In the modern homo-arena of fabulous fundraisers, extravagant vacations and Cross-fit courses, the conversation of HIV has almost become associated with bad social etiquette. After all, the insidious connotations associated with HIV have seemed to all but fade away. We can all remember the horror stories about funeral after funeral, with half of the faces at Sunday brunch disappearing within a matter of months...but that was then. Now, our Sunday brunch tables are full of pretty faces, salacious bedtime stories, mimosas and high T-cell counts, regardless of status.
Yes, what it means to be a homosexual has changed at a lightning pace over the past two decades. The problems of a young gay man have drastically shifted from avoiding certain death due to AIDS and overcoming outward (and socially accepted) discrimination to picking out wedding invitations and ignoring the occasional dirty look when holding your boyfriend's hand. For the successful, gay 20-something, the threat of HIV can almost seem outdated; a scary memory that we are lucky to forget. This dangerous fallacy, however, is what led me to get gob smacked with a dose of HIV-positive reality during my routine, "socially responsible" STI test. You know, the one you get right after hitting the gym and right before dinner and drinks at some undisclosed glamorous location.
So this was me. Tyler Curry, 28 years of age, minimally accomplished writer, graduate degree, socially adjusted and not-too-bad-looking gay man. In the short span of 20 minutes, however, my personal bio now led with a big fat positive sign that came even before my name, or at least that's how it felt. Never did I imagine I would come out of that dreaded little lab room with nothing less than reassurance that I was still all but perfect. (You might be hating me a little right now, but tis, or twas, rather, the truth.)
Save for a few vodka-laced nights, I had prided myself on avoiding the gay cliches. Promiscuity was kept at a dull roar equal to the acceptable Sex and the City levels (more Carrie, less Samantha) and condoms were a non-question. That is, unless, my sexual partner and I were in a committed relationship, then condoms were negotiable; otherwise known as the "boyfriend loophole." Loopholes, however, can often turn into cracks. Cracks that you can fall into. I did, anyways.
After the ground returned to the bottom of my feet, however unsteady, I began sifting through all of the knowledge I had collected over what it means to be HIV positive. I knew this much. I wasn't going to die. I had dated two men in the past who were positive and I knew that, if treated properly, doctors now equated HIV (off the record) to managing a chronic problem such as high blood pressure. Still, this knowledge resided in a part of my brain that wasn't quite responding yet. I "knew" many things, but I "felt" like I was going to die, like I would never fall in love again and like I let my mother down. Later in the day, I just felt perplexed. I knew better than this, but still I found myself completely unprepared. Why had I never discussed these topics with my friends and family? Why was it such a taboo topic? And most importantly, why was I so afraid?
So with impending doom off the table, what is there to be afraid of, anyway? Well, for me and for many I know, it is the person that is reading this article. It is being the rotten golden egg that plummets to the bottom of the dumpster in Charlie's Chocolate Factory. It is the deafening effect that uttering the letters "HIV" can have in a conversation. It's coming out of the closet all over again, hoping that everyone precious in your life will treat you no differently. Most importantly, it is the risk of being rejected by your own peers, or worse, a new love interest, when it is only love and acceptance you seek.
It would seem that what cannot be seen in our community no longer needs to be discussed. That is, however, unless gossip is on the menu. Yes, discussing a person's positive status is safely confined to whispers in the corners of bars and under the breath at dinner tables, eliciting hushed gasps when a gaggle of gays discover that the cute, seemingly "normal" guy that they know is positive. At that point, a relationship with that person becomes far too risky, but not to anyone's health. It's the fear that their name might be included in the supposedly harmless gab.
"I heard David is dating him now. Do you think he has it, too?"
Even the social stigma attached dating to someone who is positive is enough for the faint of heart to hedge their bets.
The truth is, risky behavior and being uninformed about HIV, regardless of your status, is what is to be feared. I have dated men who were positive and men who were negative. The men that were positive, or at least the ones that had the guts to tell me, bolstered no real risk to my health. Condoms and knowing what's happening inside your body is a surprisingly effective protection method, believe it or not.
Ultimately, the risky people are the ones who don't want to talk about HIV (gossip excluded, of course). If the thought of HIV is scary to someone, then getting tested is almost paralyzing. Many people, my former-self included, would prefer to avoid a rather dire discussion that still sends the chills up all of our backs. But hiding under the covers, or the avoidance approach, is what places our community at risk the most.
Unfortunately, avoiding the topic couldn't be any easier than it is now. Long gone are the visible signs of disease such as muscle wasting, sunken faces and distended bellies. In the days of drug cocktails, medications weren't as precise, and many physical signs associated with HIV were side effects of earlier drugs. Not any more. HIV medical researchers have become so accurate at pinpointing the virus that any collateral damage done to the body has been drastically reduced to almost non-existent. My doctor would slap me if I said "eliminated."To avoid the topic out of fear is not only ignorant, it is disrespectful to those that have not been so lucky to fight for issues like gay marriage. They were busy fighting for their lives. It is disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have fought for a cure and who have afforded our community the "blinders" that we now wear. Our community has not only survived, it is thriving. Although I have been a proud gay man since I came out of the closet at the age of 16 and have experienced my fair share of adversity, much of the hard work had already been done. I am grateful for those that have come before and have given me the courage to write the words you are reading now.
In fact, at the risk of sounding trite, being diagnosed with HIV was the call-to-action that I had been waiting for. After the initial doctor's visits and the long conversations with my friends about what it means to have HIV, I was left to ask myself the question, "So what does this mean to me, really?" In a sense, the scariest part about being diagnosed with HIV was that it forced me to grasp my own mortality, for the first time, at age 28. The thought of mortality was something that I had the luxury of avoiding. This, however, is what eventually brought me back to life.
Until now, I could spend my days dithering on luxury questions we all ask ourselves when trying to find our purpose. The sense of my mortality did not hit me because I was going to die anytime soon. It was just that I was going to die, whether it be tomorrow or 60 years from now. I was no longer able to naively rest on an infinite bank of days, wasting each day watching the "Real Housewives of Whatever" with every intention of writing my piece de resistance as soon as it was over.
I started to calculate all the ways that I numbed myself, casting minute after precious minute into the wind. The thought made me sick, and I realized I couldn't live my life half asleep anymore. I had so many strong convictions of what I wanted to do, but was stuck in a stupor of "social media junk."
Mortality is simply realizing that yesterday is one less day than you have today. Even though I probably won't die tomorrow, I can still live better today. Realizing just that is the change in our lives that we all deserve.
As a person that was negative, I should have taken every opportunity to discuss with my friends and family what it means to be positive today, not just for the person with HIV, but for all of us. As a person that is now positive, I embrace the opportunity to be Exhibit A for anyone that needs a lesson. In the gay community, ignorance should be unacceptable and acceptance should be everything. We, out of all people, should know better.
This article is my way of taking off the mask and opening up a dialogue. For too long I was afraid to discuss a topic that shouldn't be all that scary. Fear is what you should be afraid of. An open and candid dialogue is just the medicine we need for both positive and negative gay men to cast off any unnecessary fear and reticence. But just like any shot of medicine, we fear the prick of the needle.
Here's to getting pricked.
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