Op-ed: HIV-Positive, Unapologetic and Fabulous
The decision to come out of the closet as HIV-positive was one that required many long and somewhat uncomfortable conversations with my bathroom mirror. I would study my reflection, trying to see if I could tell the difference between the person staring back and the guy that now only exists in pictures. I still wore his face, his clothes still fit me and I could still manage to emulate his same outward demeanor, but it was a farce. Something felt different. A thick vein of fear and insecurity now ran through my body. It pulsed through my blood and sat defiantly behind my eyes. It managed to cast the oh-so slight shade of gray that only I could see. For the first time since coming out as a gay man, I felt like I was hiding.
Still, I managed to escape the reflection and lose myself in the comforts of old habits. I spent time with my friends laughing, dancing, drinking too much vodka and sneaking cigarettes when no one was looking. We talked about sex and dating and I managed a good front for a couple of months. But the mask was getting heavier, and my conscious had started to sag underneath my Botox.
Although my secret identity was acceptable, and maybe even preferable to some, I had never been very good at keeping up a poker face. While eating lunch with my sister or sipping wine with my friends, my truth was beginning to thrash about like a pissed-off fish out of water—getting more and more desperate to breathe. Sure, I had experienced my share of hardship. We all have. Break-ups, make-ups, disappointment and rejection, but this was different. This was permanent. I realized that the longer I kept my mask on, the deeper it cut into my skin. I was drifting deeper and deeper into depression. So I dug in my heels, fixed my hair, threw on a smile and braced myself for the turbulence.
I came out of the closet as HIV-positive. Not only did I come out, I used enough explosives to blow up my little door so that only a few ashes remained. There was no hiding space left to retreat, no turning back, and that’s the way it had to be.
Telling my story gave me freedom. I had dithered on whether to publish my status right up until the moment it went viral, but the doubts I was wrestling with were eviscerated within mere seconds. Almost instantaneously, I was inundated with people that only had empathy and at least a willingness to engage in conversation and begin a re-education. The judgment of strangers that I had fretted over before seemed stale. It’s common sense, I guess. When you decide to throw out the rotten tomatoes, your fridge won’t smell like shit anymore.
Furthermore, I received messages from men across the country who were going through experiences similar to my own. They told me about their fears, the dread that lived in the pit of their hearts and their battles with depression. Weaved within these messages, however, was a sense of hope. That maybe they, too, would begin to open up about their HIV-positive status. Check mark in the “progress” box.
I also received a fair share of criticism. Some thought I was flippant, maybe even cavalier in my approach to HIV awareness. Yet, it seemed that these responses stemmed from a similar vein of fear; fear of forgetting the past. I, by any stretch of the imagination, do not want to forget. Instead, I want to pay tribute to those who have lost their lives by embracing the fact that HIV is not something to hide under the covers from anymore, and that we should modernize our approach to prevention.
The truth is, I am just not that scared of HIV (but saying that can really piss-off some of the old guard activists). My doctor said I might, at most, lose two years off my life because I am now HIV-positive. Honestly, I don’t even accept that answer. At 29, I think I’ll have quite a few years to wait around for a better one.
I noticed that many people were quick to try and convince me that my journey would not be as easy as I had painted it. That somehow, the information I received from my doctor (one of the top HIV specialists in the United States, mind you) was somehow incorrect. Call me crazy, but I trust my doctor, or any doctor for that matter, over the rants of strangers. But this speech, this venom that infects the few discussions on HIV still happening is so dangerous to young gay men. This is the exact tactic that isn’t working in HIV prevention. Call it flippant, but my approach was meant to engage the younger gay community into a dialogue, not give them a terror speech.
I was told by a friend to not read the feedback to the story, but I couldn’t resist. Although there were some pretty scathing remarks, I was able to remain fairly unshaken. Sure, the baseless health threats and character digs stung a little, but it only took a minute to snap out of it. It was a comment meant to defend my story against the negative remarks, however, that eventually sent me reeling. A reader had made a comment in response to several remarks that suggested I was negligent and moronic with my approach to the topic of HIV.
“Don’t worry… those people are just jealous of your former fabulous life…”
I guess I didn’t realize I was supposed to bow my head and slowly abscond to the local HIV support group in silence while the violins played.
No, absolutely not. I had found a way back to myself. I could, again, claim the face in the mirror as my own. The bratty nuances and cocky tendencies that I had admittedly occupied became authentic again. Quite simply, I found a way to like myself once more. If, indeed, my life was “fabulous” before (and I am not quite sure if it was), I stand firm in the assertion that it was just as “fabulous” now.
So, if you found my first account to be rife with gay stereotypes of stylish nods and trendy clichés, I plead guilty. It was an honest glimpse into my world as I see it.
Yes, this process has led me to discover a greater sense of humility. I am now most undeniably determined to incite much-needed casual dialogue on the topic of HIV. Being diagnosed as positive and deciding to publicly own my status has given me lucidity, understanding, and drive. I embrace the lot I have been given and plan on capitalizing on this platform for all my fellow homos out there. But don’t get me wrong; as I begin to drag this conversation out of the closet and take it with me to hang out with the boys, I plan on doing so with a healthy amount of self-tanner, copious doses of sarcasm and a shot of tequila every now and then.
But—for the sake of growth—maybe I would let go of the secret cigs, because there is nothing fabulous about that.
The disconnect between the worn out fear tactics of old and the modern gay man has come into razor sharp focus as I look up between the gap that we have created (and I fell into). I remain firm in my belief that we must cast this idea that fear is how we spur the change we want to see. We must be adults now, get out of our beds and stop thinking that if we just close our eyes, the monster laying underneath will go away. Instead, we must start talking about what scares us and stop painting HIV-positive people as horrific, cautionary tales. We are still here, and this time we don’t have to leave the party early.
We can all recognize that, at one point or another, we all could have made the one mistake that might have made all the difference. I fervently hope that you never do, but if just maybe you did, you should not be afraid to get tested. If you take care of yourself, you no longer have to lose the parts of you that you love. Who knows, maybe you can even shed some of the parts that you don’t.
And yes, you can still be “fabulous.”
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. Twitter: @iamtylercurry or subscribe at Facebook.com/tyler.curry.16