still necessary. I want to live and let live, not live and let die.
HIV and AIDS awareness is a 24/7 responsibility that we owe to ourselves. I'm grateful that I found my way back to it. I chose to share my story in the hopes that men who might be playing it risky will open their eyes and understand that gambling with their health is just not worth it. Yes, medications and treatments are available, but the emotional and financial price hardly seems worth it when free condoms can be found at testing sites and bars all around the country. I'm very lucky that things turned out the way they did for me. Most men who find themselves in similar situations don't end up as fortunate.