So I did something responsible yesterday; one of the most responsible things I could have done as a gay man. I got tested for HIV. For the last few months it’s been something lingering in the background; something that was gradually eating away at me. I’ve thought about it repeatedly, but somehow found myself coming up with one excuse after another for not getting tested. I came up with more excuses than I can even count and chances are that if you can think of one, I’ve already thought of it. It’s not that I’ve had a string of promiscuous encounters or been blatantly negligent about protection and expected a positive result; it was simply the fact that no matter how careful we may be, there is always a slight chance that the infection could be spread through any form of sexual contact. No matter how well we may know someone else or no matter what precautions we may take, the only surefire way to avoid the disease is to abstain from sex all together.
For me one of the biggest challenges to accepting who I was before coming out was the idea of coming face to face with many of the fears that we homosexuals have. While we may fear the lack of acceptance by family or peers, the hurdles we face politically, or the simple act of letting go of what was to embrace what could be, few fears can match the enormity of contracting HIV. Granted the prevalence of HIV is no longer constrained to the homosexual population and a positive test result is not an automatic death sentence anymore. Despite this, however, we cannot ignore the fact that a positive diagnosis would completely alter our lives, affecting us in ways that we never even thought possible. And no matter how much the world and the way we view the disease have changed, the reality is that there is still a stigma attached to being gay and HIV positive. We are viewed differently and treated differently even by those who know us best; and the community that once took us in becomes foreign and cold in a way that we couldn’t even imagine.
The gay community has already divided itself in so many ways with groups and subgroups and subgroups within those subgroups. We classify ourselves and create divides within it; divides that completely contradict the meaning of community. To be HIV positive in this community is in many ways a death sentence in itself; it is a death sentence in that it creates another division between us: one that separates and isolates us from those who are now different from us. It places a wall between those who have the disease and those who don’t.
We were always the outsiders growing up. We were the ones who never felt at home and the ones who never felt like we could be ourselves. When we respectively came out we embraced who we were and accepted the reality of the world in which we live. We found community with each other when our own communities turned away from us and left us in the cold when we needed them most. We found refuge with those who felt as different as we were. This community, however – the very same one that welcomed us – just as easily turns it back on us.
I think for me the thought of this was more terrifying and devastating than the diagnosis could ever be. Imagine growing up with nobody like you, finding a world that accepts you, and being betrayed and discarded by that world. The very idea of being forced behind another wall – another divide – is enough to make anyone afraid. Maybe that’s why so many of us go untested. We can’t bear the thought of being further isolated or treated differently by the ones who were once our equals. I can honestly say it’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to go; one of the reasons I made excuse after excuse.
The only thing that drove me to face that fear was the fear of something greater: the fear of not knowing and condemning someone else to the same isolation because I was too scared to face the small possibility of a positive result. All I can say now is that I’m happy I got tested. I’m happy I know for sure that I am HIV negative. I am happy because I think I now understand the fear behind all of it; it has less to do with death and more to do with life after a positive diagnosis.
What does that say about our community? What does that say about what we’ve become? Yes we have resources and yes we have support now. But those things can only go so far. No matter how we dress it up, the division still exists and will exist until we can see beyond the disease; until we can look at those who have it not as carriers, but as people.
Maybe I’m just a raving lunatic with no real point. Maybe I’m only seeing the flaws in the gay community. Or maybe I’m saying what nobody else is willing to. You be the judge. I’d like to know what you think.
Until next time…stay classy,
– C.M. Berry