When I was in college, my best friend and I used to get into a lot of spirited, friendly debates. He was a sociology-oriented person who always extolled the virtue of macro-scale studies with numbers and data, while I was a literary person who would rather read a work of fiction to learn about people. He would claim that my literary pursuits were too myopic, and I would warn about the violence and judgment that lie behind the numbers of many major studies. We were constantly stalemated.
Now, with both of us being recent, young, gay college graduates, we find ourselves part of a heavily-touted, new statistic: We are part of a CDC statistic that shows new HIV infections among young gay men rising by 22% in the past few years, which has many repeating the statistic that 1 in 2 college-aged gay men will be HIV positive by the time they are 50 years old.
I don't know how I feel about being part of that statistic. For one, I always practice safer sex. And while some of my HIV-negative friends claim to practice serosorting, I do not. Also, broken down, that statistic is a worse harbinger for men of color -- as I am -- than it is for our white counterparts. But what else factors into that statistic? What happens when you factor in socioeconomic class? What happens when you factor in college education? What happens when you factor in not having six-pack abs?
Truthfully, reading statistics, and coming to the realization that you are a walking statistic, and that every sexual encounter you have falls somewhere on the continuum of risk, are two different mindsets. Right now, at 24 years old, the many statistics out there about being a Latino man -- including my chances for heart disease or prostate cancer -- are all dwarfed by this looming feeling that I could become HIV positive at any moment, as if it's some light switch that can be turned on at any minute. But when I do worry about it, I remember that I have a sword and shield against HIV -- I have knowledge and I have prevention tools. Are those factors that are included in the statistic? Are people who know what PEP and PrEP are more or less likely to be infected? One's head can go full Linda Blair before one ever really comes around to some kind of peace.
The violence of numbers is real. They attempt to so concretely and definitively elide the humanity of the people they claim to represent.
So, how do we counter the violence of numbers? Well, with stories of course. Artist Pato Hebert, who is gay, talks about the art of queer storytelling, and how stories are the only ways to fight back against much of the violence -- physical, emotional, statistical -- that is done to gay men. At the end of the day, our stories are one of the few things that no one can ever take from us. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the keyboard is mightier than the epidemiologist, and the tongue (the strongest muscle in the body) -- well, the tongue is stronger than the stigma of being a young gay man of color. The tongue is stronger than the icy heart. If you are queer and you have a story to tell, I urge you not to hold it in. I urge you to type it out, to write it out with a pen, to tell a friend, to tell a lover and to tell another person in your community.
My story is that I don't remember my first HIV test, because I was first tested at the time of my birth in April 1989, because my father was diagnosed with HIV while my mother was pregnant with me. My second test -- and first for which I volunteered -- was on Nov. 13, 2011, one month to the date after my father passed away from an opportunistic liver infection.
When I came out, one of the first things that was given to me -- besides unending support -- was a warning about staying HIV negative. Of course, for my mother, that warning came from a place of understanding of where my path might lead. For me, and for the hundreds of thousands of gay men of color like me, the moments of intimacy that we share with others are tainted. For many of us, sex is only a stone's throw away from death, and we can't think of one without thinking of the other. When I got tested in Nov. 2011, at 22 years old, I had been sexually active for seven years. And I had never been tested in those seven years. I had always been too scared.
The mere prospect of seroconversion stilted me, though I was working at an HIV testing facility at the time! I could've been taking much better care of my sexual health the whole time had I not allowed other people's words to influence me. My fear, and most people's fear, of seroconversion is not a fear of the virus -- it is the fear that we might one day be treated as "less than" for having HIV. Whenever I hear a man speak about not sleeping with someone because that person is HIV positive, I remember how much the social aspects of HIV can be just as damaging as the physical, mental and medical aspects. I don't fear the infection, I fear the reaction.
There are many ways to counter that reaction, and they don't only involve the efforts of HIV-negative or HIV-positive people. It involves realizing that HIV is a community disease, and that only by telling our respective stories can we, as a community, humanize the virus and drive away the stigma.
So, what do I hear when I hear the statistic. I'm comforted by my knowledge sword and my prevention shield; I'm spurred to fight for a more accepting community; and I'm humbled to work with, live with, and love people who are living with HIV. And not just living with it -- smiling with it, acting up with it, crying with it, fucking with it, and fighting with it.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.
Read TheBody.com's blog, The Viral Truth.