Two weeks ago, I woke up at 3 a.m. and started writing the story that I had just written minutes ago in my sleep. I wanted to document my experience with becoming HIV-positive for a couple months, but had yet to find the words, or the cojones, to do so. Quite honestly, I wasn't sure I ever would. But here I sat, blurry eyed and bed-headed, feverishly regurgitating all of the words that came to me mid-snooze.
I spent hours vacillating over whether I should share my story or not. Yes, I was scared of rejection. But I wasn't going to be afraid of being turned down by someone who was dumb enough to count me out before I even got in the ring. If being HIV-positive was going to cut my dating pool in half (as someone once told me it would), then those people were in the shallow end. I want someone that isn't afraid of the deep.
And who knows, maybe some of my friends still wading around might venture into the deep end after reading it.
As scared as I was of sharing my status, I couldn't imagine bearing the secret any longer. vulnerable as my story may make me seem, I was infinitely more vulnerable keeping it hidden. I had only disclosed my HIV status to a few people, but one of them had taken it upon his self to share my information with several others. I was outraged... panicked... and I wanted my power back. Damn it, I was going to get it. So I submitted my little story to a national publication.
Just one word... Panic.
A barrage of scenarios flooded my headspace. What if my ex-boyfriend sees it? Will my conservative family members say, "I told you so?" And worse, what if the next love I have yet to meet will no longer give me a chance?" A cacophony of judgment grew steadily louder from people who were merely living in my imagination. The theoretical Greek chorus that often stops us from doing what we want to do.
Two words now... Screw them.
As gay men, we decided long ago that living out loud was the only way to truly respect ourselves. Yet so many HIV-positive individuals are forced to quietly murmur it under their breath, feeling guilt or shame that stems from prejudice within our own community.
So call me irresponsible or naïve, but I venture to guess that I was also in good company. My peers and I often held the belief that if we acted like straight people -- going on dates before sleeping together, protecting ourselves (almost) all of the time with the ultimate goal of a relationship -- things would all work out.
The old guard of gay activists experienced true horror, and were now hell-bent on carrying on the fear in hopes of finding a different outcome. For a period of time, this had impact. Unfortunately, this method is becoming less effective as more time passes. Indeed, a new approach to advocacy is needed.
I am tired of all of the fire and brimstone being touted from a generation disconnected from mine. I have my fair share of shortcomings, but I considered myself a pretty tough cookie to crack -- and I had crumbled. My generation was going to have to start baking with a new recipe.
The article was released. I looked closely, read the words, making sure I looked good in the picture, and finally closed my computer. Then I took a breath. For the first time since learning about my status, I felt clean.
I was just about to order my next self-congratulatory beer when I received the message that brought me to my knees.
"My first partner and I were together for just under 8 years before he passed away. He was positive and I maintained my negative status. He would tell me stories and show me pictures of his friends lost during the 80's and 90's. He was 24 years my senior and one thing he always made me promise was to protect myself no matter what, no matter who....
Reading your article, I couldn't help but cry. Then I went to his grave and read your story aloud... He would have been touched by it.... I still maintain my negative status today 5 years after losing him... But I just wanted to express myself and thoughts.... Thank you so much for sharing"
I felt unworthy of this man's story, but compelled to share it. This response wasn't intended for me. It was for those that have passed, but more importantly, for those who continue to experience heartache and sorrow from the loss of their loved ones.
The stigma and fear attached to HIV may stem from fear of the unknown. But in the gay community, it stems from a fear of loss. The horrific stories aren't something from the past, they are living in the hearts and minds of many today. Older gay men reprimand my peers because they want to protect our hearts from the tragedies they have endured. Like any unruly child, however, we have a hard time listening.
I felt a sense of foolishness and stupidity for the words that I have written, but I knew they were authentic. Hopefully, my experience could bridge the gap between condemnation and conversation. Instead of preaching from the pulpit, maybe a new approach could work.
As I stand outside of my second closet door, I realize that my fears of coming out positive stem from being scared not to love again consider myself the consummate clumsy romantic, and I admit that I was scared to lose that part of myself. Now, as I face the world sans mask, I can resume chasing after my next love song, because I am free to love myself again.
Now who's up for a swim?