At first glance, Joshua Stinnett may come across as an attractive, middle-class, white gay man with the cards dealt in his favor. Contrary to the initial impression he gives, Josh has been playing against the odds since a young age. He navigated his teens and early 20s trying to avoid boulder after tumbling boulder, and as a testament to his fortitude, he appears today no worse for wear.
As he shared his experience, I discovered that Josh performed the same tightrope act that all gay teens do — trying to have a little fun and find a place where he fit into this world without getting lost in the fold. However, his tightrope act was being performed without the comfort of a safety net.
It wasn’t that his parents were unsupportive as much as they were incompetent. Josh’s mother never quite had the knack for the maternal role. She much preferred the part of the fun and reckless aunt who pops in every now and again as a guest star. His grandparents raised him, and they raised him well, but Josh was still in his formative years when their old age rendered them unable to provide the guidance and provisions he needed. So there he was, 18 years old, with no one waiting up for him at night while he was out in the gay bars of Dallas trying to beat the statistics.
And he did. The man sitting in front of me was a successful hairstylist who put himself through school, has his work published in several magazines, plucked the bad seeds out of his circle and was going nowhere but up. To most, this might seem a simple feat. But Josh had every excuse to fail, and instead, he chose to succeed.
One chilly November evening, while sharing a bottle of wine at a mutual friend’s house, I was speaking candidly about my decision to come out as HIV-positive. While I babbled, speed-talking through the Cliffs Notes of what HIV-positive means today, Josh’s demeanor changed. His eyes were downcast, and his steady stream of witty jest slowed to a drying trickle. He stopped paying attention to my rant, and the conversation in his head started to get louder until he could no longer hear.
Josh came out to the group as HIV-positive. You could almost hear the conflicting dialogue in his head, screaming at maximum volume and going instantly still once he unloaded those three heavy letters off of his conscience and onto the coffee table. Our friends were surprised when they found out about my status, but now there were two of us? We were going to need another bottle.
“Well, I didn’t want to just leave you out there on a limb by yourself,” he said before facing the barrage of questions from his befuddled friends.
When Josh decided to divulge being positive, he did more than just knock the chip off of his shoulder. Now two people out of our small group of friends were talking openly about the trials and travails of living with HIV today. With two familiar faces staring back at our little audience, the message was twice as relatable and half as difficult to digest. The gay community is large, but we are all a collection of little families. Just like in any family, nothing quite hits home until someone close to you is affected.
It was two years ago when Josh noticed something was different. He was 25 and was still able to get away with sleepless nights and one too many shots without suffering a blow to his system. After the second night of waking up in cold sweats, he could tell that something in his body wasn’t right. Any gay man can attest to that insidious feeling that can take over when going through any illness. So Josh took himself to the local clinic to clear his mind and get tested.
Suffering through that eternally long 20 minutes before receiving his test results, Josh began to recount the past year. He had been safe with every partner he had been with since his last STI test, except one. It was a new relationship — the kind where the spark turned into wildfire. Sometimes you just get swept up in the romance, and may he who hath never faltered cast the first stone.
As he got up from purgatory and followed the nurse into the back, he passed the room where they had been before ... then,it all went black. An hour later, after the intermittent shock and tears, Josh went out the back of the clinic for fear of being seen. He didn’t know what to think, and worse, he didn’t know whom to call. So he sat in his apartment and cried for the loss that he thought he suffered.
He was young and single with a dismal support system and no insurance. His friends had never talked openly about HIV. As they would rattle through the topics du jour, what it means to be positive (or even date someone positive) never made the agenda. This elephant that sits at the table among every group of gay men left Josh depressed and terrified. Even though he was among those who knew better, it was easier to skirt that tired old topic in lieu of something more “fabulous.” Therefore, Josh’s knowledge of what it means to be positive resided in the horrid images from the ’90s when a diagnosis signaled the end of the movie. Roll credits.
As we sit and discuss it now, it’s easier for him to revisit the outdated fears that plagued him at the time.
“It’s embarrassing, but the first thing I thought about was that I didn’t want my face to sink in,” Josh says. “I didn’t want to go through lipodystrophy or anything like that. Of course, now I know that that doesn’t happen anymore, but it’s the first thing that went through my head.”
Since then, Josh has entered treatment under the Ryan White program, and his viral load is now considered undetectable. He has been afraid to reveal his status to his friends for fear that they would see him different.
After two years, his fears had slowly seeped down to his core. Every time Josh would end a relationship, it was as if he was reliving that fateful day in the clinic all over again. His mind would become a vacuum for those heavy questions that plague all single men, but compounded with the abominable dread that the next one might reject him for something he cannot change. Furthermore, he was terrified to even mention sex, afraid of a whisper from someone who knew his status that would color him in a shade of guilt.
Although his fears were still firmly intact, he decided that coming out HIV-positive was the only way to shed his perpetual dread and reclaim his worth. Josh also knew that in doing so, he would encourage people to find out their status, have a conversation with their friends and educate themselves on what it means to live with HIV today.
“I’m tired of holding this in,” he said. “The longer I date, the more people are going to find out because I always disclose my status. Might as well rip the Band-Aid off and get on with it. If my story can help, then let’s do it.”
Now, as Josh revisits the turbulent travels of his 20s, it’s hard to recognize the teenager I had met years ago struggling to find balance. Over the past nine years, Josh has not only managed to stay on top of his tightrope without plummeting into the chasm, he has become confident enough to throw in a leap every now and then. Yes, being diagnosed with HIV was definitely a major blow that sent him wobbling, but now he stands firm.
Today, Joshua Stinnett shares his story in an effort to begin a dialogue and create an environment where people, both positive and negative, can openly discuss what it takes to protect each other and how we can make our community a healthier one.
Just like any shot, we all fear the prick of the needle, but it’s the medicine we need.
Get pricked. Joshua Stinnett did.
The Needle Prick Project is an editorial campaign created by Tyler Curry to elicit a candid and open conversation on what it means to be HIV positive today. To learn more about the Needle Prick Project, visit www.facebook.com/getpricked or follow Tyler Curry on twitter at @iamtylercurry. For more on Joshua Stinnett, follow him on twitter @joshstinnettnp