May 11, 2010
My mother-in-law is visiting us this week. She's still active at 84, engaged in life, and accepts me completely as her son's longtime partner and a member of the family. So it's a shame she doesn't know the first thing about me.
That first thing is the fact that I am living with HIV. And she has no idea.
After some debate in the family it was decided that she not be told. The revelation would likely produce more questions than anyone could comfortably answer, and her own son's safety and health would almost certainly become a concern for her. I have enough to shoulder without her fears that I might harm her boy.
I had initially wanted her to know. How could she understand my work, my interests, and my capacity to care for my community if she didn't know I was living with this disease? She doesn't know I wrote a book about surviving AIDS in the 1980s [Editor's note: You can read chapter 9 of this book, A Place Like This, at TheBody.com.]. She doesn't know about this blog you're reading, or the fun videos I produce about which I am so proud. I even take my meds away from the table or in the restaurant bathroom (it feels a little like my old, drug addict behavior).
I've never been in the closet about anything. I came out as gay to my family when I was 16. I've never had to play the game of pretending "he" was a roommate, or removing pictures from the dresser before family visited. And I'm famously impatient with those who insist on behaving that way. But I'm more understanding of HIV disclosure, because it feels more volatile, the consequences more dangerous. So being a voice for those living with HIV has been that much more of an important identity to me. It has defined me, by my own acts and words, for most of my life.
If I am stripped of my HIV identity ... who am I?
To her, I am the convivial partner of her son, the very nice man who makes funny jokes and has some sort of online business and is going to the International AIDS Conference in Vienna this summer because he writes well. She loves me, I do believe, despite not really knowing anything about my vocation or the passion I have for it. That has had to be enough.
My own mother has known of my status since I tested positive in 1985. But this isn't my mother and every family makes their own choices, and my AIDS activism doesn't trump their valid reasoning for keeping my mouth shut.
So I pretend. That my health is unblemished, that my partner and I serenely support Democrats and AIDS Walkers with equal passion, and that my vocational role is that of a supportive house husband who occasionally dabbles in writing. I think my work ethic might cringe at the perceived arrangement most of all.
Yes, I suppose she could know more about my HIV work, because people both positive and negative have devoted their lives and careers to this issue. But I won't tread there. I'm afraid to have the topic floating around the house too often.
Because, what if she asks? She just might come right out with a question, even indirectly, about how my own health has fared, and let me be clear. I refuse to lie about it. I have tried to help people understand this disease my entire adult life, and I would never deny that I have HIV.
At that point, all pretending would have to come to an end.