What Being Diagnosed With HIV During LGBTQ Pride Month Taught Me About Resilience
I last tested for HIV on June 15, 2013. I had avoided testing for years due to my own internalized fears. But my partner at the time and I had irrefutable physical evidence that we had contracted a sexually transmitted infection (STI) like chlamydia. We also found out a partner we brought home from Bearracuda, a bear-centric gay dance party, was also symptomatic. We had no choice but to go in and get tested.
It was about 11:30 a.m. when the phlebotomist began to draw my blood. He handed me a pamphlet on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). I handed the technician my urine sample, and he told me and my boyfriend to come back in about an hour. We were both nervous, but we went to lunch.
When we came back, we waited for what felt like hours. The worker came in and asked me when my last HIV test was. I told him that it had probably been 2007 or 2008. He responded sharply with, "Well, your test was positive. You have HIV." He picked up the PrEP pamphlet I had set back down on the table.
I was poz.
Shock set in for a minute. The case worker came in to tell me everything would be fine; I wasn't going to die, I would live a long life, etc. I knew all this already. I had a number of friends who are poz, and this truth was already visible to me. What I was devastated by was the fear I would have to deal with disclosing this diagnosis with partners past, present, and future. Pride was two weeks away, and suddenly I found myself in an entirely new and unfamiliar closet.
The first person I told was my partner, as we left the Castro, San Francisco–based clinic. He noticed that I had a large manila envelope with brochures and folders, while he walked out of the facility with a single white piece of paper. When we got into my car parked outside, I told him in plain terms, "I'm poz." His reaction was exactly what I expected from people close to me. Crying. Wailing. Lamenting his "loss" of me.
The second person I contacted was my friend Antonio who works in HIV testing and counseling in my hometown of Houston. His reaction was approximately, "That sucks, but you knew that. How are you feeling right now, and do you need anything from me?" Antonio bluntly acknowledged my situation, but there was no judgment or sadness in his tone.
Being queer means being in a perpetual state of coming out. I was familiar with that aspect of myself; I had been coming out to people for 16 years already. I just didn't know how to process the shame I was suddenly feeling, or the pity that I was determined to avoid from my friends and family. In the less than two hours after my diagnosis, I had been met with two distinct reactions to my disclosure.
The rest of the month, I came out to more queer friends. The majority of them were supportive, if sometimes unaware of the weight of their words. I was asked, "How could you be so careless?" many times by friends who looked at the disease as proof of a personal character flaw. I felt happy to let people know my truth, but there was a dull ache that reverberated with each of their unwitting judgments. It was LGBTQ+ Pride month, and I kept feeling like the people who knew the challenge of coming out were unable to understand the shame I felt saddled with.
At home, my partner made things a challenge. He had had no experience with poz people. All he knew of the virus was the looming death sentence '90s media had beaten into queer youth. He was concerned about sharing utensils. He wiped the bathroom down after I would use it. He rarely touched my body. We were both new to the situation, but his actions kept pushing me further into that closet of shame.
In an act of sheer coincidence, Chris, a friend I had previously hooked up with, revealed shortly after that they had discovered they, too, were poz. They also were concerned with disclosing their status and whether or not they were going to be able to keep their friends as a result. Discovering that we shared a commonality in our journey to self-acceptance was a pivotal moment in my life as a poz man. We promised each other we would go to Ward 86 (San Francisco General Hospital's HIV treatment unit) and that we would both get through this together.
We leaned on one another when discussing frustrations about medication reactions, taking each other to see our doctor, and more. By building this connection during Pride month, we had taken steps to ensure that we wouldn't feel ashamed of who we were. Suddenly, we weren't ashamed to be poz, because we were proud of one another. Our bond grew stronger daily as we continued to be there for one another through the process, until we reached the inevitable conclusion that we were not just each other's supporter -- we were also in love.
Six years on, I reflect on the journey we've taken together, as well as the challenges (and rewards) we've faced in our disclosure. Pride, to me, has always meant living defiantly in the face of those who would rather I didn't exist in the first place. Being poz is one more reason I'm proud to say, "I'm still here."