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Before I sprouted out of the closet as a little gay sapling, my mother had never met a single homosexual person in her life. And in the suffocating Southern Christian confines of Texas, her limited perception was open to the most horrific creative interpretation. The nightmares of evil drag queens and insidious perverts quickly faded away, however, once her son told her that he liked boys.
The majority of gay men know how it feels to secretly live in the presence of someone who is blindly afraid of you, yet that blind fear is exactly what we inflict on HIV-positive men. It is because of this that I write an open letter to gay men young and old.
Your friend is living with HIV.
It doesn't matter who you are or where you hail from; if you are a man who kisses other men, someone you know is HIV-positive. Hopefully, this is already yesterday's news because you live in a collective space where your friends are not afraid to discuss their love and sex lives, regardless of status. But if you care to argue that this is a false narrative, then you may be creating barriers for your HIV-positive friends without even knowing it. This isn't just a hindrance to their mental health; it is also a risk to your own HIV-negative status. If you don't acknowledge the reality that your friends may be living with HIV, you probably think that you've never slept with an HIV-positive person either.
In the first six months after my diagnosis, I was petrified to tell my best friend about my status. As much as I knew he wouldn't judge me or toss our friendship aside, something he had previously said kept ringing in my ears:
"I would never date someone with HIV. I just don't think I could get over it."
A world where my best buddy would reject someone just like me was a world I could live without. Yet I tucked it inside and hid something from my friend to avoid any stigma from someone I loved. When I did tell him my status and the reason for my hesitation, he was immediately overcome with unquestionable support and complete remorse. And just as happens with anyone who made a judgment before getting to know someone, his benign HIV stigma has become undetectable.
Although most days I do feel like a rainbow unicorn, my story and my status are nothing unique. If you are a gay man, or any other person who knows more than a handful of gays, then you know a person with HIV. Instead of trying to figure out who it could be, think about how you would feel if one of your closest friends were judged, rejected, and ridiculed for his status.
Or worse: How do you feel if one of your friends is remaining silent because he feels you might judge and reject him as well?
HIV isn't exclusive to the LGBT community, but it is the backbone of its legacy of tragedy and strength. Today, HIV doesn't have to rob a person of anything in their life, but only if they are surrounded by an educated and loving community that understands a disease is not a characteristic or a flaw. It's just another thing to overcome, and the LGBT community overcomes its struggles together.
Be a part of that community. Be a friend, a lover, and an ally to people with HIV.