Once upon a year ago
August 6, 2012 | 11:00 am
(Updated: February 25, 2013 | 12:48 pm)
About a year ago, I received a Facebook message from an editor at Out Front Colorado. He said they wanted to put together a dynamic cover for their annual AIDS Walk issue – a group shot of local, out poz persons who reflect various generations of the disease. It sounded brilliant, and somewhat scary to be a part of.
Years earlier, when I first began grappling with HIV, I didn’t want to hide my disease from the world – but I didn’t want to head up the parade for it either. One of my mentors predicted that I had big things in store for my future. I adamantly refused; I didn’t want to be a poster boy.
OFC’s offer nearly four years later was more tempting. The group cover concept felt like a safe opportunity to show my HIV status with dignity. But it gradually became less of a group concept as other participants began dropping out.
It came down to just me and one other guy, and I had just enough Facebook skills to check him out. This man was about four years younger than me, blonde, and much better looking. My self-esteem became the bigger concern: His good looks would outshine my ego.
Then, on the day of the shoot, my ultra-attractive counterpart didn’t show up. My selfish side was relieved, until I realized this meant something new: I would be entirely alone advertising my HIV status on the cover of a widely-distributed local paper. Having your face on the cover of a magazine should be an exciting moment, but doing it with one of the world’s most stigmatized diseases sounded dreadful.
In the studio as we prepped for the photo shoot, they asked if I would feel comfortable taking my shirt off. I said yes, though it made me feel even more vulnerable. The makeup artist toned down my oily face and then carefully crafted a red “poz” sign across my forehead. I had talked about going out with HIV – how it felt like an imaginary stamp was visible on my forehead. Now it was a literal stamp.
Having read some of my previous wordy works, Out Front Colorado’s editor suggested that since I’d appear on the cover by myself, I should write the main story too. The thrill of getting to write my own story stomped on my anxieties. I had a week to figure out how to tell one of the most difficult tales in my life. A tattoo on my forearm – a translation from Aramaic Hebrew that said “Bleed Like Me” – was the working title.
I told a few friends, family members and my partner about what I was doing, and we waited eagerly for the issue to hit stands. What would happen? How would people react? Upon my HIV diagnosis I had lost several friends. After broadcasting it like this, would people be afraid even to associate with me?
When it finally came, the cover looked impressively surreal in its brutal elegance. I was now the poster boy that I once swore I’d never be, yet nothing felt embarrassing about it. As the days rolled on, so did the online messages. People sought me out to thank me for opening up about HIV in one of the most public of ways possible. Not a single reaction was negative.
In the gym one day, a handsome straight guy with an amputated leg stopped me. While he normally wouldn’t have picked up Out Front, he recognized me from the gym and made a point to connect. Now when we cross paths there we nod to one another, honoring our ailments that keep us going through life.
The cover story got enough of a positive reaction that I was offered a regular column, which I jumped on – there was so much more I wanted to say about life with HIV. And while they wanted a regular contributor writing about HIV, they also didn’t limit me to writing only about the disease. I could write about whatever I wanted; most writers would kill for that, and I’m still doing that now.
Even while being on the cover of a local publication is exciting for anyone, representing the controversy and stigma of HIV is a scary prospect. I took the chance, and in exchange got a voice and a platform for the stories I’ve lived.