Perspectives: ME & WELLNESS
Not So Brave: The Struggle to Stay Positive

April 22, 2009 Print version       Other articles by this author

I hate being positive sometimes. For many people I remain a shining example of resilience and determination to stay positive against the seductive impossibility of being a "negative" person. Loving myself, just the way I am, means bringing light to the truth of my lived experience as a black gay-identified man, as well as a person with AIDS (PWA). 2009 marks ten years since I was first diagnosed; and for all the advocacy I do to remain a brave soul against the tide of shame and stigma, deception and silence, sometimes, if rarely, I have a weak moment. I recently had the biggest weak moment since my diagnosis. And it was in the moment of fragility that I perhaps sharpened my sense of strength, my sense of purpose, my sense of truth.

I moved to Houston from Atlanta in June 2008, in part, for a relationship. There's a way that partnerships guards those of us who are out and POZ from the stigmatization felt by those who are POZ, single and sexually active. So much of what we receive in our culture reinforces the very shame and negative feelings about our bodies and sexuality that facilitates, at least in some cases, HIV infection. If the body's expression of intimacy is not viewed as a gift from God, if feelings about sex and sexuality are riddled with shame, guilt, remorse, regret, then how are our bodies responding to the disjunction between our pleasure and our pain? Is it possible to imagine sex that feels good and FEELS good? Truth is, we are, ironically, raised in a sex obsessed culture that schizophrenically proliferates sex, sex, and more sex on the radio, television, and internet waves while simultaneously holding puritanical notions of sex as valued for only the creation of offspring inside of heterosexual marriage. Hypocritical is the audacity of those who single out gay folk as sexual degenerates when, by those standards, we are all going to hell!

Moving to Houston partnered felt good in some senses in that my partnership approximated all the virtues of a "real" marriage. Operating monogamously, my sexual needs met in my relationship. I remained POZ, but was no longer a threat to the community for the disease I carry. HIV is not airborne. I am not a walking toxin. Yet ignorance is bliss, so in 2009, some of the beliefs about contagion are horrifying. Maybe people are simply acting more afraid of it than they are. Say you're positive and people shun you. Say your negative and get people to do just about anything with you. The audacity of truth is painful. And as crude as the depiction, I cannot help but feel like some personification of disease sometimes: when constantly being reminded that it's MY job to keep negative people negative, when safer sex seems to restrict pleasure so much that it's as exciting as a honeymoon in Taylor, Arkansas, or when everywhere you look there is a reminder that men prefer their men "disease-free", even when unsure about their own status, or more ironically, are positive themselves! Being partnered meant not having to deal with all that madness. Being partnered also meant a less than exciting sex life where shame lived in a corner of the bedroom behind the picture-perfect images of prospective gay marriage. Can we truly expect healthy sexuality when sex continues to carry so much shame?

Living in Atlanta and DC as a single guy (for most of my time in both cities) meant living with this same struggle to live POZitively, but somehow felt different. My sense is that people are a bit less AIDSphobic than I've experienced in Texas, where you should keep your dirty business to yourself (even if you don't consider it to be "dirty"). Experiencing and getting through the demise of a relationship whose veil of truth was violently ripped off, I returned to Houston in December bitter, perhaps not so much that my relationship had ended, but that I was back on the market: to negotiate sex and have to date again, to have to disclose my HIV status to sexual or romantic prospects, to experience REJECTION on the basis of something I cannot change.

In 2009, I've had more guys ask for my number to "lose" my number (or not call back upon the revelation of my status) than I experienced in the other 9 years of living with HIV. One recent night, anxious about finding healthy spaces for flirtation and sociality with my brothas, I met yet another guy who would take a liking to me, only to be called over by a friend to be told (not by me, as if it's a secret) "he's sick" or "he's got it". The bruh never ever returned. And generally I'm thankful for the ways that being positive weeds out all the jerks in the first place, BUT this night...it got to me. I left the bar, got in my car, played some Lalah and CRIED the best cry I had in years. As someone who is not a crier, it was a magnificent cleansing cry, so when I finally got home I played some Oleta and Sade and cried some more. I cried with determination-- for all those times I stand bravely while the reality of rejection bites. And this time I sat with it. I understood and perhaps empathized with the associative burden of dating a shamelessly and openly POZ individual. For the first time since the onset of the virus, I doubted whether or not I'd made the right decision being so public about my status.

Rejection is complex. It's not just the more blatant shock and awe retreat after someone discovers you're HIV positive. It is someone kissing you half-full, touching you afraid, not putting their mouth on you at all for fear of contagion...if mustering courage to indulge at all. Do you know how awful it feels like to be half-kissed? I'd rather not be kissed at all. So I resolved that I would only date other POZ guys, but realized that you don't always call love, sometimes it calls you and cares little about sero-status. Then I resolved that I'd just be abstinent for a while, but realized that a healthy sense of self for me is interconnected with a healthy sense of sex. I actually really (and shamelessly) still like sex. I refuse to reject myself as carelessly as others have rejected me. I began to wonder how many HIV positive guys badger themselves either by cutting themselves off from sex OR the extreme opposite of indulging desire without regard for the risks they pose to themselves and others. To say it's complicated is an understatement; but it is this level of complication that few seem to be truthfully talking about. It's still: use a condom, love yourself, protect your body, protect your partners: catch phrases that fall empty on ears traumatized by the shaming of their bodies and their sexuality everywhere from pulpits to our own gay bars.

I don't have simple answers. I'm still struggling to stay positive-- remember that music makes me smile, that I deserve touch and sensuality, remember that God loves me, that I am blessed to have family and friends who love me and who truly know the man they love, not some caricature, and finally remember that taking my medication daily is a way that I extend a richer knowingness of self and others. I've been "called" recently to a job where I'll be guiding young African-American men (positive and negative) who have sex with men through this complex maze of decisions in integrity: living and loving in full truth. I believe that the lessons and mistakes from my own life are crucial in helping save lives. I also believe that I have to honor those moments when I am not so brave; when I take off the Brave Soul hat and have a good cry, admit that something hurt me, if only to get beyond it. In Hip Hop we often talk about manning up-- and I'm learning that the measure of a man is not about "getting it right" all the time, but about being accountable, to self, to God, to those affected by your decisions, when you don't get it right. I am not always a Brave Soul. There is no braver admission than this truth.

Today I am as happy as I have ever been knowing that I can admit to and honor the work left to do. I suppose bravery is something I'm always already becoming through the admission that I'm not quite there. I'm single, I'm POZ, I'm aiming each day to be better than the day before. Especially on not so brave days, this is the humility that marks my humanity.