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B E E N  T H E R E:  L I V I N G  W I T H  H I V
James

April 1997

As a gay man living in San Francisco, James had always tried to be very careful to protect himself against STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases). Although people who are conscientious about safeguarding their health are much less likely to have problems, unfortunately, sometimes even they have accidents. Now James is infected with HIV. It's been more than 3 years and he now looks at his situation as a "gift" that has brought him closer to his family, his friends, and his community.

The InSite: What did you know about AIDS and how people get infected with HIV?

James: I knew how people were infected. I always had protected sex. It wasn't an option for me not to have unprotected sex. I had moved to San Francisco, and I was in a situation... actually the guy that I had sex with... it was protected sex, but something happened. And I got kind of worried because he seemed like really uncomfortable. He said, "Are you okay?" And I didn't know exactly why he was reacting that way. So I go "Okay. I should get tested 'cause maybe this guy is infected or something."

TI: So you had been careful?

James: Yeah! I had been really carefully every single time I had sex with someone. So it wasn't like I was reckless... not to say that people who become infected are being reckless. Some are in denial, and some get misinformation about how people get infected. As a person of color, I had heard a lot that it was a "white gay man's disease." Totally false information, but I never thought that way.

I had always assumed that ... HIV is out there, and it was inevitable that I would become infected.

Sex was never talked about in my family. My mom was never really into talking about it. But she and my brother apparently talked about it a lot because he approached her more about it. But for me it just wasn't an issue. I knew that being in the gay community I would have to [use protection]... but I had always assumed that being gay you have to watch out because HIV is out there, and it was inevitable that I would become infected. I thought. "I'm going to be careful. I'm more at risk than someone else."

TI: So after this incident, you thought maybe you ought to get tested...

James: Right. Up to that point, I tested negative. Then I tested again [after the incident], and I didn't go back for my results. I don't know why I didn't go back for my results.

Living Positive

H is for the
hatred and blame
that I brought upon myself.

I is for the
ignorance, because I thought
it wouldn't happen to me.

V is for the vulgarity I felt
because of the dirty stereotypes
associated with it.

The feeling of isolation
scared and frightened me, because
I felt so separated from the rest of the world.

In disbelief and shock
with tears running down my face
and my blood racing through my veins
and my stomach in knots.

I asked myself why me!
I can't believe this is happening to me!
Why me!

With thoughts of suicide going through
my mind. I had to kill myself before this
thing called HIV does.

Wait! Stop! What the hell are you thinking!
Be strong. Don't fall apart now!
Gather your thoughts and feelings together
because there are people who love you.
You've worked too hard to
let this insidious disease defeat you.

With the love and understanding from
friends and family, I can finally say...

H is for the
harmony and peace within myself.

I is for the
insightfulness and knowledge
I have gained and will always cherish.

V is for the
victory and courage of
caring, respecting, and loving myself.

-James

TI: Why do you think you didn't go back?

James: I think I was worried. So I went and got tested again [without having gotten the first results]. They were having a young men's survey and offered to pay us $40 for the survey and be tested. I said "Cool!" This time I went back to get my test results, because my friend went to the clinic, and I said, "Well, let me get my test results." It was really strange because the guy said I was negative. Now I could have been negative up to that point but been developing the antibodies, because during that time I was not having sex with anyone. Or the guy gave me the wrong test results, because when I went back a few weeks later after testing at the other place I tested positive! The only reason I went back for my results was because I knew I was going to test negative. When I looked at the results on the paper I didn't know how they read it. I was trying to look whether it was negative or positive but it doesn't say that on the paper. Anyway, the two sheets of paper were the same. And the results were the same! I had originally tested positive from the last time I had talked to this man. I was shocked.

"There's no way! I don't understand why this is happening!"

How did you feel when the tests results were communicated to you?

James: Very upset. The man actually wanted to sit down and talk to me about it, but I was not willing to listen to him. I wanted out of there. He didn't know what my T-cell count was at that time. And he said, "Well, let's find out your T-cell count, and we can find out when you became infected." And I said, "What are you talking about? There's no way! I don't understand why this is happening!" I was just trying not to hear him. I got up, and I left. I needed to be by myself. So I went home. I called my friends the same day, and I told them. And they were all really supportive and really upset. My brother was very upset. And about a month later my mom found out, and then the rest of my family found out. And it's all been a really positive experience.

TI: How long has it's been since the diagnosis?

James: Two and a half years.

TI: How are you feeling?

James: Totally fine.

TI: So how has it changed your life?

James: I feel like I am taking a better direction. I was only 21 when I tested positive. I was going out a lot and partying a lot with my friends and not really having a direction. I knew what I wanted to do, but I wasn't taking the steps to do it. Now I see being HIV positive as kind of a gift, in a way. It's unfortunate that I have HIV, but with the new treatments that are out... When I tested positive I didn't see it as a life-threatening illness. I knew I was not going to die tomorrow or next week or next month. I knew enough about the disease that people lived a long time and during that period I had left I was going to make as much out of my life as possible. I was processing all that information, getting the information I needed, being resourceful and just working out my issues around being positive, and still working them out to this day. It has been a good experience, I guess. It has been a growing experience. I feel confident and hopeful.

There's no sex involved until I get to know
the person and disclose my [HIV] status.

TI: Is the fact that you are HIV positive something that's difficult for you to communicate to perspective partners?

James: Sometimes it is. And luckily I have not had a negative experience coming out to someone. But that is always something that's possible. I usually do not tell anyone at the beginning. There's no sex involved until I get to know the person and disclose my [HIV] status. I get to know where they're coming from before I decide to disclose. Because that is something that is very personal to me, and I want to know how my HIV status is going to make the person react. If someone's going to react in a negative way then I'm not going to feel bad about it. It's not my issue. I'll let them keep it and deal with it. Because that's the last thing I need is for someone to say: "Well, okay, I like you but..."

TI: Because you were being as careful as you could be, it sounds like, for you, getting infected was an accident. But there are teens out there who are not being so careful. If you could sit down and talk to them about HIV, what would you say?

James: The first thing that comes to mind is talking about what's going on personally. Around self-esteem, self-awareness, empowerment. To communicate with their parents and partners around having sex and about HIV. Why is this person having unprotected sex? Why are they compromising themselves and not being assertive? There are so many other issues involved before you can talk about prevention in terms of using a condom or harm-reduction or abstinence. Because a lot of young people are having sex and not thinking about the consequences. And why aren't they thinking about the consequences? Do they not care about getting infected? Is that the last thing on their minds? Why is that? Is it because of misinformation? I would try to communicate to them that it is really important for you to realize that HIV is growing within the community of young people!

I think there's a lot of pressure around sex when you're a young person. I know that guys will say to their girlfriends: "Let's have unprotected sex. I can't feel it with a condom." Maybe being in that situation a woman may think, "I want this person to care about me." And she'll negotiate that and say "Fine. Let's have unprotected sex." She may be thinking about pregnancy, but not thinking about HIV.

In the gay community, one partner says the same thing. And the other partner wants to keep this person, so they trust this person.

And the self-esteem issue... some people may have been sexually abused at a young age and they may feel that giving away their bodies to people is "normal." You know like, "Do as you will to me." And they're not thinking about the consequences. If they are, then they don't care what happens to them because no one cared about them before so why is anyone going to care about them now? Or "I've been taken advantage of before, and this is what I deserve." That's really important, and that needs to be talked about before people talk about prevention because talking about those issues is part of prevention.

...talking about those issues is part of prevention.
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