I Found Out I Was HIV Positive at a Gay Bar
What it's like to emerge from a life-changing moment into the arms of strangers.
by Jeff Leavell
Jun 20 2017, 9:31pm
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
I am an HIV-positive 49-year-old gay man. If you've ever read my work, this is not news. I say it all the time. But I think it's important to say, as loud and as publicly as possible.
Because we are not alone.
When I'm not writing or tending to my relationships, I'm working the door at gay bars here in LA. It's a job I love, because I get to see the full breadth of my community, from a vantage point that shows me how we come together to rise above our flaws and, at moments, become something magnificent.
In LA, social service organizations like AIDS Healthcare Foundation use mobile trucks to do free HIV testing. They'll set up outside popular gay bars like the Eagle or in gay neighborhoods like West Hollywood on nights when they know gay guys will be out partying. In less than 15 minutes, you can receive an HIV test and get your results.
A few months ago, while working the door at the Eagle, I watched as a young guy walked into one of these trucks. When he stepped out, I knew things hadn't gone as he'd expected.
Let's call him Patrick. I've seen him at the bar a lot—he's an easy going, nice guy in his mid 20s. An accountant for a production company. Just a guy.
After leaving the truck, Patrick walked toward me and hovered for a bit, dumbfounded.
"Are you OK?" I said as I checked IDs.
"Can I sit down?" he asked, indicating my stool.
One of the barbacks noticed that Patrick looked dazed and asked me if everything was OK. I asked him to get us a bottle of water.
"Why did I go into that truck?" he asked, suddenly focusing on me. "Why couldn't I have waited until I saw my doctor?" "Didn't go as you expected?" I asked. It would have been good to say something deeper, maybe. But honestly, I'm a door guy. There's no guidebook for shit like this.
"I'm supposed to meet friends tonight," he continued. "How am I supposed to stand around and talk about bullshit knowing..." He reached out and grabbed my hand. "What am I supposed to do now?"
"I tested positive at one of these trucks, too," I told him. "It was at the Faultline. Sunday beer bust. I was working the door. I had no idea walking in. I was just bored. I didn't even really think about it."
I remember the moment the counselor told me my results. The world collapsed in on itself. I could hear what he was saying to me, but it had no meaning. When he handed me the appointment card with a time and date to see a doctor, I shoved it into my pocket and stumbled out the door, probably just like Patrick.
I went back to my post at the door. I tried to smile and flirt with guys like everything was normal, but I couldn't shake that feeling: like my world was collapsing, falling in on me from all sides.
My friend Kevin came out of the bar for a break. I looked at him, and suddenly I started to cry. I told Kevin and my manager what happened. I asked if I could go home. I needed to see my husband, Alex, and I needed to tell him. My manager told me that he's positive, too, and that it'll all be OK. It's scary now, he said, but in the next few days, you'll go to the doctor, go on meds, and soon it won't be the most important thing in your life. Soon, he told me, you'll almost forget.
I didn't believe him at the time.
Kevin drove me home. We parked a block from my house, and I practiced how I would tell Alex.
"What did he do?" Patrick asked me as I told him my story.
"He held me," I said. "I couldn't stop crying, and he didn't let me go. He kept telling me it would be OK. That we would be OK. And he was right. You're handling it much better right now than I did."
He laughed. He hadn't let go of my hand the whole time.
A few guys who had been hanging out nearby approached us. One told Patrick that he was positive, too, that he had a great doctor, and if he wanted, he could give him his number, and they could go together. Another guy told him about his positive boyfriend, how he's a professional athlete, healthy and happy.
"You don't care that he's positive?" Patrick asked. "You aren't scared of getting it?"
"You just get educated," the guy said. "Like anything else. You educate yourself and figure out what you're comfortable with, and together, you make it work. I love him. His having HIV is nothing compared to that."
After a few minutes, these guys took Patrick to the bar for a beer. And it was a beautiful sight—a community coming together to take care of one of our own.
I remember another time, working the door at the Faultline on a Saturday night, and another guy emerged from the testing truck with the same look of confusion and terror. Later, he would tell me his name is Mike. We talked for a few minutes. He told me that he and his boyfriend had decided to get tested together.
"Why would we do that?" he said, in nearly the exact intonation I heard from Patrick later. "His results were negative. It never occurred to either of us that one of us…" he trailed off.
"He just went in to get us beers. To celebrate. I have to tell him."
I wanted to tell this guy about Alex—how after I'd told him, he had taken care of me. How it hadn't meant the end of our relationship. I wanted to tell him that everything would be OK.
But I didn't know his boyfriend. And I had no way of knowing whether that was true.
About an hour later, the two of them came storming out of the bar. The guy's boyfriend was furious. Drunk. He kept yelling stuff like, "You fucking slut! You have AIDS! Fuck you!"
Mike was crying. Begging his boyfriend not to leave him.
"Please," Mike sobbed. "Please don't go."
I watched, shocked, as the boyfriend got in his car and drove off.
We stood there, the two of us, in the aftermath of that moment. I hugged Mike. After a few minutes, his friends came out to meet him. Mike told them what had happened. They surrounded him, hugging him, holding him close, telling him how much they loved him.
"Hey," I said, as they led him away to get food. "It's going to be OK. You're gonna be OK."
"I don't believe you," he told me.
"It is. I promise."
It's easy, when it feels like the world is collapsing in on you, to be afraid. To think that no one will ever love you again. There were plenty of moments when I felt tainted, dirty and unlovable, but every single time, my community surrounded me, protected and took care of me.
When I watch the news now, the cruelties that members of my community are subject to around the world, the war being waged against the LGBTQ community in this country, I think about Patrick and Mike, and the men who came together to hold them and protect them. I think about those who did the same for me. I think about how strong we all are. All the faggots and queer kids like us, all those kids out there struggling with their gender identity, those who stand tall in our community and refuse to back down: We are stronger than those who would condemn us for who we love, for who we are.
We are brave.
I am an HIV-positive 49-year-old gay man. And I am not ashamed. I am proud of who I am. I am proud of my community. I am proud of Patrick and Mike.
We should all be. And fuck anyone who tells you different. They don't know us.