From being born premature and now living with HIV, I can truly say that I have had my fair share of trials and tribulations. When I was diagnosed with HIV in April 2018, I realized that there is much work to do within our communities to ensure that stigma does not unleash its wrath on our black and brown boys, girls, men, women, and trans and gender non-conforming folks who have a chance to end the battle against HIV, stigma, and injustice.
Easier said than done, right? For a long time, I had to confront my privileges, my insecurities, my vulnerabilities. Now, I'm coming to terms with my reality, my existential presence, and my purpose. These essential questions plague my mind every day: How can I be a more effective HIV advocate? Why don't people just listen to us (the community) when we are trying to save their lives? How can I balance writing school papers and living in a society where it is acceptable to use black and brown bodies as tokens for capitalistic ventures? But I can't worry about that, because my research paper is due at 11:59 p.m., right?
The first lesson that I have learned as I close out this year is that time is a poisonous construct that causes undue anxiety. Following the "tempo" of life as society dictates, there's a lot of pressure to finish college, get a salaried job, get married, and "stay out of trouble." But that's easier said than done. Prime example: I switched jobs five times this year, because I was not satisfied with the demands and expectations of corporate America -- the toxic masculinity of guys judging you based on the amount of light in your profile picture or even the slightest expression of grace and manners.
The gay community is not immune from its own forms of masculinity that are just as toxic. The restrictive idea of being closer to virginity and not having a high "body count" -- i.e., number of sexual partners -- and "acting your role" prevented me from expressing my true feelings and desires to my sexual partners. The anticipation of feeling guilty after asking, "When is the last time you were tested?" because he will assume you are suggesting he has a high body count, was enough to keep my mouth closed and prevented me from asking. My thinking was, as long as I was negative, I could trust that he would be negative as well. After all, everyone who is positive says so on their Jack'd page, right?
That brings up my next revelation: disclosure. In the state of Georgia, disclosure is a messy process, and potentially one that can bring about a prison sentence.
I hear many stories of my brothers and sisters living with guilt, shame, and anxiety because they are afraid that a vengeful lover or hookup will blackmail, prosecute -- or worse, murder -- those living with HIV due to an irrational fear of exposure or transmission. On the other hand, those living with HIV should be intentional with disclose to ensure that boundaries and body autonomy are not compromised. In Georgia, where I live, disclosure is required for sexual interactions. That means that if I am at the bar and I see a guy that I like, and if we are both having a good time, well ... maybe I can squeeze in, "I'm HIV positive," somehow.
You want to know my strategy? Probing. Probe, ask for insight, and reflect on what you thought was said to you like a mirror. As a black, queer 24-year-old, it is important that the guys that I am dealing with have a particular level of intellect, charisma, social justice awareness, and most importantly, that they are coachable. If he will listen and is willing to learn about what it means to be undetectable, then he can rest in bed with me easy knowing that we didn't use a condom the night before, while knowing our sexual health status. As long as he is honest with me about his sexual health, then I will feel safe in knowing that we can "box in the ring with the gloves off."
So, in a nutshell, telling guys that I am HIV positive and undetectable, well ... let's just say that it's the best holiday party favor!
Toraje Heyward, also known as "TJ" or "Bookie," is a social justice activist based in Atlanta. He holds a bachelor of science degree in psychology from Georgia State University and is currently enrolled in a master's program in special education at Grand Canyon University.