COMMENTARY: As World AIDS Day approaches, I’m fielding requests for school speeches, journal entries, and perspective from an HIV-positive person. I have found it hard to articulate the impact this disease has and why. My words are often taken out of context; my answers are never “right.” But in a recent question and answer session at a high school near Boston, one young student wanted to know whether my answers even matter and, more importantly, how those answers are used.
I should preface this by saying the school in question is no ordinary school. Walnut Hill School for the Arts is a boarding school with students from 14 different countries, each there by choice, not obligation. They have sought out this school because they have talent — to dance, sing, perform, but on a different level. Young George Li, the famous child pianist, is among the group of roughly 300 unique individuals. Poet Elizabeth Bishop was an alum of Walnut Hill, once an all-girls preparatory school. The school can best be described as a cross between Harry Potter’s Hogwarts and Glee; the magic, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. By nature, the maturity level of these students is above average and the school's tolerance an environmental necessity we could all learn to live by.
I was asked there because of a student’s involvement with the AIDS Action Committee and the Boston AIDS Walk — the student sought me out after reading one of these columns.
There is no shortage of material for me to cover at these appearances, so I decided to treat my talk at Walnut Hill Arts as a dry run for my planned World AIDS Day column and outreach. I showed a rough cut of my World AIDS Day video with coworkers, clients, Real Housewife Jill Zarin, and Michael J. Fox looking on. It's a reflection of my year since coming out as HIV-positive, a personal journey commemorated by a public anniversary. I cried, almost without noticing, upon hearing myself say, “A part of me died the day I was diagnosed.” I'd finally realized just how true that is.
As I sat in the auditorium, I glanced at the questions about to be asked of me. Naturally, there is nothing off limits. One stood out: “Why didn’t you use a condom?” I wound up answering the question honestly and simply. I didn’t use a condom because I was in the moment, I trusted the other person, and yes, I thought it would feel better. Those words make me cringe today.
The assembly ended and I went back to New York, moved by those students and the Multicultural AIDS Coalition of Boston, and reenergized by the impact of one conversation. But it wasn’t until I received an e-mail from one of those students that I realized the true value of that visit. The student referenced my answer about using a condom. It was a short note, and it ended with an affirmative question: “It really doesn’t matter why you didn’t wear a condom, and it only matters if we are looking to judge you. Right?” I've been conflicted about my response for four days now.
You see, questions around the details of why I didn’t use protection
immediately suggest this disease was somehow a choice. That choice comes with
consequences, and those consequences combined with that choice lead to a
judgment that is at the very heart of the social impact that is felt by
those who are positive. Its what makes the challenges of HIV different from illnesses like cancer, diabetes, or Parkinson’s. HIV’s physical complications are thankfully controlled by
medicine, but it’s arguably equally debilitating in ways medicine
What if my answer were different? What if I had said I
did it often ... sex, that is? Sometimes safe, sometimes not? Or that I
actually contracted HIV from a used needle while shooting up? What if
it was a one-night stand versus a long-term boyfriend? Sure, some of
these behaviors are not the smartest and come with their own issues.
But does any one of them make me more or less deserving of HIV?
After all, that would mean I chose to get HIV. What if it was because I
was raped? Or got it as a child from a blood transfusion? How would
this change your perception, your willingness to date, to love, to kiss,
to support? Am I “less” of a person than someone in a monogamous
heterosexual relationship, but “more” of a person than a habitual drug
Truth be told, I used to proclaim that it wasn’t as though
“I was having tons of sex and using drugs all the time.” This somehow
made me less deserving. The truth is, I had used drugs on occasion, and
I had what I thought was a healthy sex life, but likely more sex than what society would approve of. But that isn’t why I got HIV — in fact,
neither one of those was a factor. The question of circumstance is all
too often used to further judge, perpetuate a stereotype, and determine
an imaginary scale of who is “less bad” or “more deserving,” regardless of what we will or won't admit. And though the virus is smart, it
doesn’t know character traits, sound judgments, or the value of true love
versus a one-night stand.
Make no mistake, not a day has gone
by that I don’t wish I had used a condom. There is no doubt I regret
it. I have worked through the shame. I have blamed myself,
wishing I could take that moment back. And I will scream from the roof
of any building is New York City that it was anything but worth it.
Until we as a society can, without hesitation, embrace this
disease as a human health issue rather than an indicator of choice, we have no chance at prevention or awareness. At the end of
the day, this disease still carries a stigma unlike any other. That
stigma, for those of you without HIV, says more about our
collective society than it does any single person currently living
with the disease.
So my answer to this student's question is it’s not really the answer that matters the most, but rather how it’s used.
most cases, it likely doesn’t matter why one didn’t use protection. We
can’t change the chemistry of the mind; people will, for whatever
reason, still have sex without a condom. We will all still make
mistakes, have lapses in judgment, or be affected by the decisions of
another. However, the answers can provide insight — to help us encourage
healthier lifestyles, learn from others’ experiences, and ask questions to
assist along the way.
But when you get the answers — honest
answers — how you choose to use it will say more about you than the
answer itself will ever say about the person who gave it.