This story is part of a wider editorial series. Coming Out and Falling In Love is about the queering of our relationships with others, and the self. This month, we look at Asian attitudes to sex and porn, dating in the digital era, experiences of LGBTQ communities, unconventional relationships and most importantly, self-love. Read similar stories here.
I remember the day I arrived in Jakarta in May 2017 after a week-long vacation in Hong Kong. That was the first day I noticed a pain throughout my body that disappeared suddenly at night. I thought I was just tired. But a week later, the pain hadn’t subsided.
The doctors suggested I have my blood tested for dengue fever. It came out negative, which left the doctors puzzled. They let me go home to deal with the pain for another two weeks, until I decided to have a biopsy done on my lymph glands after a small protuberance formed on my neck. It didn’t hurt, but the test said I had tuberculosis on my lymph glands, which would have to be surgically removed.
I panicked and called my older sister. I had become close with her after my father and older brother passed away, leaving me as the only man in the family.
“Are you sure you don’t want to get tested for HIV?” my sister asked me over the phone. “Some of my friends had tuberculosis in their lymph glands before they found out they were HIV-positive.”
As I was speaking with her, my thoughts were racing and I began to lose my train of thought. I remembered that my sister was one of the few people who knew I was gay. I managed to successfully hide my sexual orientation during my school days; I even had a girlfriend. I didn’t come out to my sister until a few days before her wedding in 2015. She was 38, I was 35.
“I’m getting married,” she told me. “Now you can get married. You don’t have to wait on me anymore.” In Javanese culture, it’s customary for the younger siblings to marry only after the eldest sibling marries.
“I don’t think I’m ever getting married,” I told her. “I’m gay.” Same-sex marriage is still illegal in Indonesia.
She told me she already knew. “I just wanted to hear you say it. It’s okay,” she said.
I diverted my attention back to the conversation with my sister, who urged me again to get tested for HIV. I told her I would.
As a sexually-active gay man, I was well aware of the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. I belonged to a group that provided free HIV tests every month, but I was still hesitant to get tested myself.
I figured everyone’s going to die of something eventually, so let it be a mystery. I thought that getting HIV was a death sentence. That HIV-positive people are just waiting for the end. I didn’t want to live like that.
The tuberculosis medication made me nauseous and robbed me of my appetite. I lost 20 kilograms in the weeks following the operation to remove the lump from my neck.
And I still wasn’t getting any better. I finally caved and followed family and friends’ suggestions to get tested for HIV.
When the test came back positive, it felt like the world was swallowing me. But I wasn’t worried for myself, I was far more concerned about my partner. What if he got the virus from me?
I had been with him for nine years. He traveled a lot for work, but I knew he was always faithful to me. I was the problem, because I was the one who had slept with someone else. I didn’t know how to tell him about my condition. I secluded myself for a week before I mustered up the courage to call him.
He was totally calm and never even asked me how I got the virus. He was determined to bring back my will to live. He always reminded me to take the antiretroviral medication that I would have to take for the rest of my life. “It’s time to be a better person,” he told me.
I was immensely relieved to learn my partner had tested negative for HIV.
But our sex life turned bleak. I had no libido. Maybe it was the meds, maybe it was my psyche. My partner didn’t seem too bothered by it, but I felt guilty for not being able to give him more than a handjob. There was an invisible wall between us that made us too afraid to have sex.
We broke up in mid-2018. His family hired a matchmaker to set him up with a woman. He is bisexual, and I had known all along that he would probably get married someday.
Three months after he married his wife — after recovering from a suicidal slump — I installed a dating app. It wasn’t easy.
Was I supposed to include the fact that I was HIV-positive in my bio? When was a suitable time for my dates to find out?
Pondering these questions made me want to further remove myself from society, but then I saw I had two matches. One of them was 10 years younger than me and is my current partner. The other was a businessman. Both of them responded positively when I told them I had HIV.
I felt my life slowly go back to normal. I gained weight. I was excelling at my job. I had an amazing partner and I learned to be faithful. My sex life reawakened. I refused to let a virus take over the parts of my life I could control.
The virus is currently undetectable in my body and there is a low chance that I will pass it on to someone else, but I still don’t want to take any chances. Now I use condoms no matter what.
Although I’ve made these strides, I still find it difficult to fully open up to everyone about my condition. In Indonesia, stigma against people with HIV is brutal. I couldn’t risk losing my job.
It’s not easy to exist in the world when you find out you’re HIV-positive. But people can be stronger than you think. There’s nothing wrong with taking a moment to distance yourself from the world, as long as you don’t let yourself drown in misery. Someone is out there who will love you just as you are. For me, all it took was a little courage.
*Author is using a pseudonym.