This World AIDS Day, VICE is exploring the state of HIV around the globe. Watch our special report, "Countdown to Zero," tonight on HBO at 9 PM, and to get involved visit red.org and shop (RED).
Today is World AIDS Day. Started in 1988, World AIDS Day has been bringing people together in the fight against HIV while raising awareness and education. According to the World Health Organization, over one million people died from HIV-related causes last year, bringing the total to more than 34 million lives globally so far. The WHO estimates that 36.9 million people across the world were living with HIV at the end of 2014. Sub-Saharan Africa is the most affected region, with approximately 25.8 million people living with HIV in 2014. The region accounts for a disproportionate 70 percent of the estimated two million new cases each year worldwide.
I was diagnosed HIV-positive in 2011. Today I'm 25. I find that a lot of people my age are pretty detached from the realities of HIV, so I thought I'd share my personal experience and point of view of being a young and positive American in 2015. Here's my A-to-Z list of what it's like being HIV-positive.
When I first found out that I was positive, in March of 2011, I was inundated for weeks with pamphlets, articles, and YouTube videos that were all very sterile and sad. Without levity, without smiles, it was hard not to feel drained. Then I went on Twitter and read some AIDS jokes and actually managed to laugh.
For so long after my diagnosis—weeks, months—my brain was stuck on my status. I couldn't think about anything else. AIDS jokes allowed me to stay in that headspace but experience something besides dread. I was able to think about my status, my body, my life, in a way that didn't make me feel awful. I don't have AIDS; I may never have AIDS. But AIDS jokes, for as terrible and dark as they are, allowed me to find humor in what I assumed was my fate. AIDS jokes are cruel and wrong and, in truth, shouldn't even be a thing. But they made me feel like a person during the saddest point in my life.
Being positive doesn't mean that I'm celibate—I have a healthy sex life. I'm young, gay, and I live in New York. I'm surrounded by gay men who are either positive or are on preventative medication (A. K. A. PrEP). Because I'm upfront about my status, there's always a precedent of safety, honesty, and forwardness before any clothes come off.
Every day it seems there's another article being published along the lines of " A Cure for AIDS: Scientists Say It's 'on the Horizon,'" or "Oregon Researcher: On Doorstep of HIV Cure?" To me, all of these articles are little more than clickbait. Articles and news stories proclaiming that a cure is on the way have been coming out for decades now. If I actually got excited every time one of these types of pieces came out I would be sorely disappointed all the time. That said, I do have hope that one day a cure will happen; just not any time soon. When/if a cure does come about, my guess is that it'll be in the form of a shot, or a series of shots. I like to imagine that when it becomes available I'll be in my mid 40s, that I'll have the day of the last injection marked on my calendar with a big smiley face. When/if I am finally cured, I'll cry. I'll eat cake and drink champagne and start planning a trip to Taiwan, a place that I'm barred from entering because I'm positive. Still, I'm not holding my breath.
I remember when I first came out as gay, my mom made me promise not to catch HIV. When I had to come out to her as positive, she just hugged me.
In the past year everything has changed in my dating life, thanks to PrEP, a new daily medication that negative people can take to prevent HIV transmission. Before PrEP, I would never think of giving out my number, meeting someone at a party, or going on a date from Tinder. I was 100 percent in on sero-sorting—only dating someone with the same HIV status as me. However, with PrEP, there are so many negative guys who are open to dating someone positive that my dating life is exploding. My sea has five times as many fish in it all of a sudden.
Holy fuck, you do not realize how uneducated people are about HIV until you become positive and have to learn everything yourself. It's as if society stopped paying attention in 1991. From what I can tell, most of the general population is completely oblivious to the modern realities of HIV. People are still ignorant and scared; they have no idea how far we've come. Fortunately, there's the internet.
I remember when I first came out as gay, my mom made me promise not to catch HIV. When I had to come out to her as positive, she just hugged me. The only family members I've told about my status are my parents, and they've been nothing short of completely supporting and wonderful. I love you, Mom and Dad.
Going on a Trip
There are some countries in the world that I can't travel to because I'm HIV-positive. Their legal guidelines say that I should be barred from entering. But it's not like I was dying to go to Singapore anyway.
Before learning my status, I was 100 percent trusting of doctors, nurses, and health-care professionals in general. It wasn't until I had a doctor that made me feel like a complete failure of a person that I realized a stethoscope is essentially the same as a priest's collar—something that's meant to inspire trust, but is not a guarantee. Now, I have a gay doctor who's married to a man who's HIV-positive. It's amazing how impactful it can be to go to the doctor and hear your status spoken and see a smile on the speaker's face, to have nurses touch you without flinching, to be in a space where you know you'll never be judged or treated like a specimen. Having the right health care is extremely important. (If you need help, GLMA is a great resource.)
I had no idea how big of a deal insurance is until I found out that I was positive. Insurance companies are essentially Satan incarnate, but they're also the only reason that I can afford to take a medication that costs around $3,000 a month. So at least Satan is on my side.
Here's a theoretical situation: Let's say I meet someone; we click, and I tell them that I'm HIV-positive. They understand, they're cool with it, and we get it on. They develop feelings for me; I'm not into them and cut it off. But what if they're vengeful? They can go to the police, tell them that I never disclosed, that I had unprotected sex with them, and that I endangered their life. Without any physical evidence, I can be arrested, sent to trial, and it's their word against mine. Let's further imagine I'm faced with a judge who doesn't know anything about HIV, who is biased against me based on stigma and stereotypes. Meanwhile, I'm publicly defamed, my family, friends, and employer all become aware of my status, and I risk losing everything. This is part of why Charlie Sheen had to go on the Today show and make his status public: He was being blackmailed by people threatening to use HIV criminalization laws against him. These laws say that if you have sex with someone and don't tell them that you're positive, they can press charges against you in a court of law and you can go to jail. Although HIV criminalization laws are meant to "protect" the public, these laws can be harmful because they de-incentivize HIV-negative people from getting tested and HIV-positive people from disclosing their status.
And on the topic of jail, HIV remains a serious issue. Inmates in federal and state prisons are disproportionately affected by HIV, along with other health problems, and there were over 20,000 inmates with HIV/AIDS across America—a little over one in a hundred inmates are affected.
Getting tested for HIV can take as little as 20 minutes. There's no reason you can't find the time to get tested. GMLA is a great resource for this, too.
I'm combining R and S here. HIV inflicts the most damage before you're even infected. The most pain you feel being HIV-positive comes from when you first find out your diagnosis, being slammed to the ground with all of the shame and stigma society has surrounding the virus. I only was able to feel healthy and sane when I finally realized that most of the struggle was coming from worrying about other people's opinions about me and how I'll function in a world of HIV-negative people.
That said, I keep being HIV-positive private. Not because I'm ashamed—it's just that it's easier and safer. I never know a person's attitudes, political beliefs, or education levels surrounding HIV. I never know if they're going to silently judge me, pity me, fear me, or just flat-out reject me. If I tell someone my status, it's because I'm fairly confident that they're a reasonable, educated person whom I can trust. The few times I've told someone, I'm usually the first positive person they've ever met. Most times I'm greeted with respect, but a few times I've inspired tears and long questioning sessions. Which is chill—I'm glad to be able to expand someone's view. But I'm also not trying to be a Lifetime original movie.
Undetectable Viral Load
Here I'm combining again, this time U and V. The term viral load refers to the number of copies of the HIV virus in your blood. The higher the number, the more copies of the virus in your system, the worse it is for your health, and the more likely you are to pass it on. With medication, your body can kill off copies of the virus to the point where it's not even detectable by modern testing techniques. When you're undetectable, your body doesn't have to fight so hard against HIV, leaving it free to take care of other things, like a cold or the flu. Also, when you're undetectable, it's very difficult to pass on the virus.
Who Gave It to Me, and Am I Mad at Them?
Fortunately, I know when and how I was infected. I had sex without a condom. It was with someone I had been hooking up with on and off for around two years. I felt really comfortable with him, and when it came time to go for the condom we just sort of bypassed that step. At the time, he had no idea that he was positive. That's how it usually goes. The majority of HIV transmissions occur via people who don't know their status.
And no, I am not mad at him at all. I can't hold anger at someone for failing what was ultimately my responsibility. No one was responsible for protecting me from HIV but me. I chose to have unprotected sex; it wasn't forced upon me. I can't harbor any negative feelings toward him. That would just perpetuate this false predator/victim mentality around HIV, this idea that it's always the positive person at fault.
Only about one in five straight people say they used a condom the last time they had sex. Plan B is sold over the counter. Besides test tube babies, every single person on Earth was created via unprotected sex. I had unprotected sex; just like most sexually active people have at some point. But because I was infected with HIV some would have you believe that I'm dirty, evil, insidious, stupid, and deserve to die. These are the same people who think because I'm HIV-positive, I should be segregated from the rest of humanity, shunned, and pitied. I'm really over being demonized and stigmatized. I hate having to explain myself, to justify wanting to be treated as a person instead of as case study or a monster.
The number of new infections coming from a recent trial of PrEP users. Seriously; if you have sex, get educated about PrEP and PEP.