June 23, 2010
I think it's safe to say that whenever I start a sentence, "Mom and Dad, I've got something I need to tell you both," they brace themselves for just about anything that might come out of my mouth. My life has, if nothing else, been decorated with a few stunning, life-changing "plot twists," and those two special people have seen me through each one, no matter what.
I know what some of you must be thinking: Is this guy for real? He tells us he's got a loving partner, a stellar physician, a cute dog, has angels dropping in left and right, is strangely grateful to have HIV, and now wants us to believe that his parents are amazing as well?
Guess what? It's true. My Mom and Dad are the kind of people that I aspire to be like. For all the times I've "come out" to them, their love and support comes with zero conditions and believe me, I've put those two to the test.
It's hard for me to grasp that more than 22 years have passed since I told them I was gay. Granted, coming out of the closet is never easy, but in 1988, there was so much more stigma. At that time, if a man said "I'm gay," he also inferred that he either carried The Virus that guaranteed a painful, horrible death, or he had sex with men who did. There was absolutely no way he would ever be married to the one he wanted to share his life with, let alone have children.
Without the infinite possibilities of the Internet, it was actually quite easy to believe that you were a member of a tiny, margined part of society that included only perverse, lonely losers and celebrity role models like Liberace and Richard Simmons. Gay rights was still a new idea. Let's just say it wasn't the kind of life you would ever choose for yourself or for someone that you cared about.
I remember leaving their house that day, after dropping "the bomb," and thinking, "Did they get what I just said?" I mean, there were a few questions and a fair share of bewildered faces, but where were the yelling and crying and the speeches about eternal damnation I was fearful would follow such a revelation? That's because, I found out later, they were too stunned and honestly, they were more worried about me and concerned about my future happiness.
Exactly 20 years later, I was faced with telling them the one thing I hoped I never would: Their gay son was infected with HIV. I kept recalling the night five years earlier, during a visit from my Mom, when she and I watched six continuous hours of HBO's "Angels in America" on my sofa. As painful as it was for me, I can't imagine what it must have been like for her to view such a tragic work about men struck down in the prime of their lives, especially when the lead actor bore such resemblance to the man sitting next to her. Afterwards, there were so many things we tried to discuss; but as close as we are, AIDS was just too difficult.
I'm not going to tell you that I knew from the start that I would even tell them about my new status. In fact, it was only after I felt that I was going to be OK that I shared it with them. I know them well enough to know that if I was optimistic about my health and future that they would be too and in those first months, I just wasn't. But eventually, I knew that this dirty little secret I was carrying had to be pulled into the light if I was going to grow stronger. Who better to tell than the parents that have never given me reason not to?
Because of timing and distance, I told them I was positive over the phone. Then I gave them a condensed update about living with this disease in this century and assured them that I had both trusted support and a great doctor. Per usual, they were strong for me but admit today that it was one of the darkest days they ever experienced as parents. They are also quick to add that they've never once wished I hadn't shared this part of my life with them.
In the weeks after, because they didn't want to be any additional burden on me, they instead turned to their church and faith for support. They first joined a group and became involved with people with HIV to help them understand what I was going through. My Dad did his first AIDS Walk that year to do his part in finding a cure, and my Mom asked for a copy of my newest labs for Mother's Day that showed my improving immune system. But to top it all off, they recently "came out" to their fellow parishioners as parents of an LGBT person so they can teach others what they have learned. How fucking cool is that?!?!
I know most people feel if they disclose their HIV status, it will worry their loved ones needlessly. I respect that, but for me it was a lot like coming out of the closet. The job of education and providing correct information was my responsibility if I wanted them to understand my new status. I gave them Web sites like TheBody.com or Project Inform so they stayed current, and to prove that medical science has come a long way in the treatment of this disease.
Perhaps the trickiest part of disclosure or coming out is that, before we can explain it to someone else, we have to first examine our own beliefs and ask if the information we use to guide our own lives is current or something outdated that no longer serves us well.
So I ask ... What do you believe?
Read more of A Positive Spin, Philip D.'s blog, at TheBody.com.