Friday, August 30, 2013

The Price of Denial

I prefer to approach things from a humorous angle even if I have to turn the issue on its head and find the absurdity in the topic. It’s easier for me to defuse the anger and keep a rational perspective that way. I’ve tried for weeks to find the humorous absurdity in this topic but there isn’t one so forgive the lack of snark. This one is straight from the heart.

Do you guys find discussions about why safe sex is a good idea, why condoms are important and why it’s vital to know your STD/HIV status as surreal as I do? I sit at the computer shaking my head a lot these days wondering how the hell we got back to this point so fast. For a while, safe sex was a no-brainer. Yes, condoms and dental dams are annoying but you didn’t leave the starting gate without them unless you had a death wish. Apparently, that’s not common knowledge anymore. I don’t know about you guys but to me that’s disturbing.

Many of you remember the panic of the original scourge that wiped out entire communities of gay men and ravaged the population of artists on both coasts of the US. I know I do. It’s impossible to forget. I remember Ryan White and his reluctant rise to gay poster child despite the fact that he was heterosexual. I remember the panic as hundreds died in a matter of months with thousands more ill and a pointed lack of concern among public health officials until it was too late. So the gays are dying? Who the hell cares? (Insert callous comments about it being god's will here.) I remember the quilts and cremations and the feeling of hopeless despair. I remember men coming out to their families on their deathbeds or in eulogies because they hadn’t had the nerve to tell them they were gay before then.

Like many others in the LGBT community, it wasn’t just a news story to me. It was reality. I lost my friend Loren to AIDS 13 years ago this summer. I don’t remember him through a haze of denial. I remember him just as he was vibrant, energetic and sometimes fussy as hell. He was fun loving and occasionally bossy and I adored him.

Like many others, he thought he knew his HIV status and didn’t give it a second thought. He’d been reckless in his younger days but age had matured him and taught him the wisdom of being a bit less impulsive. He was in a committed relationship and hadn’t engaged in anal sex for years because his partner wasn’t into that. They thought they were safe.

Reality crashed through the ceiling one scorching day in 1994 when a rash on his arm drove him to the doctor to find something to make the damn thing stop itching. I remember him telling me how his doctor, a man with a predominantly gay patient roster, had broken down while telling him the cause of the rash. Loren was sick and the prognosis was black. He had advanced AIDS with a t-cell count in the teens. For those of you unfamiliar with t-cell counts, I envy you. For those who aren't I sympathize with the goose bumps and muttered, “oh shit”. It was bad…very bad. Effective drugs were still years away and the few semi-effective ones on the market at that point only worked for those in the early stages of HIV. AIDS was a death sentence.

Thus began our introduction to the world of medical ambiguity known as We-Dunno.

How long does he have to live?
“We don’t know because every case is different.”
What can we expect in the way of symptoms?
“We don’t know because every case is different.”
How long will it take from the time he gets obviously sick to the time we lose him?
“We don’t know because every case is different.”

The only thing the experts could tell us for sure was that a man with Loren’s t-cell count should have been dead already. They had no explanation for why his only symptom was localized hives but it was only a matter of time. AIDS left no room for hopeful speculation that he would beat it. With his weakened immune system, even a simple cold could kill him and there was no drug to prevent it.

Loren wasn’t the type to run and hide so he took his diagnosis and his drugs and went on with his life. He learned to figure skate. He traveled. He sang professionally on the occasional weekend in a Podunk BBQ place several miles outside of Phoenix. Toward the end, he went through a period of nesting doing improvements on the house he shared with his long-term partner one room at a time. One such project produced the infection that killed him six years after his diagnosis…almost to the day.

Why am I telling you this pitifully sad story? Trust me, there’s a point other than wandering down memory lane in a fit of self-pity or trolling for sympathy. It’s this: for the love of god DON’T BE AN IDIOT! The rise in STDs among gay men in the past few years says far too many people are taking stupid risks with their health for the sake of sex. Ok, so it’s mind-blowing so-good-you-almost-pass-out sex. Fine but trust me you won’t give a damn how good it was when you’re rotting away in a bed somewhere. Soul-sucking diseases don’t just happen to “other guys” and no, you’re not that lucky. Syphilis and HIV are on the rise worldwide in the gay community for one reason. People aren’t being careful and they aren’t being tested. Loren was the same way. He thought he was safe and he never bothered to check. Well, he was wrong. 

AIDS might not be the death sentence it used to be but HIV still destroys lives, costs friendships, and inspires fear in prospective partners. That wonderful guy you're dreaming of meeting and settling down with one day is going to have to learn to love you despite the HIV, syphilis, or gonorrhea label around your neck. So for the sake of those who love you, don’t be like Loren. Get tested and if you’re too embarrassed to go to the clinic order a test online and do it at home. Have a friend order the kit for you. Go to a free clinic under an assumed name in a disguise. I’ll loan you a baseball cap and some big girly sunglasses. We can even dye your hair. Just do it! Don’t assume you know your status and NEVER assume the random guy you just spent a hot, steamy half hour with was clean.

Denial isn’t a cure. It’s a mistake and it could cost you a lot more than you think. 

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