This originally appeared in an April 2010 issue of Gay Chicago Magazine. I wanted to include it on BillyBlog as well, late as it may be. As I read it now, I can't help but think of the young gay people who have taken their lives recently. Below, I have illustrated a specific encounter between my mother and I. It may not be the same level of torment that many have had to endure, but I did not weather her betrayal well. I asked her to keep my secret from my stepfather. She chose to tell him anyway, making my encounters with him awkward for the next 18 months, until I finally went to college. Though "Late' attempts to look at this circumstance in a humorous way, it was not funny then. It took time to share this story, to shed light on a dark moment. It may seem like forever but, in time, it really does get better.
I have never really had to hide my sexuality, and apparently I couldn’t if I tried. It’s sort of like Ricky Martin “coming out”. It’s like, “I’m gay!” and we all say, “We know, and you’re late.” I guess everyone needs to come out in their own way and blah blah blah, though I can’t help being a little unforgiving when it comes to celebrities. Some of them decide to proclaim their sexual identity long after they are at the height of their relevance. Then again, I have never been paid a ton of money to shut the hell up. I was also “out-ed” at 17, so I can’t really identify with having to let that secret swell and fester inside me.
I was sitting in the living room doing homework for junior English when my mother came barreling down the hall. I looked up and, seemingly out of nowhere, she started talking at me about condoms and diseases and sex and whatever other uncomfortable weirdness was spewing from her flustered face. I sat in silence, looking up from Dante’s Inferno completely confused and embarrassed. This went on for what seemed like forever, before I finally got up to go outside and smoke. My mother followed, all the while prodding, coercing me to admit something. After much awkwardness and frustration I finally blurted something to her about maybe being bi-sexual (yeah, nice try). It was awful for me, but she looked relieved. I asked her to not tell my stepfather. She did. To this day I don’t know what prompted that confrontation. My mother was always an emotional arsonist, so who the hell knows. Maybe it was the Honcho magazines under my mattress. Just guessing.
Around the same time, I was doing a play with my friend Cara. I was always in a play with her throughout high school. Fortunately, I had a very tight knit group of theatre friends from the time I was six or seven, so being gay in that environment was not such a big deal. Still, I was in high school and not really ready to grab a rainbow flag and head to Herman Hill (the “gay” park). Cara didn’t see it this way. I don’t know how it came up, maybe because we were listening to Tori Amos, but I remember being sort of blind-sided as she began to do donuts in the parking lot of Target saying, “If you’re gay, just tell me!!!” Theatre people rarely leave the drama on the stage.
Abrupt as it may have been, this was distinctly different from my mother’s ambush tactic. Cara and I are still very close, and her plea for me to come out was about acceptance, not judgment. After that, I pretty much couldn’t shut up about being gay, outing myself every chance I got, although it seemed I didn’t need to officially come out. My closet door had been busted wide open with a thundering “What the hell are you doing in there???!!!”
In hindsight, I consider myself very lucky. Being from a big, red, rectangle state, things could have certainly gone another way. I grudgingly have to thank my mother for what she did, as fucked up as it may have been. Thinking about how that felt, the tidal wave of embarrassment and frustration as she grilled me in that moment, is nothing compared to what it must feel like to hide it for years on end, as in Ricky Martin’s case. He even had to hide it from Barbara Walters. How awful. As I examine this, I find my judgment subsiding ever so slightly. I realize that I too am a fortunate, and proud, gay man. And regarding a certain too-handsome Puerto Rican pop star, I am beginning to think…better late than never.
“The tears of rage I cried… when nowhere could I find… an answer that made any kind of sense to me…”
-Sarah McLachlan, “Awakenings”.
The moral of the story is…there isn’t one.
As I was finishing my last blog, (essay seems like a more appropriate word), I learned that one of our volunteers had passed away. I dedicated the essay to him, as it seemed oddly fitting given the tone of what I had written.
A month or so later, I was at the gym when I learned of another untimely passing. I saw someone that I used to work with at Cook County Jail. He informed me that a former colleague of mine had died a month before. He told me who it was. I felt sick. It didn’t register. It still doesn’t. He was 32 years old. I stood there, stupefied, laughing as he and his partner stared at me. I justified my seemingly inappropriate reaction by saying “You know, laughing and crying are the same release”. Joni Mitchell sang that once (I know; big surprise that I would think of a woman songwriter in that moment). Learning of someone’s passing is never easy. Learning of someone’s passing in a gym full of gay boys preening, standing, modeling, and texting is not an experience I had previously known. I don’t recommend it, by the way.
I am not sure what name to give him, other than the bright light that I worked with at Cook County. He was a tall, smart, spirited young man. We were hired on the same day. Neither of us had ever been in a jail, and we didn’t know what to expect. It was scary. We became close, holding on to each other as we were baptized by fire, inaugurated into the maze that is the 24 acre compound at 26th and California. We quickly learned that no one we worked with could be trusted. To them, we were interlopers. We learned to trust each other. At least I know that I trusted him.
He was Black and I am White. He was tall and I am short. I think of the simplicity of those statements and the weight that people put on each others differences.
We lost touch after I left my job there. We sometimes talked. Sometimes I wouldn’t return his phone calls. He sounded okay the last time I talked to him a year ago. I knew he had a daughter. His relationship with his family was complicated. I knew he didn’t take care of himself sometimes. I knew he did not have a trusted support system. I knew he didn't talk about his status. I knew those around him didn't want to talk about his status. I know that must have felt devastating for him. I knew what a struggle it was for him to reconcile his illness with his faith, his identity, with his community. I never dreamed he would literally give up. I wonder what could have unraveled in his life that led him to stop trying, to give up the will to live. And I wonder if it had been different if I had picked up the phone more often when he called.
I know that it is possible to ‘know’ things and not 'do' them. For instance, he knew that he could manage his illness; that he could thrive, live a full life. It isn't 1983, or 1990, or even 2000. I can't conceive of anyone dying from HIV in America in 2010. There's no reason for it. Still, he did die.
I can’t help but feel that I'm missing something. My job is to educate people, to support them. I spend each day trying to break down stigma, make a positive change for people in need. That was his job too, but something didn't take. Stigma around HIV is still so brutal. I believe that it's the biggest barrier in HIV care. People still bust out the old, boring, sad, tired, late topics such as: being gay, having this illness, how you got it, it’s a punishment, etc. Shrouding hate under the guise of God is over. It has to stop. The stigma must end. The ignorance is unbearable, claustrophobic, and oppressive. Quite simply, it’s wrong. I believe these attitudes contributed to his undoing. I will never be sure.
It should make sense, but it doesn’t. It may seem simple, but it’s not. He could have lived, but he didn’t. He chose not to. He SHOULD have lived. It makes me angry. I feel crushed. Yet, like him, I 'know' things too that I don't 'do'. People have their reasons. I have mine, just as he had his. I have to remember that not everything is what it seems. You can never really know what a person is up against, or why they make the decisions they make. I have to keep telling myself that I am the fortunate one, because I got a glimpse of his light. In time I believe that light could have become a beacon for so many others.
“Every thing is sacred and, nothing is as sacred as we want it to be…”
-Beth Orton, “Central Reservation”.
When Shel Silverstein died, I was working in a coffee shop in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. I remember reading about it in the newspaper, so it was definitely a while ago. I locked the door, put up a ‘back in 5’ sign, and cried.
Earlier in the year, I was teaching a class and someone told me that J.D. Salinger had died. Unbelieving, I asked him how he knew this. Pointing to the wireless-device-of-the-moment, he explained that that’s what ‘it’ said. I didn’t have the luxury of mourning in the moment this time. In fact, my sadness was almost instantly overshadowed with anger as he continued to read the news feed aloud. They speculated about his ‘hermetic’ life, that perhaps he was unstable, drinking his own urine, and so on. I stopped and abruptly blurted out.
“That may very well be, but he still wrote “The Catcher in the Rye” and none of us did!”
After an appropriate and awkward silence, as I have been known to cause on many occasions, I gave the class a break in order to collect myself.
It is not so much the passing of these two authors that struck me so deep. What they represented is what I grieved for. Each had been a symbol of different times in my life, just as their deaths would mark two different seasons in my life later on.
Shel Silverstein was my introduction to poetry as a child. His craftsmanship and storytelling ability were conveyed in short, often silly, ( though sometimes quite poignant) poems. Tales of children who would not take the garbage out, who tried to fake sick to stay home from school, and all the seemingly universal things we experience as kids. He never condescended. It was like he was a peer, and because of that, his work was seared into my brain. Classics like The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends mark the beginning of my obsession with language. Words somehow make a thing real, sacred even, steady in time unlike the rest of our existence. Of course, I didn’t know this then. I don’t know that I have ever really thought too much about it until this moment.
J.D. Salinger, though vulgar, cynical, and rebellious in the manifestation of the character Holden Caulfield, represented a similar rite of passage. The late teenage years with my friends Rob and Emily come to mind. I outed myself to them on the long drive out of Kansas, literally heading to the foothills of Colorado’s Purple Mountain Majesty. It was my first trip there. The running joke was “Ma’am, this is NOT a motel!” The origin of that joke comes from a woman who claimed that the GIANT motel sign in her front lawn was indeed “not a motel!” Emily kept looking up at it, then back to her. She yelled this proclamation once more, and we sought shelter for the night at the nearby Thunder River Lodge.
I didn’t know at the time that I would watch both Rob and Emily’s mothers succumb to cancer, at different intersections of my life. Watching Emily’s mother pass would be incredibly difficult, as I seem to have a knack for engaging other people’s mothers, though my own is still alive in another time zone. We have only engaged in deafening silence for a decade.
There is a ‘want’ that I am not sure I will ever quite satisfy. Wanting what I can’t have, or don’t have, or the heartbreaking decision to forfeit what I do have. is what these two authors mean to me. Not their words, but the experiences marked by them. It is the stuff that I cannot pin down that fascinates me, the pieces summed up in memory that I can hopefully convey with storytelling. It is a daily reckoning. I am a human in motion and I will never pass this way again.
"One question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands. Irish-Americans remember the fairies, Norwegian-Americans the Nisser, Greek-Americans the vrykolakas, but only in relation to events remembered in the Old Country. When I once asked why such demons are not seen in America, my informants giggled confusedly and said “They’re scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far,” pointing out that Christ and the apostles never came to America."
-Richard Dorson, “A Theory of American Folklore”.
(Quotation lifted directly from Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods).
“He said ‘We’ve been looking for illegal immigrants, can we check your car?’ I said, ‘Funny, I think we were on the same boat back in 1694…”
-Indigo Girls, “Shame on You”.
History repeats itself. I wonder why. It’s one of those clichés that seeps into our subconscious and, for me, can be quite vexing and can seem simplistic. Like it or not, most clichés are based in some truth and, with that in mind, I often wonder why humans continue to make the same mistakes again and again.
I do not live in Arizona, but I am feeling their fear. I have never been held for ransom, but I am feeling the reactionary response of a hostage situation. I can feel it all the way in Chicago.
We live in a time of fear, whether financial, environmental, or fear of the unknown. I am willing to bet that humans have always struggled with these things, but they have not always been dissected under a microscope the way they are today. Information, factual or not, is everywhere. In an age of knowing what everything means via search engine, our fears, (demons, if you will) still manage to manifest in the most basic, primal ways.
If you have been in an airport in the past nine years, you have also felt, or at least seen, the beginnings of the police state. You have seen the man in the turban pulled aside. I have also seen a white, middle-class suburban mother dragging a car seat, looking worn-out, standing in disbelief as she is surveyed about why she was in Iowa, or wherever. Of course, I am assuming she is middle class and suburban based on her appearance. I know nothing about her.
Profiling is inherent. We all do it. We judge on appearance first. We can’t help it. An entire state is putting the practice of profiling into law. An entire state is basically saying that Racism is okay. I know people who live in Arizona, and in other Border communities, have experienced unspeakable violence. That said, anger and hatred and suspicion and degradation, didn’t end so well in a town called Salem. The marriage of authority and ignorance is especially chilling, and that is what makes this law so frightening.
The "reason" behind this new law is born from the violence surrounding illegal drugs. To me, drug cartels would not be a threat if we legalized all drugs. I mean, is “The War on Drugs” even real? If so, how much money do we waste annually on something so futile? Alcohol and guns are legal, why not FDA regulated drugs? It could be argued that people could overdose, people could freak out, could become addicted. My response to that would be, people DO become addicted to alcohol and cigarettes, people often DO freak out, and are able to get into a car blind drunk while carrying a loaded gun. The extreme is always a possibility. These traits do not manifest in substances, they manifest in us.
This idea is shocking to many, like the idea of legalized prostitution. Why? Guns, drugs, alcohol, sex. In themselves, they are not ‘bad’ things. Certainly, anything in excess is ‘bad’. We seem to be a nation that thrives on ultimatums, with our ‘Love it or Leave it’ mentality derived from our Puritanical roots, and their concept of a God who is impossible to please. Certainly, this notion manifests in contemporary America. It can be seen in the folks who believe that the Bible is actually a divine book of slogans. They take a catch phrase from one of the Gospels that suits their prejudice accordingly and have it made into a bumper sticker. It’s displayed with pride alongside something about their child being an honor student, implying salvation, boastful with the certainty of perfection. In a similar way, they are the same folks who manage to strip the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence of any real meaning, but believe they are doing the opposite.
Our founding fathers were fallible human beings like all of us. They made mistakes. We did not just inherit the inalienable rights, we inherited their mistakes. We endure consequences to this day for decisions they made, both good and bad. Just as future generations will inherit the consequences for the way we have treated the planet. Whether it is fair or not is irrelevant. It just is. We took a land that was never ours to begin with. Whether we acknowledge it consciously is also irrelevant. It lives in us, alongside the right to bear arms, alongside freedom of speech, alongside the roses and the thorns.
Our fear, our arrogance, our intolerance, are some of the demons that I believe remain with us, washed ashore with the Mayflower. We may not know what to call them, so we label them Freedom. We may not even see them slip in as they disguise themselves as Liberty. We may not know how to identify the demons of the Old Country, or recognize them when we see them. We may not even believe that they exist, or know their origin. Our ignorance does not stop them from being.
Some of our ancestors laid claim to an inhabited land centuries ago. In their actions the precedent was set. America became the land that all people can fairly lay claim to.
“A white person who takes advantage of a minority. A thief. Often representing "The Man". An oppressor. This does not apply to the average person of caucasian descent”.
-definition of the term “white devil”; Urban Dictionary.
My co-worker/friend Louis and I have recently started co-hosting a show on public access television. It is a live HIV hotline, where people can call in with all their questions about HIV. We have someone screening the calls, but there really is no way to determine what someone is going to say once they get on the air. Case in point, the call that came in during last night’s show. We had been going through our routine of touting our agency, acknowledging current legislation and financial troubles that effect HIV services, and answering caller questions on the air.
Throughout the broadcast, we look at a screen of ourselves. We see exactly what the audience sees. At one point, Louis was responding to a caller’s question, and I was staring at myself. All I could think was that my forehead looked shiny, and that the show was dragging. That all changed when the next call came in.
The man on the other end sounded out his sentiments through the feedback provided by his blaring television in the background. After Louis asked the man to turn it down so that we could hear him, the caller promptly wished Louis a happy Black History Month. He then told him that if he wanted to know the cause of AIDS he need look no further than the white devil sitting next to him. That would be me.
I believe that my face turned white(er), and my ears (horns), turned fire red.
It is not as though I had never heard this before. I had a few nicknames when I worked at the Cook County Jail, not limited to Opie and Snow White. What pissed me off about this scenario was that I felt that I had been ambushed on live television, and from an anonymous source. Now, by agreeing to be on television to discuss this topic, I realize that I am leaving myself wide open. I just didn’t expect to get kicked in the nuts like that, especially since it was only our second show.
I chose to turn the other cheek, partly because of my nature, partly because of my belief system, and partly because of my fear. Race is a very sensitive issue and Racism is nothing but straight up Fear. The idea of actually DISCUSSING Racism, let alone in a reactionary way, let alone on live television, would have surely transcended Fear. Pun intended, we would have all ended up in the stratosphere.
If I were a person of a different temper, say my stepfather or grandfather, it would have been easy for me to have lashed out in a reactionary fashion. By saying that I am a white devil, you are transferring power onto me that I never had to begin with. It is somehow suggesting that I have a say over the misfortunes that you endure on a daily basis. I understand that this comment was not directed at my person, but what I “represent”.
Let me break down for you what I REALLY “represent”: I am a gay white male who has been living with HIV and its side effects for nearly 15 years. I have spent my adult life becoming an educated, spiritual person. I have been through 4 treatment regimens and have nearly died more than once. I work for an HIV service organization and I want to pass on what I know to YOU so that you can protect yourself. I make little money and struggle daily in a hurting economy, but I love what I do and that in itself has to be payment enough. You don’t deserve this break down of what I represent, but here it is, because I won’t wear your hate. The devil is really just a matter of perspective you see, so keep your shade out of my periphery.
I cannot atone for the sins of those who preceded me. I cannot qualify the actions of those in my race that continue to choose the path of hate. What I can do, what I choose to do, is to stop the ignorance. All the hateful derogatory things I heard about ANY minority as a child, do not make it into my vocabulary. They do not make it into my relationships. They do not infiltrate my spirit. They are not reflected in my work. I choose to stop them. I will not run that course. We all have the power to stop this sad and so-tired prejudice, ignorance and intolerance. We are all created equal. We each have free will. What a blessing; what a curse.
“You paint a lovely picture but reality intrudes, with a message for you…”
-Aimee Mann, “Real Bad News”.
I like to escape. I like to live in my bubble of work and friends and social networking and, sometimes bars, (as much as I try to stay on the wagon). This year, I even got swept up in the “magic” of the holidays and actually enjoyed them for a change. I bought into the Christmas specials, the Peace on Earth, even the consumerism. Holiday lights and sounds blurred together in my head, causing a dizzy, giddy sensation that all was well. Life was good. Peace could be realized. It was like a sensory narcotic surrounding me with this temporary rush of hope. I should have known that this sensation would end. I would eventually crash.
Looking over what I have written in the past year, I see that most of my work also has a quality of, not necessarily escapism, but idealism. Sometimes, I must admit, I can crawl a little too far up my own ass. I seem to believe that I can extract wisdom, as far as I understand it, from a difficult situation or circumstance. I must admit that right now I wonder where the sense to that is. In a world where everyone has a blog and we all have a voice but no attention span, it would be so much easier, so much more profitable, to be sensational and aggressive. I could be bitchy and scathing. I could rip people’s heads off or defame their character, exposing their weakness with relentless venom in a merciless tirade. I could do that.
I am part of a species that is loaded with contradictions. Of course, people are capable of great violence and intolerance. We can be vicious and unapologetic. We can lash out at anyone who stands in our way, who disagrees with what we believe or don’t believe. At the other end of the spectrum, we are capable of loving. We can listen. We can voice that violence will not be tolerated. We can elect a Black President who campaigned on the platform of Hope. We can do all these things.
Yet, it seems that if someone wants to make peace, or be helpful, or show compassion, they are physically, spiritually and mentally berated. It is not as though I didn’t think that last year would bleed into this one. It just seems that this jump start into a new decade has been especially violent. How could a so-called “Christian” blame Haiti’s devastation on their “deal with the devil?” How could a concerned citizen, although I have not heard all sides of this story, become the “fucking faggot” being beaten on our city’s public transit? Although I don’t want to get married, I still couldn’t if I tried. We continue to drag out Afghanistan and Iraq in a still-suffering economy.
What is it? What are we doing wrong? Is it just the cliché of life is not fair? Have we become, as Fundamentalists would suggest, a “Godless” society? Are we, as others would suggest, destined to fall like Rome? I can’t believe that. I choose not to believe that.
The trick for me is finding a way to integrate that light and dark, to invite them both in and negotiate with them. An oblivious, rose colored vision doesn’t work any more than a fatalistic view of life. I am a contradiction for a reason. I must learn to integrate this so called good and bad, acknowledging both of them. I am a product of the all or nothing, with us or against us, good and evil American mentality that doesn’t work. I can say that hate crimes, idiotic televangelists and all their violence are not welcome here, in any capacity. I can stand up to this hatred. I can say all of this in my little bubble, piecing the right words together that may sound so pretty, so perfect. Will I use these carefully chosen sentences as a clarion call?
I believe that Violence erupts from desperation and circumstance. Who am I to say “All we need is Love” when I don’t know any other road than my own? I can’t say that and I am NOT saying that. I will walk my own road as peacefully as I can this year. I will hope that the Universe takes notice, smiles a bit, and chooses to reflect that peace in this American circumstance.
“And I act like I have faith, and like that faith never ends…but I really just have friends.”
-Dar Williams, “Friends”.
It didn’t occur to me until late in the day that I should maybe write something about World AIDS Day. I feel as though I should have something profound to say. Much like when people come from out of town to Chicago and want to know where to go, I am temporarily drawing a blank.
I think my work speaks for itself, especially in terms of what I write about. I feel like what I do day in, day out pretty much sums it up. I’d like to say that I wasn’t always like this, or that I can credit my faith in God for all my strength. I can't. I have never hidden my status. I disclosed it all 13 years ago on the phone to those who remain my closest friends. I flew home and cried with them, and I have had them with me on this journey from day one.
With the advent of Facebook, as much as I have dogged it in the past, I have re-connected with other friends who have been amazing. The encouragement they give me to keep writing, to fight the good fight, is immeasurable. It’s funny because sometimes people from anywhere outside a large city get stereotyped as narrow-minded, or “hicks”. The people who surprise me with kind words most often are high school friends from Wichita. I am proud to be from there. It proves that it is those stereotypes that are harmful, not the people. We are all multi-faceted and unique.
“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a huge battle”. Someone I loved lived her life that way. I am just doing my best to come close to that.
“I am piecing a potion…to combat your poison…”
-Tori Amos, “Barons of Suburbia”.
Never discuss politics or religion in polite conversation. Of course, in the gay community we aren’t always super polite, and politics inevitably comes up. Most gay people I know vote and are relatively politically conscious. Religion, or Spirituality, seems to illicit a much more visceral reaction. The concept of God (big G, little g, ess, etc), is a tricky topic. Most gay people I know have had some kind of negative encounter with organized religion, myself included.
My own church experience as a child was confusing, at best. On the every-other-weekend I was with my dad, I went to a fundamental, “Bible-based” Sunday school and church service. Some of it seemed okay. Like the cookies and kool-aid part were definitely a plus, or the occasional Wednesday night pizza party. I once informed a pastor that they shouldn’t use Styrofoam cups because it was bad for the environment and if God had in fact created the Earth, he would likely disapprove. He was not amused (the pastor, not God). In that moment I realized that these “free” goodies were merely a tactic used to lure me into their fold. To this day I am suspicious of free pizza, usually provided by authority figures as either a bribe, or as a preface to some not-so-good news
Our church was against movies and dancing. Well, you could watch movies at home, just not in a movie theatre. My dad and I went to a movie every Sunday after church, which compounded my confusion about the Almighty and his entertainment policies. This confusion and shame would ignite a deep self-doubt, perhaps even self-hatred, as I entered my early teens only to realize that I was different. I was gay. In an effort to combat what I deemed “wrong”, I began to wear heavy metal t-shirts and listen to Metallica. I grew my hair into a mullet and began cutting myself. The irony being that this too was frowned upon, as was the Devil’s music I was “promoting”. Never mind that my mullet was long and soft, and flipped at the bottom a la Carol Brady. I was a walking contradictory disaster.
I would live the next eleven years of my life as, at best, agnostic. I had succumbed to this narrow minded concept of a Creator. It was the human ignorance/arrogance of fundamentalism that had robbed me of the spirituality that I deserved. God had not done this. These people who claimed they wanted me to be “saved” had done just the opposite. Of course, they would never see it this way. I could never convey why eleven years of faith had passed me by. Their poison was the greatest crime I have ever endured. I allowed their toxic faith to permeate my belief system, which was this: I believed that I was unworthy of believing.
This isn’t a new topic. This is not a breakthrough revelation. I think of all the time and energy wasted trying to convert homosexuals that could be channeled into compassion and acceptance. We are all different for a reason. I mean, that reason could be as simple as Nature knowing that televangelists, beauty queens and Nancy Grace, would all need hair dressers and stylists. We are not broken pieces of machinery to be fixed.
I suppose this all comes to the surface as we approach the holidays, even though Solstice existed long before Christendom. It comes to the surface every time I hear of another gay youth committing suicide. It comes to the surface when I see the increasing number of LGBT homeless in Lakeview. We are taught that grace is a gift that we merely have to accept. The gift of grace includes ALL of us. I don’t care how you break your Bible down, I don’t care how you pick it apart and I don’t care how hard these narrow minded bigots “pray” for me. They have nothing, literally nothing, up their sleeve. They have forgotten that the God they claim to know has said: “I have given you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you”.
I have always been fascinated by California. It seems to hold an allure, a mythology unlike any other place in the US. However, as I write this, I am on a timed hotel computer, since I chose to leave the laptop in Chicago, and a man was just smashed in the head with a baseball bat outside the hotel lobby. The mythology of California.
I am attending the United States Conference on AIDS in San Francisco. It is the first conference of this size that I have been to and I am a little overwhelmed. I did not anticipate the raw emotion I would feel in the midst of so many pioneers in the field of HIV. I feel humbled and blessed. It may seem trite to some, but for me this is encouraging. Sometimes we tend to work in a vacuum within our agencies, forgetting that we are not alone in our struggles. Maybe I'm manstrating because my eyes are wet as I write this. The truth is, I was a presenter on behalf of TPAN and our program TEAM today and I am so relieved that it is over. It went well but, unlike a blog where I am free to reflect to my heart's content, I had to present facts, not opinions. Facts must be air tight and questions answered concisely. I am not always so good at that.
This city in general holds so much gay history as you probably know. The Castro, Harvey Milk, Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City", they all come to mind for me as I stroll the streets of San Francisco. Of course, this is where the AIDS epidemic was first faced head on, in the midst of political apathy and ignorance. As I write that, I am now SURE I am manstrating. Perhaps I am just reckoning with our current ignorance and apathy towards HIV in America.
Since I left for the airport I have been PLAGUED by California-themed songs running through my head. Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, Counting Crows, Tori Amos and, of course, The Mamas and the Papas. All of these songs seem to hold a promise of something new, something magical. Since the days of the Gold Rush that is what California has held. The hope of something better. Not to mention Hollywood, the land of dreams, or complete lies, depending on your perspective. As I tried to grasp this concept, this feeling that is impossible to attain in any kind of tangible way, I called a very dear friend. I told her there was just something about California I couldn't put my finger on. It feels like I have applied to college and everyone else has been accepted, but my letter of acceptance or regret, refuses to arrive. It's like rushing a fraternity, not knowing whether or not you will be a brother. I remember that these ideas about this place are just that. Ideas. Concepts. The California budget for AIDS services has been cut by 80 million. The most visible problem I have noticed is the staggering number of homeless people in this city. Clearly, California is not exempt from harsh reality as all the songs would suggest.
As I prepared to present today, I had to step outside to smoke. I was a nervous wreck. It had been during this doctor's presentation at lunch that I truly recognized what an amazing experience this is. A privlege that I didn't want to fuck up. As I stood outside, I recalled the last time I was here. 10 years ago, early 20's, boyfriend, drinking and cabbing everywhere. Blissfully unaware. My present reality overtook me and I froze. I prayed. Two people came outside. One guy from Oklahoma, and a Native American woman from Oakland. This is one thing non-smokers are missing, by the way. Smoker's bonds are priceless. I told them my fears and how grateful I was, but how nervous I felt. We shared some of our experiences, our frustrations. The man told me that he had walked on the beach and, cliche as it may be, had again recognized how small he was. The Native American woman said "We are all part of the human family and we belong to the four corners". HAND TO GOD THIS HAPPENED AS CONTRIVED AS IT MAY SOUND. They each revealed their 11 and 14 years of sobriety to each other, respectively. I knew I was in the right place. Call it Synchronicity. Call it God. This here and now is perfect. It is enough. It is what we make it, cliche as that may be.
It is probably best to recognize that California is, like everywhere else, part dream part reality. Perhaps its true mythology lies in the fact that it is a place of pioneers. The people who seized their moment in the 1800's, the 1980's and today. Those who paved the way so you and I could make today our day.
I am headed to the United States Conference on AIDS in San Francisco and I would like to go in good conscience. I’d like to know that I have said what needs to be said to my own community regarding this ongoing epidemic. Some may view this subject as bothersome, tiresome and/or late. If this describes you, stop reading now.
I think it’s time for a little refresher course in HIV 101. You may think that this topic has been covered to death, stretched to its limit and drilled into the collective unconscious of gay men throughout the universe. You’d think. Recent e-mails and irrational face to face encounters with the misinformed have proven otherwise.
Let’s begin with transmission. This may seem elementary, or sound condescending, though it is not meant to: blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk. Treatment for HIV has changed, transmission has not. I once believed that it was a given that all MSM’s knew the modes of transmission and how to protect themselves. In my years of HIV service experience however, I have been proven wrong time and again. An illustration of this would be the online hook-up that reads “BB only. DDF, you be too.”
Also, I am begging all of you who diagnose yourselves online to stop. It does no one any good for you to sit at home playing specialist and self-diagnosing. Remember, early HIV infection is typically asymptomatic. It is possible that within the first 90 days of exposure, you may feel as though you have the flu. This is known as seroconversion, a time when your body is creating antibodies to fight the recent HIV infection. You may be knocked on your ass for a week or so. That’s about as symptomatic as it could get early on. I emphasize the “could” because not everyone experiences such symptoms. It is also possible to have a negative antibody test in the first 90 days. This means that getting tested the Monday after IML or Market Days, will not reflect whatever high risk behavior you may have engaged in over the weekend. Whatever the case, there may be some anxiety associated with coming in and getting a test. However, I’m guessing that it’s less stressful than sitting in front of your computer in a panic insisting that you’re carrying every disease known to man. Take a breath. Even if you ARE positive, you’re going to live. HIV is probably not what is going to kill you.
The best thing any of us can do is to be accountable. In Chicago there is always a free place to get tested. The test administered at TPAN, for example, is oral, rapid, anonymous and 99% accurate. I have heard time and again that people don’t want to get tested by their doctor because it is billed to insurance, or that they are afraid of needles. Those excuses don't work. We are fortunate enough to have an abundance of free or sliding scale resources for HIV in the Chicago area.
If you are slamming, or using needles for any reason, don’t share them. TPAN has needle exchange service on site and you can get as many as you need. At TPAN in particular, you are among peers who are not moralizing your sex life or substance use. Speaking of that, it is important to be honest when you are asked about your risk factors during testing. By being transparent with the person testing you, they can help you understand how to reduce your personal risks. We are all different. Concerns surrounding sex and drugs are far from cookie cutter. Bottom line, help them help you.
Most of us know how to protect ourselves, but some of us don’t sometimes. Unfortunately one of the consequences of this can be HIV. It sucks. I get it. I’ve GOT it. If it can be avoided, avoid it. If it can’t, well, deal with it. No matter what you may have heard it’s NOT as easy as taking a pill or two a day. Sometimes the treatment is ineffective and expensive and, for some, difficult to take. Frankly, medication can be taxing, exhausting and makes for BORING party conversation.
You may or may not be happy to know that, right about now, this public service announcement is ending. It seems that my soap box has collapsed beneath me and my megaphone has stopped working.