When I was in the fifth grade some nasty little skin-turd called Mike Denney screamed at me across the classroom: “Hey, faggot! How does it feel to know your own death?” Ha, ha, ha! Everyone burst out laughing.
He was talking about AIDS, of course. As bullies always do.
Still. That kind of shit really sticks with a boy.
Mike Denny was right, however. I was a big ol’ faggot. Still am, gurl. And there has never been a time in which the ghoulish spectre of AIDS hasn’t cast its long, dark shadow over my life. Maybe you feel the same.
My entire adolescence and adulthood have been gripped in the knobby fist of a relentless terror that every time I sneeze, get a headache, or suffer a mysterious bruise, it was the beginning of the end, darling: kiss mamma goodbye, go into the light Carol Anne, it’s over. And it’s not going to be quick or pretty, either.
Over dramatic? Hysterical? Nope.
These feelings have had nothing to do with hypochondria or my natural penchant for melodrama. I was simply a guy who had sex with other guys, and that meant I was taking my life into my hands every time I had a happy in my pants. It was just the brutal reality of life as a red-blooded, sex-having gay boy of the age. Sex literally put you in mortal danger, and a slip up could lead to utter disaster. Lights out. Sayonara. The big dirt nap.
(And a terrible confession: To compound the problem, I have always hated condoms. Loathsome, vile boner killers. Off-putting and utterly unnatural. And that’s all I have to say about that. Wear a condom.)
Of course, that’s all changed now. Mostly.
An entirely new day seems to have dawned, as they say. HIV will never again be the gore-fanged monster it once was, god bless medical science.
Much of this is due to the fact that more and more ‘mos are swallowing that amazing little blue miracle worker once per day: Truvada, or PrEP, if you will, or as I personally like to call it, the magical chemical condom.
It’s some seriously serious witchcraft: Pop one in the morning along with your Flintstone’s vitamin, and abracadabra! You are functionally immune to HIV for the day at an almost 100% effectiveness rate, if taken as directed. Not half so vile or loathsome as nasty old rubbers, for God’s sake, but twice as unnatural. At least.
All hail big pharma!
It’s been difficult for the magnitude of this development to sink in to my brain cells, even though I’ve had a valid prescription for the stuff for going on two years. It just seems too god-damn-blessedly good to be true.
But perhaps it’s also fair to say I’ve developed a healthy case of PTSD surrounding the issue. And frankly I refuse to apologize for it.
I’ve earned these scars.
The year I stepped fresh and blinking from the banana boat onto Seattle’s salty shores (think early late 90s), the obituary section of the SGN was as thick as my thumb. Seattle’s HIV infection rate was alarming. You could expect to spot obviously very sick people easily on Broadway, in restaurants, in clubs, everywhere. “The Disease” coloured every aspect of gay life in Seattle, and everywhere else too. No one was left untouched by the tragedy and terror of it. It was AIDS, AIDS, everywhere, all the time, no waiting, right this way, have a cup of tea?
And surrounding every innocent sexual act there lingered a heavy layer of dread and panic and deep paranoia. It was an impossible nightmare that we tried to smother in safe sex and fundraisers and ironic humor and volunteer work and endless outreach and education and a simple iron will that refused to go down without at party.
But it was a nightmare from which we simply could not wake.
Until we did.
Boom. Just like that.
Many of my gay friends who are 25-ish or thereabouts have never really experienced the soul-freezing terror of which I speak. And god bless them, I’m overjoyed that they haven’t.
But they just haven’t.
The pills only started working a few short years ago — really working — and when they did, deaths slowed from a roar to a whisper. You no longer saw wasted people in the streets, and the obituary section shrank accordingly. The change was dramatic: The epidemic went from a crisis to a serious inconvenience — but a serious inconvenience nonetheless.
For my 25-ish friends, HIV doesn’t mean an ugly and certain death covered in shit and lesions. And it won’t ever mean watching the community around them—and/or themselves — painfully wither and die.
I had just turned 22 when I dated my first poz boyfriend — long before anyone ever was kicking around the term, “poz”.
He was diagnosed a few weeks after moving in with me, and on his bloody birthday, of course. Because God is hilarious.
At first I insisted that he must be joking when he told me. Right? Then I demanded that he must be joking. RIGHT?
And then I panicked.
My whole world slid sideways. “His” diagnosis was basically my own. After all, I was committed to him, he’d moved in with me, and we had, sexually speaking, done all the best nasty thangs.
And so I did as one does. I rushed into my friendly neighbourhood clinic for an immediate HIV test, por favor. They drew my blood, served me platitudes aplenty, told me not to worry… and I stewed in a perpetual state of horror for two dark and dreadful weeks waiting for the results. That’s how long it used to take. Two weeks.
Two dark and dreadful weeks…
When my results were (finally… finally!) available, I marched into the clinic, stiff upper lip, braced for the very worst. The Dr. (or technician, or whatever) tap-tapped herself into the room. “Hello there, Adrian?” Um…yup.
“So you’ve had a recent scare, have you?”
Um. Yup. Sort of.
She flipped open her little chart, scrolled down the page a bit, and broke the news, as gravely as she could.
“Oh! Yes, of course… you’re… negative.”
After dancing around the room like a manic leprechaun and squirting a tear or two, the Dr. (or technician, or whatever) deftly burst my bubble.
Sure I was, “negative”. But, you know, “for now”.
A negative result was inconclusive, the Dr. (or technician!) explained. Please come back in thirty days for another test, just to be sure. Then again, please! Thirty days after that. I could still be infected, you understand, they just couldn’t be sure yet. And “The Disease” could rear its ugly head at any moment. “We just have to wait and see…”
To be continued…