I get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections every three months, if not more often. I’ve been pretty diligent about this ever since I became sexually active. But it hasn’t always been easy. Going to the doctor sucked. Going to the doctor as a gay or bisexual man sucked even more. Going to the doctor as a queer man who’s sexually active — and wants to get tested for HIV and other STIs — sucked the worst.
Going to my college’s health care center was absolutely terrible. I was shamed mercilessly by the doctors there. They thought I was reckless. I was 19, getting drunk, and having sex. (I know — shocker. Who would have thought I would be getting drunk and having sex at college?) Still, I can understand why they thought I should take more precautions. What I don’t understand is why they thought yelling at me — or diagnosing me with an STI that I didn’t have — was the way to get through to me.
I didn’t stop having sex, but I did start going off campus to get tested. I went to a community clinic in a run-down area in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. The clinic was visibly dirty, and home to sex workers, drug addicts — and me. The nurses there were burned out. You could hear it in their lethargic voices and see it in the bags underneath their eyes. They were exhausted from years of positive diagnoses and could no longer care about their patients. Being invested was too painful. I kept going — for three years — because that’s what you do. I needed to feel safe. I needed to feel in control. Still, I never got over the dread I felt going there to get tested.
After college, I started working at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It had a free infectious diseases clinic that I went to during walk-in hours. That’s where I met Julie, a nurse-practitioner who had been working with queer men since the early ’80s. She’s knowledgeable, direct, and doesn’t judge. When she first asked me how many people I’d slept with in the past three months, I said, “It’s tacky to count.”
This has become an ongoing joke of ours. It’s something I say every time I come in. We always laugh together. She follows up, “Greater than 10?” I nod. She laughs when I tell her raunchy stories, and she remembers my partners, giving them ridiculous nicknames.
“You still sleeping with Herpes Girl?” She asked me once upon entering the exam room. I was.
There’s something about Julie’s direct and arguably crass language that makes me feel comfortable. Rather than dreading our appointments, I’m excited about coming in to see her. She’s the medical professional who calmed me down after I slept with an HIV-positive man without a condom. (He hadn’t been truthful about his status.) I had recently started PrEP, but it was one of the first times I had slipped up and not used a condom with a man in so, so long. The research was still out, and I wasn’t sure the HIV prevention pill really worked.
Julie was the one who assured me that Truvada worked. She was the one who told me the facts and statistics about PrEP. She was the one who said, “Come in 14 days from when you were exposed. When you come in, tell the receptionist you’re here to see me, and I’ll come out and see you right away. It doesn’t matter how many people are in front of you.” She was the one who called me directly to tell me my results were negative, instead of having me call into a hotline.
Julie is, hands down, the best ID health provider I’ve ever had. There are so many clueless doctors and nurses out there. Medical professionals who have no idea how the needs of gay and bi men differ from that of straight men. Medical professionals who don’t know what PrEP is or are hesitant about prescribing it. Medical professionals who shame you for sleeping with numerous partners, even when you’re having consensual, protected sex — and are asking your partner about their status.
Unfortunately, the impetus is on us, as gay and bi men, to find a good doctor. I specifically go to an infectious disease clinic to get tested, because I not only find them more knowledge about STIs, but also because they’re accustomed to seeing queer men. It’s not only important when it comes to getting tested, but for all other physical and mental health issues. I see a gay therapist who specializes in LGBTQ issues, and my primary care physician was referred to me by a lesbian friend who promised she worked well with LGBTQ clients.
Going to the doctor doesn’t have to be a pain in the ass. Getting tested doesn’t need to be a horrifying or frustrating experience. It’s time we took charge of our health, and didn’t settle for anything less than we deserve.