Often times we are bombarded with brutal facts about what HIV/AIDS look like for black gay men. These stories are often laced with tragedy, how the "down low" contributes to high infection rates in the black community, and battling the hands of statistics. The experiences many of us share with friends and family are often drown in fear and ignorance.
My first introduction to HIV/AIDS came when I was child. Growing up, my mother lost her best friend to a bad blood transfusion in the 90s. This was very, very common. Although I was about 5 years old, I can remember her transition. I remember visiting her son (who was my age) and seeing him cope with the loss of his mother. I witnessed my mother lose her best friend to malpractice. I knew the disease took my godmother away quickly. I knew ‘Ms. Genia’ was gone and I had to play with my godbrother at his grandmother’s. As a child, I grew up thinking HIV/AIDS could kill you with no regrets or regards for you or your loved ones.
I was terrified.
Since National HIV Testing Day was Friday, I decided to go get tested. This has become a tradition for me every summer. My last HIV test was last year and I knew it had been longer than six months since my last test.
For me, National HIV Testing Day is a friendly reminder that I need to take some time, slow down and go get tested. Although there are some factors that are beyond my control, owning my sexual behavior and testing is something I take accountability for.
For me, getting testing is never easy. Sitting in cold room, filling out a questionnaire being candid about my drug/sexual activities, and waiting for someone to give me a result that can ultimately change my life simply frightens me.
This year I went to an HIV testing and care service site. My test was much different this year because they were doing testing outside in a van. Once I stepped inside, I could barely keep myself together. As the counselor pricked my finger, the blood in my body just seemed to stand still. He squeezed and squeezed some more to get whatever blood he could to fill his tube.
Constantly scraping my finger he finally got enough. While waiting that one-minute, which seems like an eternity, we made small talk. He asked the standard questions to check my knowledge of high vs. low risk behavior and why decided to come get tested.
Now it was time for the final question, he asked me was I ready for my results. As someone who is analytical and tends to read too much into people’s body language and syntax, I braced myself for his response.
The counselor pulled back out my paperwork without making any eye contact with me and said, "Your test results came back negative."
Living in a community where black gay men are haunted by HIV/AIDS, we often don’t deal with the mental state of those who are HIV-negative, or those who don’t even know their status. The black community at large has had a fractured, at best, relationship with the medical community, so unfortunately, it’s not just a gay thing.
After coming out to my mother at 20, over the years I figured out that her anxiety grew out of how society would treat me as a black gay man, but also if I were ever diagnosed as HIV-positive. If anyone has been very proactive about discussing and asking me questions as a young man about things relating to my sexual activity and relationship status with men, my mother has always been there. Being understanding that I was her first child to live outside the heterosexual boundaries, I realized communication has been paramount in us fostering a healthy relationship with each other. Even in my early-twenties, I fully didn’t understand, so I couldn’t expect for her to as well.
Why am I so afraid of an HIV-positive result? Still today, I wouldn’t know how to utter the words to my mother, "I’m HIV-positive" without her thinking that the same disease who killed her best friend was now something she has to see happen to her son.
I am terrified.
However, I can admit that I have been projecting her fears onto my life while trying to outrun my own apprehensions. The older I become the more serious I am about protecting my status and health. I’m very aware that when it comes to black gay men, we are at a higher risk of contracting HIV.
In 2010, men who engage in sexual activity with other men (MSM) account for 63 percent of new HIV infections, as reported by Kaiser in 2010. The number of HIV-infected rates is greater than any other race/behavior category in the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, young black gay and bisexual men accounted for the highest number of new HIV infections in 2010 among all gay and bisexual men. Data has even predicted that by the end of this decade, more than 60 percent of black gay men will be living with HIV-positive.
More than half.
With alarming statistics and data like this, I’m always uneasy getting tested. Although testing does not stop HIV, it does give me the power to know my options. Hearing many, many stories from loved ones about how we deal with HIV is a wake up call loud enough that we must not only hear but answer. I experience the awkward stares in my friends eyes who become uncomfortable talking about HIV/AIDS in candid conversation. I encounter the tension when potential partners are offended when I ask them about their status, sexual behavior and the last time they were tested. I’ve listen to one too many stories of friends sharing their HIV-positive status with me. Yet, as black gay men, we cannot let these fears continue to plague our community. We’re greater than this. We all have times in our lives when we’re afraid of something. The first step in tackling your fears head on is to determine what you’re afraid of. Are we afraid of the diagnosis or what’s to happen there afterward?
As I write through my fears in this post, I encourage anyone out there who is hesitant to get tested, please do. No matter your sexual orientation, gender or race, I encourage everyone to go get tested. We don’t have to wait until National HIV Testing Day. It’s amazing how fear opens up the floor for much needed conversation. One of the major obstacles to controlling HIV/AIDS is that a substantial number of people living with the virus do not know they are infected because they have not been tested for the disease. Prevention strategies such as testing allow us to have a dialogue that go beyond a result. Testing gives us the space to be vulnerable and share our truths with each other. This is the first step in conquering our fears and reclaiming our voice around HIV/AIDS.