I grew into my homosexuality on the Internet. From the time I was about 14 years old, I regularly visited sites like Adam4Adam, “the world’s largest gay social network,” and hit up 1-800-style chat lines like Interactive Male for phone sex. Anonymous access to strange menboth to their perfectly coiffed, shirtless public profiles, and to 30-second voice recordings in which they described themselves as tops or bottomshelped me find my footing in the gay community.
As a closeted teenager, I taught myself about the culture behind closed doors at night. I learned what bears, otters, and twinks were. I’d Google which gay clubs in Miami Beach were worth going to, planning to go once I was of age. Gay porn wasn’t just my vehicle for getting off; it was a way to indulge in escapism, to learn about my body and what I like to do with it, what I wanted other men to do with it.
By the time I was ready to graduate high school, I had mastered the art of finagling my way into the apartments of hot men for quick sex with the help of Grindr. Sometimes, I’d sneak them into my parents’ home after 1 a.m., hoping no one would wake up. In college, this promiscuous behavior continued, and I honestly can’t recall having a sexual experience back then that didn’t originate from a “Sup?”
I learned how to cut past the bullshit, get straight to the point of these online conversations. “Into?” “Host?” “More Pix?” were a part of my vernacular. I knew what was expected of me: availability, nude photos, and a degree of sexual deviance. But there was one question that always made me uncomfortable: “U clean?”
My understanding of HIV and STDs came from the media. I assumed gay men were more susceptible to getting sick. I assumed getting diseases like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and herpes was just a part of the process. I thought of HIV as a death sentence. And I figured that as long as I didn’t think about it, didn’t step into a clinic for a test, I didn’t have to worry about. “Yep, HIV/STD negative,” I’d tell other men.
In 2016, my boyfriend got sick on the way to a party. We had been drinking, and suddenly he begged the cab driver to pull over in Chelsea. He felt light-headed, starting panting, and couldn’t breathe because of a tight pain in his stomach. Together, we rushed to the emergency room, fearful that for whatever reason, his appendix was inflamed.
The nurses at the hospital found nothing wrong with him, and thankfully it turned out to be some fluke stomach ache. But before we headed home that night, the doctor asked him a simple follow-up question, “Do you want to get tested?” My heart sunk, and I suddenly felt as though that moment marked the beginning of the end of my relationship.
It took about 30 minutes for the nursing staff to return to our small waiting room with his results. In those 30 minutes, I began to sweat, and imagine what my response could be if he turned out to test positive for something. What if he had HIV? How would I explain this? My boyfriend, of course, had his own sexual history, but I was the one with a raunchier past. I knew he had been tested before, and I knew he was negative, but I couldn’t help but be fearful of having given him something I didn’t know I had myself.
36.7 million people were living with HIV in 2016, according to UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Startlingly, only 60 percent of those with HIV were aware of their status, meaning over 14 million people were living life not knowing they carried the virus. Despite the myths surrounding the disease, it’s not easy to know you’re living with it.
I’m very lucky. My boyfriend’s HIV test turned out negative that night at the hospital. He also didn’t test positive for other STDs. In the 30 minutes that we waited for his results, the nurse popped in to ask if I too wanted to be tested. “Hell no. I’m not ready for this. Why are we doing this? Let’s just go home,” I told my boyfriend alone.
I wish I had a prolific explanation as to why I didn’t get tested that night, and why it took me so long to do so. From the time I was that lonely teenager searching for sex on the Internet, I knew the dangers of unprotected, anonymous sex, yet I still had it. My hesitation towards getting tested came, in retrospect, from fear of the unknown. When I was about 18, a man I slept with texted me about one month later and told me he had herpes. I panicked and begged my sister to take me to a clinic to get tested, explaining I hooked up with a girl (I was in the closet) that gave me herpes. It turned out negative, but that experience of hiding, lying, not being able to openly talk about how and why this may have actually happened, scarred me.
From the start of my sexual journey, I knew enough to know that it was wise to use a condom and be careful. But my education was very limited. PrEP? I hadn’t heard of it. And the reality is that I didn’t have any gay friends, any allies, who I could comfortably turn to and as questions. I was ashamed of my sexual encounters, and I was the only person who knew of them at the time.
I wish I had gotten tested right after my first sexual experience at age 17. Not only would I have prevented myself from toiling with anxiety, with the dread of thinking I could have HIV or other diseases. But it was the right thing to do. You should not be having sex, in any form, unless you and the person who’s consented to do so know of each other’s status. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 states require people who know they’re living with HIV to disclose their status. Not doing so is against the law.
So much changed after that night at the hospital.
I’ve come out to my family. My boyfriend and I have celebrated our four-year anniversary. And, I’ve learned how to live my life as a homosexual openly. I wish I could say that I got tested shortly after that night at the hospital. I wish I could say that indeed, I prioritized my boyfriend’s health, and took preventative measures to make sure we were having safe, no-questions-about-it sex. But I can’t.
I finally got tested in 2017, at age 25. It only happened because once again, one of us needed to go to the doctor. That winter, we both experienced a flare in Mononucleosis. He was ill in January, and I was ill in March. And it was only per the suggestion of our physicians that I chose, finally, after years of shying away, to get tested.
The results were negative across the board.
My boyfriend honestly laughed. “I told you-you didn’t have anything,” he said. But up until that moment, I always feared that someway, somehow, I was living my life with several diseases that someway, somehow, I managed not go pass along to my boyfriend.
To be clear: I’m not proud of the fact that I waited so long to get tested, and that I had sex with other men without knowing my status. In fact, it’s something I’m ashamed of, something I deeply regret not doing earlier. But it’s a story I share with friends, and now to the world, because I know I’m not the only one. Unfortunately, so many of the men I slept with during my formative years were uninterested in my status. They didn’t care, swept it under the rug.
Perhaps that culture of not caring comes from fear, from our history as gay men of not wanting to talk about HIV, of not wanting to address the elephant in the room, of not wanting to die. Promiscuous sex won’t kill you. HIV is no longer a death sentence. But what is terrifying, what’ll haunt you in your sleep, what’ll keep you from living an honest, open life, is not getting tested.
Image via Getty
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