The moment I heard my nephew laugh, I knew I wanted to be a dad. Before him, I only had a passing interest in infants and kids, who I deemed too small for "real fun." I'd hold a baby, maybe feed them a bottle, and quickly return them to their parents the minute that I saw a broken face prepared to scream or smelled a soon-to-be-dirty diaper. Being only 16 years old at the time surely played a part in my nonchalant attitude towards babies. Even after the birth of my nephew I only engaged with him when I knew being around him wouldn't inconvenience either of us. He'd look up at me with large curious eyes that seemed to search for answers to an endless number of questions, I'd gaze back and say aloud "I need you to do something exciting, you're boring me." That was our relationship for nearly two months, then I made him laugh.
Although I later learned making my nephew laugh was, and still is, one the easiest things I can get him to do, that first time took me by complete surprise. Like any two-month-old, he loved to play peek-a-boo, as I covered my face and peeked through my fingers, I could see his usually gummy smile morph into a genuine look of confusion. I pulled my hand-covered face back from his confused one, jumped forward and yelled "BOO!" Surprised by my sudden reemergence, my nephew jumped in his seat, smiled and then let out the sound of a man many years his senior, a hearty, rich sound. The sound of a person who has experienced enough of life to know how to properly cherish a funny moment. As his huge laugh echoed through our home, I knew that one day I would want to make my own children laugh and feel the same love and joy that I felt when I heard his laugh. I thought that dream was over 4 years later when I was diagnosed with HIV.
The moment I heard "Your test results were positive for HIV," I knew that I was never going to have my own biological children. The thought of not becoming a father sent a sickening wave of failure and grief crashing down on my body. I caved under the limitations that I assumed HIV was placing on my life. Limitations were something that I understood, growing up I hid my sexual identity from my family. Coming out only 5 months before my positive diagnosis, I felt empowered and ready to start the life that would eventually lead to a family with my own biological children. Watching my nephew and other younger cousins grow up only strengthened my long term goal of becoming a father. Learning that I was living with HIV either altered or ended every plan that I had imagined for myself up to that point.
Luckily for me, my nagging thoughts of not being a dad were short lived. Almost Immediately after my diagnosis I was connected to care with a local ASO's (AIDS Service Organization) outreach and linkage coordinator. With compassion and genuine care in her voice, the coordinator explained the care enrollment procedure for my new health care provider and told me about sperm washing, the process where sperm is separated from HIV-infected seminal fluid. My diagnosis, (a peek-a-boo surprise on a much larger scale), didn't surprise me as much as it caused me to evaluate my current choices and prepare for a new future that included HIV.
At the time of my diagnosis I was 21 years old, attending college 111 miles away from home, working a part-time job, the president of a very active student organization, and finals week had just started. HIV was another addition to a laundry list of responsibilities that already occupied my time. Over time, I learned to integrate HIV into my life: my student organization fundraising benefited HIV service organizations, and I used my class assignments to educate myself and others about the social and scientific history of the virus.
While the public areas of my life were adjusting to life with HIV, my personal life was another matter entirely. No amount of reading or fundraising could have prepared me for the loneliness that I felt. Fear of rejection from potential partners due to my positive status was constant. The lack of a romantic relationship deepened my fears of not being able to father a child. I thought my life would be limited, only after living with the virus and accepting that HIV lived with me and not the other way around, did my life begin to really change. At 23 years old I met my husband, his love and our relationship has altered my life, creating new and exciting plans that will sustain both of us for years to come.
A new relationship didn't redefine who I was, it only enhanced the person that I was striving to become. A newfound love was not the answer to all my problems and the child that my husband and I will eventually father won't be either, but knowing that I will one day have the opportunity to be an amazing father and husband to a family of my own makes all the difference. My own fear and ignorance led me to believe that I wouldn't be able to be able to have children and that I was unworthy of love. By educating myself about HIV, disclosing my status to trusted family members and friends and engaging with my community I learned the value of my own life.
Tony, 26, is an activist and advocate for PLWHA. When he isn't talking about increased access to PrEP or comprehensive sexual health education in public schools, he can be found playing Pokemon Go on the streets of Philadelphia, reading the most recent Harry Potter book, or binge watching 30 Rock on Netflix with his husband.