Op-ed: The Aftermath of Coming Out as HIV Positive
Two weeks ago, I woke up at 3 in the morning, stumbled into the kitchen, threw on a pot of coffee and started writing the story I had written minutes ago in my sleep. I wanted to document my experience with becoming HIV positive for a couple months, but had yet to find the words, or the cojones, to do so. Quite honestly, I wasn’t sure I ever would. But here I sat, blurry eyed and bed-headed, feverishly regurgitating all of the words that came to me mid-snooze. After that manic morning, I spent several more days mulling over sentences and finessing my nuance. Then it was complete, all wrapped up with a bow on top. "A Reluctant Social Commentary of a Newly HIV-Positive 20-Something."
I spent hours vacillating on whether I should share my story. Yes, I was scared of rejection. But I wasn’t going to be afraid of being turned down by someone who was dumb enough to TKO my potential before I even got in the ring. In fact, this article was my way of throwing the match. If being HIV positive was going to cut my dating pool in half (as someone once told me it would), then those people were in the shallow end. I want someone who isn’t afraid of some deep waters.
And who knows? Maybe some of my friends still wading around might venture into the deeper end after reading it.
As scared as I was of sharing my status, I couldn’t imagine bearing the secret any longer. After all, sitting on a secret can be poisonous. As vulnerable as my story may make me seem, I was infinitely more vulnerable keeping it hidden. I had only disclosed my HIV status to a few people, but one of them had taken it upon himself to share my information with several others. I was outraged… panicked…and I wanted my power back. Damn it, I was going to get it. The Advocate, maybe? Email sent.
Just one word… fuck.
A barrage of scenarios flooded my headspace. What if my ex-boyfriend sees it? Will my conservative family members say, “I told you so?” And worse, what if the next love I have yet to meet will no longer give me a chance?” A cacophony of judgment grew steadily louder from people who were merely living in my imagination. You know them—we all have them. The Greek chorus that often stops us from doing what we want to do.
Two words now… fuck them.
The fear of judgment and rejection from people that don’t matter can sit on your chest like an angry gorilla. As gay men, we decided long ago that living out loud was the only way to truly respect ourselves. Yet so many HIV positive individuals are forced to quietly murmur it under their breath, feeling guilt or shame that stems from prejudice within our own community. I see it in the eyes of friends who struggled to keep their deep, dark secret disclosed, and now I recognize it in my own. I was going to shoot the gorilla sitting on my chest square in the eyes, endangered species or not.
So call me irresponsible and naïve, or maybe even a slut, but I venture to guess I was also in the norm. Now that the disease is considered manageable, young gay men are just playing deaf, dumb and blind. My peers and I often held the naïve belief that if we act like straight people—going on dates before sleeping together, protecting ourselves (almost) all of the time with the ultimate goal of a relationship—things will all work out.
The old guard of gay activists experienced true horror, and some are still hell-bent to keep the fear close and anger burning. For a certain time period, perhaps this had impact. Unfortunately, this method is becoming less effective as more time passes. Indeed, a new approach to advocacy is needed.
I found resolve in my decision to tell my story. I understand what I am facing, and I believe it will only bring light to my life, and maybe even a little to others. I am tired of all of the fire and brimstone being touted from a generation disconnected from mine. I have my fair share of shortcomings, but I considered myself a pretty tough cookie to crack—and I had crumbled. It is time to start baking with a new recipe.
The op-ed was released a few days after I finished it. When I first saw the article, it was like someone dropped a bowling ball on my chest. I looked closely, read the words, made sure I looked good in the picture, and then closed my computer. Then I took a breath. For the first time since learning about my status, I felt clean.
After that, I allowed myself to enjoy my new “out-loud” positive self for the rest of the day. The burden was no longer mine to bear and all seemed to be good for a moment.
I was just about to order my next self-congratulatory beer when I received the message that brought me to my knees.
“My first partner and I were together for just under 8 years before he passed away. He was positive and I maintained my negative status. He would tell me stories and show me pictures of his friends lost during the 80's and 90's. He was 24 years my senior and one thing he always made me promise was to protect myself no matter what, no matter who...
“Reading your article, I couldn't help but cry. Then I went to his grave and read your story aloud... He would have been touched by it... I still maintain my negative status today 5 years after losing him... But I just wanted to express myself and thoughts... Thank you so much for sharing.”
I felt unworthy of this man’s story, but compelled to share it. This response wasn’t intended for me. It was for those that have passed, but more importantly, for those who continue to experience heartache and sorrow from the loss of their loved ones.
The stigma and fear attached to HIV may stem from fear of the unknown. But in the gay community, it stems from a fear of loss. The horrific stories aren’t something from the past, they are living in the hearts and minds of many today. Older gay men reprimand my peers because they want to protect our hearts from the tragedies they have endured. Like any unruly child, however, we have a hard time listening.
I felt a sense of foolishness and stupidity for the words I had written, but I knew they were authentic. Hopefully, my experience could bridge the gap between condemnation and conversation. Instead of preaching from the pulpit, maybe a new approach could work. Girl talk.
As I stand outside of my second closet door, I realize that my fears of coming out positive stem from being scared not to love again. I, for one, relish each opportunity to fall in love. I consider myself the consummate clumsy romantic, and I admit I was scared to lose that part of myself. Now, living out loud(er) as an HIV positive man and facing the world sans mask, I can resume chasing after my next love song, because I am free to love myself again.
Now, who’s up for a swim?
TYLER CURRY is a is a marketing writer for the Dallas based plaintiffs’ law firm of Baron and Budd as well as a fiction writer and freelance columnist for several online publications. Prior to working for Baron and Budd, Tyler was a kindergarten teacher in Seoul, South Korea, but was forced to leave the three Korean children he attempted to smuggle in customs upon his return. Twitter: @iamtylercurry or subscribe at Facebook.com/tyler.curry.16