An 18-year-old recent graduate of high school, I was sitting at my chosen father’s computer desk downloading music. It was 2006 and we had met just a few months before. I was like many young boys just coming out as LGBTQIA+—homeless from severed ties with family associated with my being queer, rebelling against the assumed shame of coming out, having survival sex, being promiscuous out of simply figuring out what I liked sexually and absent of many responsibilities yet with the weight of the world on my shoulder. I had a good head on me, but my potential had been misplaced by my brokenness.
It happened to be my birthday. We were waiting until the weekend to celebrate, but I was so content sitting in a space where I could be my full self. In this, I wanted nothing but the company of Pops, as I affectionately called him.
Pops tapped me on my shoulder to tell me that my birthday dinner was done. Tonight, the menu was fried chicken and jambalaya with sausage, chicken, and shrimp—one of my favorites. I smiled thinking to myself, “This is what a good home should feel like.”
Savoring each bite of food, Pops took me out of my thoughts abruptly and expressed that he had something he wanted to talk about. Fear overtook me as my mind rushed back to sleeping out in the cold or at houses with random men. I understood he was a full-time college student and community health worker, but I really had nowhere to go. Homeless was a place I didn’t want to go back to—and definitely not on my birthday.
I sat up in the chair, “Yes, Pops. What is it?” I stayed calm; I could handle this. My being here was a luxury he didn’t have to take on.
“Son, so I’ve been wanting to have this conversation for a while,” he said. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat; I found myself thinking of where I could go next. He continued slowly as it seemed millennia were in the space of his words, “I’ve been living with HIV for almost 10 years.”
It was nothing that I thought I’d hear, but I still didn’t know how to feel. I had never—to my knowledge—met someone who was living with HIV. So many myths scrambled through my mind, “Was he dying soon? Can I eat after him? Have I gotten it from using his restroom?” The fear I had of being put out was replaced with ignorant thoughts of this being a place unsafe for me.
As if he could hear my thoughts, he let me know that there was no need to worry and explained to me the routes of transmission of HIV. He expressed that he had acquired HIV when he was 18 years old from an older guy taking advantage of him who was now deceased. Though he saw many people pass away, no one ever sat with him to have a conversation on sex as a gay man.
That weekend, as a mini-birthday celebration, we went to a Many Men, Many Voices group where I learned more about living with HIV and how people acquire it. The secret I was holding inside is that I had never been tested. Now, knowing someone living with HIV, it made the possibility of me having a reactive result even more real.
That day, with his help, I took my first HIV test. I began sweating profusely. It seemed like every person I had any intimate connection with ran through my mind; the number of people I had written down on the intake form began to multiply in my head.
I’ll never forget what he said before giving me my result, “Son, this fear is normal, but you can do something to reduce this fear. Now, HIV is not a death sentence, but if you don’t want it, you have a choice. If this comes out negative, be more responsible with your sex.”
I responded, “I’m never having sex again if it comes back negative.”
He laughed, “I’ll give you two weeks. Sex is natural, but it comes with responsibility.”
Moments passed by with my heart racing until I finally got the result from my HIV test—negative. The fear I had in my mind was replaced by the responsibility of my body Pops spoke about. That day, I realized the best gift anyone could give me was the knowledge of my status.
Pops, who has now been living with HIV for 22 years, has always been the best at gift giving; first his heart, then his home, then the food, then my status. As a young person, it was the single most heroic feat of my life—having someone choose me and, through his lived experience, help to give me in celebration of my birthday what wasn’t given to him—a choice.
Ian L. Haddock is the producer of Outcry the Docu-Series streaming exclusively on Prime Video. He serves as leader of The Normal Anomaly Initiative and president of Impulse Group Houston. Haddock is also the CDC’s Let’s Stop HIV Ambassador for Houston, Texas. Follow him on all social media at Ian L. Haddock.