Thursday, September 27, 2012

Looking for a Survival Manual: Reflections on National Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

This post was penned by Tabias, one of our fabulous interns, to mark today's National Gay Men's Awareness Day.

I was just told by a co-worker that today is National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. I wasn’t previously aware there was such a day, but after a cursory Google search, it seems that every advocacy and legal organization concerned with HIV/AIDS and the plight of those at risk of seroconverting is quite aware of today’s importance. Dr. Kevin Fenton, director the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and Tuberculosis Prevention, released a statement reminding us that “nearly 350,000 gay and bisexual men with AIDS have died, and more than 8,000 still die each year.”

But after taking some time to reflect before writing this post, I realized that my first thoughts were not of those who have died, rather they were of those who are surviving either HIV or AIDS. We hear little about this small, resilient, invisible community. The norm today is to communicate clearly, effectively and quite loudly about the dangers of HIV and the costs of seroconversion. Unlike the story told in the documentary How to Survive a Plague, which chronicles the fearlessness of groups like ACT UP in confronting government apathy in the early days of the epidemic, today’s narrative surrounding HIV is much more about how to spot a plague and run, run, as fast as one can. I cannot help but think about how this narrative failed me just two short years ago.

I suppose I don’t fit the stereotype of an individual at risk for seroconversion (the transmission of HIV). I was a sophomore at a prestigious, private university. I was a prominent student on campus and held more leadership positions than one student probably should. I had the president of the university’s cell phone number and used it when necessary. My GPA was nothing to sneeze at. I was very out and open about my sexuality, as well as its beautiful and complicated intersections with my race and class backgrounds. Being a former sex-ed counselor, I was quite educated about HIV. But just halfway through my sophomore year I would contract HIV from a well-groomed, upper-middle class white male who was similarly educated and well mannered. We followed the rules. We were monogamous. We used protection. The condom broke. I became positive.

The day that I was notified that I could possibly be positive, I simply took a deep breath and went for a long run. I knew that there was nothing that I could do but take one step at a time. Perhaps if I was lucky, I could live a few more years. My mind slowly began to race about the costs of medication. Who would pay for it? I was already uninsured. How would I tell my mother? She was just beginning to cope with my sexuality, and that had taken nearly five years. What about friends? Would they be able to separate my sexuality from my diagnosis? Would they support my decision to battle it openly, publicly, without stigma or shame?

I returned home to my dorm and had a shot of brandy, and frantically scoured the internet for some alternative story – a story with a happy ending, about someone beating HIV, someone surviving and thriving with passion, compassion and style. Fortunately, I found Brandy Lacy Campos, the former co-director of Queers for Economic Justice. I reached out to him and found love, support, direction and a model for survival.

The men that I know today, especially those of us who are seen as most at risk (Black/Latino/Native, young, MSM), are not aware of these national HIV /AIDS awareness days. We are very rarely part of the national conversation, unless we are a part of a death-centered, downtrodden narrative. As members of a community accustomed to survival, triumph and overcoming, these messages, though they may be about us, are simply not written for or to us. It is my hope that next year on this day, there will be a concerted effort to really speak to those who are most at risk. This message will encompass relevant data, cultural competence and a sense of love and compassion. The messengers will know that Black/Latino MSM are less promiscuous than our racial counterparts, but simply encounter a higher prevalence of HIV in our sexual networks. This message will center on stories of survival, overcoming and carrying on. This message will not simply be about us, but for us and most often by us. This message will not be a simple PSA, but instead a Survivor’s Manual.

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