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“There’s No Easy Way to Tell You…”
One man’s personal story…
It’s been more than 21 years since I received my HIV diagnosis. Today I am struck by the sense of uncertainty that consumed me back then. The year was 1990 and I just didn’t have a clue.
Prior to my diagnosis I had begun volunteering for my local AIDS organization. I had recently relocated to my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA after serving eight years with United States Army. Darrell, a man who would become my most treasured friend, and I began rooming together. He was already involved with the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force and encouraged me to join him in handing out condoms and lubrication packets in the local gay hangouts.
I learned about HIV/AIDS while in the service and had been tested several times. Testing was mandatory for all military personnel. I also knew that as a black, gay/same-gender loving man who had a very active sexual life with a fair number of partners I was at risk. But my appreciation for that risk did not match my knowledge. It’s the difference between knowing you could get a speeding ticket and actually driving the posted speed limit because you witnessed patrol cars along the route.
Because I’d tested HIV negative while in the Army, I figured I was “safe.” Additionally, I surmised from media reports at the time that infection mainly occurred in white gay men who were from places like New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Since I didn’t have sex with white men and lived in Pittsburgh, I thought my chances of infection were remote. When it came to condoms, I found it awkward and was concerned that I would offend my sex partner if I suggested using one.
Eventually I realized that using condoms made sense because I had traveled halfway around the world and back via the military, having unprotected sex the entire time. I began to appreciate that I needed to protect my partners from me.
While working with Darrell, I became an official volunteer and received wonderful training about HIV/AIDS. I met some of the most dedicated, courageous, passionate, and determined people; staff, volunteers and clients who taught me that while the goal was to prevent HIV infection, it was also important to spread a message of hope for those who were both infected and affected. At this time, Darrell completed his phlebotomy training and asked me to play guinea pig and let him draw my blood for an HIV test. I immediately said “yes” without any hesitation. I wasn’t even worried when he said my test results had been delayed. One day he sat me down in our apartment and said, “There’s no easy way to tell you this” and handed me a copy of the lab results, hugged me and cried. Damn.
I was in shock. Because of my training and volunteer experience I knew what HIV positive did not mean. It didn’t mean that I was doomed to die (at least not right away), nor did it mean I couldn’t have a fulfilling life that included a romantic partner. I knew several infected people of color who were living their lives out in the open with dignity, respect and supported by friends and loved ones. As I understood it then given my high t-cell count, I could live 10-15 years without medication and then another five or so more once I started meds.
Remember, this is 1990. So the big question for me was “What does being HIV positive mean in the absence of physical illness”? This is the question I will explore right here at healthyblackmen.org. How do you live your life with a big expiration tag hanging over it?
Thank you to Mr. J. E. Miles, Jr. for sharing his journey with Healthyblackmen.org back in 2011.