There. I wrote it. I was diagnosed shortly after turning 21 and have been living with HIV for almost three years. In that time I have made a habit of publishing explicit details about my sex life for all the world to read, but have intentionally worked to keep my status secret in my written work. I've even published op-eds under pseudonyms and refused potential stories. But last Tuesday, sitting in the Atlanta airport, I asked myself why I was dancing around this little ghost in the room. HIV hardly warrants such a fuss, and certainly not in today's climate. What was I afraid of?
As I waited for my plane to board, I wrote a lovely Facebook post about my HIV status. So many of my friends had turned their profile pictures to red ribbons. It was time. I wrote two paragraphs about finding hope and fighting stigma. I knew it would break my "likes" record -- anyone who didn't like it would look like an asshole. And right before I walked onto the plane, I deleted it.
Maybe Facebook was too paltry, I thought. Did I want to reveal such a personal thing where people post stupid cat memes and music videos? Or was I simply not ready?
My biggest reason for holding back, I realized, was my parents. I am not Facebook friends with either of my parents, but I am Facebook friends with other family members, like my sister and cousins, who would surely pass on the information. I have never told my family about my HIV, and I have reasons for not doing so.
Nearly eight years ago, during the summer before my junior year of high school, my dad walked into my bedroom and asked me if I was "still dealing with this gay problem." I said yes, more or less. After a few hours of shouting and Bible verses, he said, "It's poop. That's all gay sex is. You'll live in some apartment that smells like stool and you won't even notice it because you'll live in it." He may have said something after that -- I can't remember -- but the next thing I heard was, "You'll go off to the city and die of AIDS before you're 30."
I was 16. Many years have passed since that night, and I still cannot convey how those words affected me or how they still do. All things considered, I was lucky -- I was never kicked out of the house, and no one ever laid a hand on me. Compared to my peers', my coming-out was easy. But I never forgot that image my dad painted. Even now it fills me with shame.
I had not had sex with another man at the time, and didn't know anything about it. For all I knew, I was facing a putrid and disease-ridden life. At a time when I most needed a family, my parents chose to take me to talk with our pastor once a week. Sitting in his clean, empty office, we discussed my "sinful desires" for a few weeks until he either gave up or my dad got tired of driving there. For some reason or other, we stopped going. I decided I would never tell my parents anything about my personal life again.
During college, the most my parents knew on any given day was my location and how much money was on my debit card. I found a supportive family in the LGBTQ student support group at my college, and I eventually became president of it. By the time my fourth year came, I had some close friends, wonderful grades, and an outlook of "smooth sailing" for the remainder of my undergrad.
On the second day of classes after summer break, I went to yoga with a friend early in the morning. I considered the whole yoga experience a complete waste of time, but I was there because my friend was straight and muscular, and preferred to do yoga shirtless. As I walked out, I got a call from the school clinic. The results from my last sexually transmitted disease testing were in. "We need you to come in," the nurse said. I asked her why she couldn't tell me my results over the phone as she had in the past. She simply repeated herself: "We need you to come in."
I was suicidal in the weeks that followed. I researched suicide methods, skipped classes, and stopped eating. I planned to kill myself the following Thursday, which had been my favorite day of the week since varsity football (Thursday was an easy practice -- no pads). When Thursday came and went, I planned for the following Thursday. I lived like this, from Thursday to Thursday, until I finally called the student counseling services and scheduled an appointment. It took months to get back to a healthy mentality. Whenever my parents called to check in, I told them I was fine. We would discuss how much money I was spending -- my mom always reminded me to try to spend less -- and then I hung up the phone.
As I write this, I feel as if I'm dragging my parents to the pillory and demanding their public flogging. That's not my intention. I am simply telling my story. I hope they understand that, and when they read this, I hope they know I am grateful for the ways they have progressed over the years. We're not perfect -- no family is -- but last year I brought my boyfriend home for Thanksgiving. That marked a turning point for us, and I'm proud of that.
This past September marked the third year anniversary of my HIV day. Since then I have met the kindest, sexiest, and most intelligent men -- my lovers and friends. I would not be here without them. I've had the wildest and most mind-blowing sex of my life since seroconverting -- a far cry from the ugly image I foresaw in high school.
As my plane landed in Los Angeles, I remember thinking, I've beaten HIV. I have made it small. My only reminder of it is my daily purple pill. Why drag it back out into the light?
I realized that I was not afraid of telling the world. I have told so many people that going public seemed like the next logical step: a way to combat stigma, increase HIV visibility, and hopefully bring a message of hope to guys across the South, maybe even in my old hometown, who are currently at high risk of infection -- among the highest risk in the country, after trans women and cisgender, straight African-American women.
But as I searched my feelings, I realized that I was still holding on to that shame. I was still seeing my father in the room, red-faced and scratching his head. I was afraid of that shit-smelling apartment and those sterile hospital beds -- places where the small-town homophobes I grew up with, chewing tobacco and driving pickup trucks, envision me and my kind when they hear about gay people on the news.
I need to tell it now because we are not an ugly picture. We are a beautiful international family of brothers, sisters, and sister-brothers. I am honored to be part of that acronym, to be a man who has sex with men, and to wear that little plus sign next to my name on official documents, filed away in medical offices across the country. I am a poz guy. I have survived many Thursdays since that day at the clinic. Each one is a victory to me.
ALEXANDER CHEVES has written articles on sex, dating, and relationships for GCmagazine and The Advocate. Follow his blog, The Beastly Ex-Boyfriend.