Has the terror of AIDS in Gay America skipped a generation?
I have been waiting a week for the results. My heart is pounding. It always pounds like this during the 20 minutes before I’m diagnosed as positive or negative. Every time, I make a case in my head that I’m positive and spin it around to the point of lunacy, no matter how unreal a prospect.
I am safe. I am always safe. There’s no need to worry like this.
My doctor usually starts thumbing through results and eyeing hormone levels. I could care less. It doesn’t matter if my cholesterol level is through the roof and I’m headed towards a heart attack. It doesn’t matter that I had about 50 terrible sunburns as a kid and have a family predisposed to melanoma. My spleen could have re-appropriated itself into my neck and I wouldn’t care. I only want to know the answer to one of the countless blood tests he’s performed.
“Oh, that. You’re negative.”
I breathe again. The doctor recognizes my terror. “Was there something you were worried about, anything I should be concerned with?” I explain there’s not, it’s just this ingrained fear I have that this is what is going to do me in. He drops his guard and tells me that this week he diagnosed a 19-year-old kid. Stupidly, I ask him if it’s any easier the more he has to do it.
Coming into World Aids Day, I keep thinking about the gay kids in America. The ones in their late teens and 20s, who I keep seeing and hearing about. The ones who are now positive and have to tell their families and friends and hookups and lovers that they have a disease with no cure.
According to the statistics I’ve read, 16% of all diagnoses in the USA for 2010 were from the age range of 20-24, a percentage greater than any other demographic. 77% of all male infections are reported to have come from male-to-male sexual contact. To put it simply, if you’re young and gay, you have the numbers working against you.
There’s this phrase going around LA. I’ve heard it a handful of times from gay men under 30, mostly at bars when a hot guy walks by. It goes like this: “He’s so hot I’d let him fuck me without a condom.” It’s a joke. But it’s not. It’s indicative of the risk that so many young guys are playing with.
Over the past year I’ve become friends with a 25-year-old who’s come out of the closet. He’s educated and from an affluent, accepting family. He’s also had unsafe sex. The older man he lost his virginity to swore that he didn’t “have anything.” So they did it. And did it again a few more times. And then they realized how foolish they were being and started using condoms, and got tested. They’re both negative and past the period where an infection could have happened. So he’s OK, right?
I want to shake him. I want to put his ear inches from my mouth and scream into it louder than if I’d had an anvil dropped on my foot. It’s a combination of fury and terror, that his young body could become infected just because he had a good feeling about his partner. The thing that rips me up the most is that he knew exactly what he was doing and the exact risk he was taking. And he did it anyway.
I know that HIV does not turn into AIDS as fast as it used to. I know that people are living longer, happier lives. And I certainly don’t mean to suggest there are not young gay men who are very smart about using protection. I guess what I’m trying to figure out is why the fear of getting HIV is dissipating. Am I imagining it? Is my view being clouded because I live in a city as amorous as Los Angeles?
I call my friend Susan, who is the first person I knew who had a friend with AIDS. She lived in LA during the 80s and 90s. Her friend Manuel took her and her friends on a cruise after he’d told them. He said this was the last time they’d be able to be together “like this.” A few months later he had lesions on his skin, a month after that he was unable to get out of bed, a month later he could barely remember the names or faces of the people visiting him. Then he died.
Susan thinks that because people aren’t seeing AIDS, they’re not fearful of it. In the LA of her heyday, she saw her sick neighbors doing their best just to get down stairs. She went to work with people who were one year fine, and not the next. It felt like AIDS was everywhere. If you had HIV, you knew that AIDS was just around the corner. Now, HIV doesn’t mean that, and it makes it something that can be selectively ignored, because it’s not constantly in your face.
The stigma that HIV is a death sentence and that people with AIDS are castaways is nowhere near where it was when I was in my 20s. This is an amazing thing, as this stigma was nothing short of terrible. I can’t even imagine what it was like to be positive in the 80s or 90s, the prejudice that came along with it. The other side of the coin is that the threat of HIV is no longer viewed by many young people as something that should panic them. In some young minds, it’s not real. To them, HIV doesn’t mean AIDS and respirators and cracked lips and sobbing families. It means you’ll have to take a few pills and have less fun.
The most puzzling thing to me is why people don’t get tested. Two years ago a friend-of-a-friend in his early 30s went to the doctor with pneumonia. He’d been feeling sick on and off for a while, but being young he just chalked it up to a hectic lifestyle. He also had no health insurance and because of this he didn’t have regular checkups. One round of blood work later he was diagnosed and told that the infection had gone full blown. He passed away shortly after. This was a guy with a light we’d never expected to go out. It was 2010 and he died much like anyone in the 80s with AIDS had, despite all of the education and medical advancement.
I think a lot about our mutual friend, Jake, who had seen him go from this light to darkness in a matter of weeks. I remember talking to Jake on the phone, listening to him trying to be upbeat, holding onto hope. Yet as the conversation progressed the terror started to leak in, the insanity that comes along with sitting shotgun to someone in such a futile place. He was 15 years my junior. I’d spent a decade steering him through some pretty hairy situations, always the older brother. Now, in this conversation, I had nothing to offer. I was going to be handed a life lesson by one of the people I’d want least to see hurt. He didn’t deserve this.
In that moment when I had nothing, I just remember thinking, Jesus, there’s nothing scarier than this. Nothing in the world.