Positively ‘Out’ – coming out as HIV-positive
June 11, 2012 | 11:00 am
(Updated: February 25, 2013 | 12:49 pm)
Though there’s no feeling like an HIV diagnosis, something rings nostalgic about the experience. After learning of my own status, I found myself harboring a new secret; one that instilled so much fear inside me. HIV put me in a second closet – but this time, instead of being a gay man in a straight world, I was a positive man in a gay world.
Even the task of walking around in a grocery store made me feel like a social relic. I often imagined that even though I looked perfectly healthy, I must have had some sort of red HIV stamp on my forehead that everyone could see.
I realized that the sense of doom was actually about my social life; not my physical health. What would my peers say if they found out? Would I look more pathetic to the failed courtships of my past? Would I get pity or would I get ridicule?
These questions plagued me, and I didn’t feel worthy of the risk to find out the answers. I decided that I’d share my HIV status only on a need-to-know basis. Years before, when I came out as gay, I decided I’d no longer live with secrets. I wanted to be the kind of guy who did not give a fuck about what others thought of him. I decided to live as an open book, but my HIV status put that notion to the test.
“I wouldn’t recommend telling anyone,” one guy told me. “You are really attractive,” he said, “and that makes people want to take you down a notch as it is. This will just give them ammunition.” His advice, while flattering, was scary. This was not a side of our community I wanted to even acknowledge.
Somebody else informed me otherwise. “Not being out about your HIV status is an insult to all of those who died from the disease,” he said. “Guys don’t know how lucky they have it nowadays. Everyone with AIDS used to look really sick. Now no one looks sick and they have no respect for the ones who did.”
He made a good point, too. I continued to meet with more guys for more advice and yet each conversation churned out a different recommendation.
For the first couple of years, I decided it safer to live in silence for my reputation’s sake. But whenever someone mentioned HIV, my stomach turned in knots when I couldn’t speak up. Actually getting this disease made me realize how ignorant I once was. Now, silently, I had to listen to other people’s opinions on something they didn’t know firsthand.
Finally, with solid support from my HIV-negative partner, I decided I had to creep out of this closet. I couldn’t control what would be said behind my back, but at least I could confront what’s said in my presence. When I became more open, there were backlashes – and they hurt. Surprisingly, though, it was more exciting to confront and overcome the bad in an effort for something so good.
On World AIDS Day in 2010, I decided the time had come to fling open the closet door and show the world what a modern HIV diagnosis looks like. I signed on Facebook and wrote a post that allowed all 400 of my “friends” see the real me.
The post garnered more likes than any other. Comments offered nothing but support and empathy. A few friends even called me a hero. Some upsetting private messages filtered their way through too. Sporadic friends and family were more upset that I hadn’t told them in person and that they had to find out through a Facebook post. They worried for my health and well being. Though harsh, they still showed love.
HIV no longer controlled over me anymore. I had control over it. My ability to be out loud and proud about my status felt like it took the power away from the possibilities of gossip. People wouldn’t really get a kick out of blathering about me if I had embraced the bad news that gave them the ammunition. Nobody could shame me if I didn’t feel shame in it myself.
Things only got better. I was finally able to truly relax about my HIV status since I no longer had secrets to hide. People began seeking me out online, wanting someone to connect with out of their own sense of isolation, like I’d once had. And I got the chance to talk openly and candidly with my peers about the truths of HIV rather than the myths.
I came out of a closet for the second time. And much like the first, the risks felt worthy.
If I’d tried this from the beginning, I would have been too vulnerable and it wouldn’t have worked. Time gave me the gift to regain confidence in myself, to once again live life as an open book.