As a gay man, HIV/AIDS always looms in my mind as a “what if”. Devastating our communities during the 80’s and 90’s, it went into decline before making a comeback in the last decade. Three weeks ago on a Wednesday, I went to Melbourne Sexual Health Centre for a Hepatitis B vaccine booster shot and a sexual health checkup. Results take a week, and you receive them over the phone if you call up, unless they call early to inform you of medication-treated infections, or they want you to come in to discuss your results. Translation: HIV.
Though I always practice safe sex, after every test, I grow anxious awaiting results. This time, my Thursday and Friday at work, I categorised my sexual partners from the last six months according to HIV risk, based on a combination of aesthetic, occupation, and personality. I reasoned that a guy whom I slept with – introduced to through friends at a gay festival – was least likely because he was a conservation worker and had sandy blonde hair – which synced with his considerateness and sweetness. Then I thought about my boyfriend. I reasoned that because he’s such a sweet, gentle, smart, cautious person, and that we’re so alike, he could never have HIV. Within the depths of my terrorised imagination, I began to visualise Mr HIV: a tall, muscular, masculine bloke in tight black jeans, black t-shirt and black beard. Someone who would have treated me like a sexual object, who would purposefully try not to use protection or break the condom – a man in black. On Monday, I deduced if they didn’t call me after 3pm on Tuesday, then I was in the clear, leaving me free to call Wednesday morning. During those two days, time slowed to a halt. I hid my phone in my bag, behaviour similar to when I’ve asked someone on a date. If I didn’t see it or hear it, it meant I didn’t have to confront bad news. My manic mind started to prepare me for the worst, based on every Hollywood movie where a character is diagnosed with a fatal disease. Shaking while riding my bike to the clinic, upon hearing the results, I react with anger, petulance and loud sobbing. I tell mother over the phone who breaks down in tears, asking how I could be so careless and blaming herself. Friends abandon me and people who stay are reluctant to shake my hand. My boyfriend reluctantly nurses me through the early stages but is having doubts, and abandons me at my time of need. In a montage of stoic gazing poses by the seashore and jogging through the forest, I grow significantly more gaunt and grey, develop a Buddhist-like stoicism, then fall in love with a fellow HIV-diagnosed man or Antonio Banderas from Philidelphia-like good samaritan who can see through my illness, and finally pass gracefully to a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack. I’d mentally checked out with a packed suitcase, doused myself in lime and laid down in a mental plague pit. Approaching 3pm on Tuesday afternoon, I contemplated: “If HIV is the end of my life, what if I’m given the all-clear?” “Easy”, I thought”. I had my whole life ahead of me?”.
I realised how my prejudices and fears were overtaking me. Growing up as a closeted gay child in the 80’s and 90’s, the climate around fear of HIV was strong. In middle class New Zealand and Australia, whether subtle or direct, it was portrayed as the disease of gay men. When public information campaigns appealed to the dangers of everyone, they used fear, as the famous Australian ‘Grim Reaper’ Ad from 1987 can attest. Similar to drink driving and smoking ads, though these have probably had a desired effect in changing ‘negative’ behaviour, they have induced a climate of terror. Even with safe behaviour, being gay, we often possess an irrational fear looming over our heads.
Many of us self styled ‘well-informed’ gays maintain Victorian attitudes towards sex, that HIV/AIDS is the curse of the wench or those with loose morals. The man in black reflected my own prejudices: he was a sexual predator, a spectre, a grim reaper. While those having sex without protection are at a much higher risk, it’s still a possibility to contract HIV by letting your guard down – alcohol, drugs, or trusting a monogamous, but infected partner. Whether serial monogamy, Grindr, bathhouses, or one night stands – by far, the greatest precaution is being safe and tested regularly.