In the modern homo arena of fabulous fundraisers, extravagant vacations and cross-fit courses, conversation about HIV has almost become poor social etiquette. We all remember older gay men's horror stories about funeral after funeral, about half the familiar faces at Sunday brunch disappearing within a matter of months... but that was then. Now, our Sunday brunch tables are full of mimosas, pretty faces, salacious bedtime stories and high T-cell counts, regardless of HIV status.
For the successful gay 20-something, the threat of HIV can almost seem outdated, a scary memory that our community is lucky to forget. This dangerous fallacy is what led me to get gobsmacked with a dose of reality during my routine, "socially responsible" STD test -- you know, the one you get right after hitting the gym and right before dinner and drinks at some glamorous undisclosed location.
So this was me then: Tyler Curry, 28 years of age, a minimally accomplished writer with a graduate degree, a socially adjusted and not-too-bad-looking gay man. But after one seemingly ordinary day, my personal bio now opened with a big fat positive sign, or at least that's how I felt. Never did I imagine that I would come out of that dreaded little lab room with anything less than complete reassurance that I was still practically perfect. Save for a few vodka-laced nights, I had prided myself on avoiding the gay clichés. Promiscuity was kept at acceptable Sex and the City levels (more Carrie, less Samantha), and forgoing condoms was never an option -- that is, unless, my sexual partner and I were in a committed relationship, which afforded us the "boyfriend loophole." Loopholes can often turn into cracks, however -- cracks that you can fall into. I did.
After the ground returned to the bottom of my feet, however unsteadily, I began sifting through all the knowledge I had collected on what it means to be HIV-positive. I knew this much: I wasn't going to die, and this could be managed. I knew many things, but I felt like I was already dead, like I would never fall in love again, and like I would be letting my mother down. Later in the day I just felt perplexed. I knew better than this, but still I found myself completely unprepared. Why had I never discussed these topics with my peers? Why was it such a taboo topic? And most importantly, why was I so afraid?
With impending doom off the table, what was there to be afraid of, anyway? For me, as for many others, it was the possibility of being viewed as the rotten golden egg that plummets into the dumpster in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. It was knowing the deafening effect that uttering the letters "HIV" can have on a conversation. It was having to come out of the closet all over again, hoping that everyone precious in my life would continue to treat me as they'd always treated me. And more than anything, it was the risk of being rejected by my own peers or, worse, a new love interest, when it is only love and acceptance that any of us seeks.
Rarely mentioned among friends and family, a person's HIV-positive status is usually safely confined to whispers in the corners of bars and under the breath at the dinner table. It can elicit hushed gasps when a gaggle of gays discovers that a cute, seemingly "normal" guy that they know is HIV-positive. At that point a relationship with that person becomes far too risky, but not to anyone's health.
"I heard David is dating him now. Do you think he has it, too?"
Even the social stigma attached to dating someone who is HIV-positive is enough for the faint of heart to hedge their bets.
Ultimately, the risk is greatest for those who don't want to talk about HIV except when gossipping. If the thought of HIV is scary, then getting tested is almost paralyzing. But avoiding the topic out of fear is what places our community at risk the most. Using condoms and understanding what's happening inside your body is a surprisingly effective protection method, believe it or not.
After the initial doctor's visits and the long conversations with my friends about what it means to have HIV, I was left to ask myself, "So what does this mean to me, really?" In a sense the scariest part about being diagnosed with HIV was that it forced me to accept my own mortality for the first time, at age 28. The thought of mortality was something that I had had the luxury of avoiding. However, this is what eventually brought me back to life. The sense of my mortality did not hit me because I was going to die anytime soon. It hit me merely because I was going to die, whether tomorrow or 60 years from now. I was no longer able to naïvely count on an infinite bank of days, wasting each day watching the Real Housewives of Whatever with every intention of writing my magnum opus as soon as the show was over. Recognizing your mortality is simply realizing that today you have one fewer day than you had yesterday. Even though I probably won't die tomorrow, I can still live better today. Realizing just that is the change in our lives that we all deserve.
This piece is my way of taking off the mask and opening up a dialogue. For too long I was afraid to discuss a topic that shouldn't be all that scary. In the gay community, ignorance should be unacceptable, and acceptance should be everything. We of all people should know better than to reject people out of fear. An open and candid dialogue is just the medicine we need to cast off any unnecessary fear and reticence. But just like any injection of medicine, we fear the prick of the needle.
Here's to getting pricked.
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