I almost went in disguise the first time I got tested. It felt like I was about to pull the trigger in a game of Russian Roulette. Was this the moment everything would come to a halt? Did I make a “mistake” along the way that I would regret forever? I could hear the voice of my youth pastor in my ear: “You have no one to blame but yourself, David.”
Where I’m from in the south, people don’t talk about HIV or sexually transmitted diseases unless you’re in health class. Even then it’s linked back to sex with an overlay of shame; the idea being if you have lots of sex you will catch an STI, so either lock the legs or prepare for a lifetime of damnation.
It wasn’t until after I had lived in Los Angeles for a year that I started to understand what being aware means. It didn’t matter if I was afraid (that’s not going to stop the virus). What mattered was my willingness to find out, to know my status and to act on it — whatever the results were. After all, it was certainly better than the alternative.
Refusing to get tested out of fear invites more fear. I learned that the hard way. Eventually it morphs into anxiety, paranoia, guilt, and shame; a vicious cycle that can be broken in the fifteen minutes it takes for a full HIV and other STIs checkup. I finally realized the obvious truth: I wasn’t afraid of getting tested, but rather the idea of testing positive. It felt much easier not to know. But ignorance isn't much protection.
Living in a state of unawareness is like trapping yourself in a fish bowl: it might be blissful, but your perspectives on the world will be blurred. In today’s Grindr-obsessed, sex on the go, instant gratification world we live in, knowing your status is the most responsible thing we can do to protect ourselves and our future partners. The only thing standing between us is the fear of HIV stigma.
No one wants to be part of the stigma, which is why getting tested every three to six months, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests, can be daunting (what if today is the day I get a positive result?). But it’s okay to be terrified of stigma, because it’s a bully. It has no benefit other than to puncture the progress of millions of lives fighting against being labeled as “dirty,” “unsafe,” or “slutty.” But like all bullies, stigma has a weakness.
When you look stigma directly in the face, it runs away. It disappears because all bullies are cowards. Afterwards you realize it wasn’t the stigma that had power over you, but rather the fear of facing it. The willingness to discover the truth becomes a springboard to courage. In the end you learn that the stigma was a lie.
HIV stigma corners us inside a box of fear. The more we tell ourselves it’s better “not to know” the heavier our shame weighs. Getting tested should never feel like we’re walking the green mile. We are taking control of our health by allowing ourselves to know, and knowledge is powerful — more powerful than fear. That is something to be proud of.
The first person you need on your side is you — not your sex partner, not your doctor, not your counselor, nor your therapist. You are the one who needs to stay on top of your health. These days it’s really not hard to do. All you have to do is know. Testing is an essential element, without it, you cannot take the steps you need to stay healthy. When we fight against ourselves, we’re always going to lose. It doesn’t matter what the results of a test might bring. The important part is being aware, because trust me it’s much better than living in a state of panic.
Life is a game of Russian Roulette. Every time we have sex we are taking a risk. The same goes for when we get in a car or simply getting out of bed. We are never going to control everything, but the one thing we can control is our awareness. With that, fear has no reason to exist. There are things we can do to stay on top of our health. Having PrEP as an option to prevent HIV contraction is a major leap forward in medicine, and it should be adopted unapologetically the same way getting tested should.
HIV has not disappeared. We’ve just stopped talking about it. According to the CDC, if current diagnosis rates continue, one in six gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime. It’s also estimated that in today’s world, one in seven gay and bisexual men already have HIV but don’t know it, because they refuse to get tested. Because of the lack of knowledge, they are unknowingly putting other men at risk for contracting the virus. But the good news is that getting on treatment and lowering your viral load to undetectable levels essentially makes you uninfectious, unable to transmit HIV.
Sleeping with an HIV-positive person who is undetectable is much safer than sleeping with a guy who doesn’t know his status. Getting tested impacts more than one person. It produces a ripple effect in our community that encourages men to be empowered about our own sexual health, thus breaking free of the fish bowl. As a result, we invite clarity into our lives. And with clarity, fear has no power.
Get tested today. Proudly.