You need not be infected with HIV to be affected by AIDS. While the virus has stayed clear from my system, the disease has permeated most of my life, both stunting and scarring me.
A scattershot of personal experiences:
- Growing up, AIDS was gay cancer. Watching and reading my local news outlets, it seemed that all of the gay people were dying. Even those you didn't know were gay, actors and musicians, were suddenly gay and dead/dying. The decision was obvious. If you want to die, be gay. Multiple girlfriends and even a "pre-engagement" later I was straight and alive. Except for being semi-suicidal a few times. And reckless driving. And the drinking. And the depression. Alive!
- My first gay sex was accomplished at age 26. Accomplished is not a word choice error. It was months of research (pre-Internet!) and scoping of potential places where it could occur. While friends of friends were gay, this experiment was to be a secret. A sex place near Wall Street was chosen. Following the sex (oral only), my secret was revealed. "That's the first time I've ever done that." His loving, caring reply will be with me always. As he left our lovecabin/peepbooth, he turned to me. "Well, you're a natural." Less than 24 hours after leaving The Banana Room was my first HIV test.
- Eventually my expertise of gay sex venues was vast. After a wedding shower/bachelor party, I left Cafe Tabac and stumbled toward The Jewel theater. Someone caught my eye: thin, tan, dark and lovely. We started going through the motions, but my clumsy and brutal movements betrayed drunkenness. Another betrayer was the wine covering my blue oxford buttondown, which hadn't been spilled, but vomited. For whatever reason, this man from (not Ipanema) Second and A told me that it would be better that we go out of this place. He straightened my hair and gave me a sweater to cover the shirt. We went to a bar at Sixth and First. Tunnel Bar was my first gay bar, but I barely remember entering it. What I did remember next was waking up in another dude's apartment. Handprints over the mirror shaped like mine and two discarded condoms told me the story of what had happened. Despite a hangover, a smile overtook my face. And then a face met mine, "Do you remember my name?" "Um." "I'm Juan." Ten sentences later. "I need you to know that I'm HIV positive." We had done nothing unsafe, but my next HIV test was within 24 hours.
- Juan was my first "boyfriend". We were together for about three months. Three weeks of that time was in Beth Israel. Juan was full-blown. His friends tell me that his health was much worse before meeting me. That his "Rod Project" improved his spirits. He died about 16 months after we met. A piece of his art hangs in my bedroom.
- Flashing forward, my behavior has sort of normalized, but the 800 pound gorilla is in the bedroom. A recent hookup spent the night. He was a long-term crush, with whom things never seemed to work out, timing-wise. On awakening, I reviewed him. Among several tattoos was a tiny one, in cursive, "poz". The mind raced over activities of the previous twelve hours. It was all safe and vanilla. Yet, still? An AIDS test was performed within 48 hours.
- Sometimes it comes up in conversation, "Rod, why do you always date younger guys?" Some don't like my answer. "Because everyone my age died of AIDS." Sometimes I'll go on to explain it more: "An entire generation of hot, witty, outgoing, sexy men was killed off by a merciless disease. The one's that were left behind are mostly just not my type. They were the artists or the musicians or the free spirits, which sort of happen to be my type (which is sort of a lie, because I'm also a sucker for business-suit types like myself). So who else can I date but younger guys?"
None of the above makes me special or different than a lot of the guys around my age that grew up with AIDS omnipresent. The disease ravaged not only gays, but American culture. (Isn't it strange that fashion and art and music all became much more "corporate" around 1986? Think about it.) The world they left behind is bleaker and less colorful. The virus and the disease spread from people to an entire society.
The rest of us, infected or not, are all AIDS survivors.