I was 17 the first time I tried to get tested for HIV. Barely out of the closet and utterly fear-stricken by the possibility of contracting the virus, I raced to a health clinic on New Year’s Eve. After I told the nurse my short sexual history—leaving out the parts that included having sex with men—she said that an HIV test wasn’t necessary and that I should take my paranoid self home. I was too embarrassed to argue with her, so I left.
As the product of a Christian school, I knew all about the consequences of the gay “lifestyle” from an early age. Those poor homosexuals, I was taught, so broiling with sin that God smote them with a terrible and fatal disease. When I finally came out, I accepted the fact that AIDS would be lurking around every corner for the rest of my inevitably short life.
I’m 34 now and still HIV-negative, but it’s been a while since my last test, so I’m heading to Columbia’s Gay Health Advocacy Project, a division of Columbia Health that offers free drop-in testing for students and their partners and all faculty and staff—the first institution in the world to do so.
I’m only in the waiting room for a minute or so before Karim Nader, a senior in Columbia College and a GHAP advocate, leads me into a small room to ask me some routine questions before the test.
Nader, a columnist for Spectator, has been volunteering for GHAP for two years now, four hours every week. He is well-informed and friendly but professional, and throughout the duration of our conversation, I never feel judged for the answers that I give him. He asks me about the last time that I was tested for HIV and informs me that in the future, I also have the option of receiving a full sexually transmitted infection screening.
It’s when Nader starts talking about syphilis that I begin to feel the familiar pangs of anxiety. I maniacally scan my memory for details of my sexual history, drawing imaginary diagrams and cross-referencing probabilities with statistics I vaguely remember from WebMD. I don’t know what the symptoms of syphilis are, but I’m sure that I have them.
After Nader and I wrap up our conversation, a nurse takes me back to her office. She uses a small implement to puncture the skin on my right index finger, then directs the trickle of blood into a tiny glass tube. After the tube is filled, she empties it onto what looks like a long strip of litmus paper, and then we’re done. I’m told that I’ll receive the results of the test tomorrow.
I gather my things, walk down the stairs, and exit John Jay, thinking about how hungry I am, and damn, I wish I had worn my coat, and—wait, what if I have chlamydia?
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become a little more rational about my fear of HIV and other STIs, so I’m caught off guard by how paranoid I feel. I suppose I have to accept the fact that these fears—manifested, I believe, through the stigma that society attaches to my sexuality—are intricately woven into my subconsciousness and that they might never fully unravel. It helps to talk honestly about these fears with other gay men and to acknowledge the stigma that’s been around, especially on Columbia’s campus, since before the AIDS crisis began.
On Oct. 6, 1982, Spectator published an op-ed called “Openness is the Only Way to Combat Bigotry,” written by Paul Lerner, a Columbia College student from the class of 1983. In the article, Lerner writes of the stigma that gay men and women face and how important it is to come out and create visibility for the community. Strikingly, his op-ed sits next to an article that briefly mentions a burgeoning health crisis in the gay community—a crisis that would dramatically compound the stigma that Lerner was fighting. This is the first Spectator article to mentions AIDS.
“I have been subjected to remarks and snickers within the heart of our great liberal university for the sin of holding my boyfriend’s hand,” Lerner writes in his op-ed. “It seems to me the most natural thing in the world to hold his hand as we walk together.”
Only a week ago did my husband and I have a conversation about our hesitation to be affectionate with each other in public spaces. Yes, same-sex marriage is legal in the United States, and yes, as a community we are accepted and supported by each other and our straight allies. But we still hesitate to kiss one another goodbye at the train station or hold hands as we take a walk in our neighborhood of Washington Heights.
These parallels compel me to Google Paul Lerner to see what he’s been up to since he graduated. It turns out that he got married on the same day that I did: Oct. 25, 2014.
Lerner, who is 56, I learned, has been up to quite a lot, including volunteering at GHAP when he was communications director for the Harriman Institute in the late ’80s. He was also an AIDS activist and an early crusader of the decades-long campaign for marriage equality.
I called Lerner to ask him about his experience at Columbia during the early days of AIDS. He tells me that he can remember sitting in a cafeteria on campus and reading the first New York Times article about the mysterious gay-related cancer, but it wasn’t until after he graduated that he was truly confronted with the disease.
“Early on, a lot of the reports said these were men who used a lot of drugs, who were very promiscuous, so I was able to say, ‘Oh, that’s not me,’” Lerner says. “Not to sound too poetic, but it was like a thunderstorm; even though you knew it was there, it felt very far away.”
Within a few years, however, the medical community discovered that the disease was a virus and that it could be contracted from just one sexual encounter. It was around that time that Lerner heard about the death of Stuart Garcia, a former classmate at Columbia.
“Stuart was like one of those thunderclaps; it wasn’t theoretical anymore,” Lerner says. “It wasn’t remote.”
Garcia was the president of his first-year and sophomore classes at Columbia College and only 23 when he died. After Garcia’s death, Lerner says that the storm only grew in intensity, and in 1991, his friend and ex-lover, Patrick, died from AIDS at the age of 26.
“I know when Patrick was diagnosed, he did not want to tell anybody because of the stigma and his fears about it,” says Lerner. “He really didn’t tell people until he was so sick that he couldn’t avoid having the discussion.”
In 1994, as part of the Columbia University Libraries exhibition “Stonewall and Beyond,” a list was compiled to document the names of Columbians who have died from the HIV virus. The list, which was maintained by the Gay, Bisexual, & Lesbian Faculty, Staff, & Supporters at Columbia, included 130 names as of 2015, though the website highlights that this number reflects only a small percentage of former students who have died from the virus.
Later, I speak with a fellow current General Studies student, Stephan Trano, who is 48 and was living in Paris when the AIDS epidemic began. For him, the beginning of the epidemic was the end of an era of invisibility.
“We didn’t have to be recognized by straight people or to have wide acceptance, because actually, it was years when we didn’t want to be like everybody,” Trano says of the days before AIDS. “Being gay used to be a counterculture.”
But this time of “counterculture” ended abruptly when scores of gay men, including many of Trano’s friends, began falling ill with the disease. “Suddenly all of the lights were on us,” says Trano, who was in his late teens at the time. “People were watching us in all our aspects, detailing our sexuality. Romanticism was over; it was not anymore about feeling, it was just, ‘Look at these people. What defines them is that they penetrate each other the wrong [way], and who are these people?’ And we’ve been living like this for 30 years.”
Trano is gay, but it was his straight older brother who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 after a long sojourn through India. He says that his brother contracted the virus from intravenous drug use.
“It was really conflicting and cruel,” Trano says. “I wished that it was me, not him.”
For Trano, the diagnosis was incredibly personal: “I was suddenly plunged into a dramatic reality, because I could see the effect of this disease in everyday places at home.”
Thankfully, Trano’s brother survived, though many of his friends did not.
Trano remembers pitching in for cheap airfare so that friends could fly to New York to get medication, which wasn’t as accessible in Paris. He also says that some of his friends were kicked out of their homes after their parents learned that they had AIDS.
“They were very judgmental with that, because it was associated with bad practices,” Trano says. “It was everything but love.”
Michael Pacitti, another General Studies student and a friend of Trano’s, is 38. Pacitti tells me that when he came out, he had a lot of older gay friends who served as his mentors—they knew about the realities of HIV/AIDS and how important it is to use precaution and become educated.
“Were you often afraid of contracting the virus as a young person?” I ask.
“It definitely inhibited me for sure,” he says. “There’s always a cloud of fear over your head.”
But the fear has certainly lessened as he’s gotten older, and now Pacitti believes it’s his job to mentor younger gay men, not only about the importance of safe sex, but also about becoming properly informed about health care more generally.
“I don’t think they have a lot of real life experience or some tangible connection to what that [was like],” Pacitti says. “There’s a humanistic aspect to it. Growing up, I certainly saw different health side effects than you’re seeing today if you know someone who has it.”
This culture of awareness and vast improvements in healthcare have made the world dramatically different from the one that Lerner and Trano witnessed at the start of the epidemic. “I think we’ve made enormous progress,” Lerner says. He knows it’s not easy for people to admit that they are HIV-positive but says that today they have more support. “And, of course, there’s treatment. I’ve remained HIV-negative myself, but I have good friends who have had HIV for 20, 30 years now, and they’re doing fine,” he adds.
Still, the stigma of the disease itself is far from gone. One of Pacitti’s best friends, a man whom he’s known since he was 18, was diagnosed with HIV, and for years, he was too afraid to tell Pacitti and the rest of their tight-knit group of friends.
“He thought we would abandon him, and we were like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” says Pacitti. “That’s that stigma.”
I remember experiencing that same shock when I learned that some of my friends were HIV-positive, and I remark to Pacitti how odd it is that HIV can still be so taboo in our community. However, I know that many gay men fear that their positive status will render them less desirable for prospective boyfriends and lovers.
Davian Flores, a Columbia College junior who is 20 years old, says that he notices the stigma surrounding HIV in the younger gay community. Flores is a visual arts major, and as we talk in his dorm room, his portraits hang all around us in an array of sizes and colors. Paintbrushes are scattered across his desk, and I kick an empty tube of paint as I walk to his chair to sit down.
Flores tells me that some of his friends use the gay dating app Grindr, which he says has a separate setting for men who are HIV-positive. “Some of the profiles would say, ‘No poz people,’” says Flores. “Like, ‘If you have HIV, I’m not going to respond to you.’”
During high school and most of college, Flores was in a monogamous relationship, but that relationship recently ended. The need for using precaution has thus become more of a reality for him, and he says he has been tested for HIV twice since starting at Columbia. I ask Flores if he’s ever taken TRUVADA, the daily medication that is 90 percent effective in preventing HIV contraction. He says no and that he doesn’t know anyone who does.
Trano and Pacitti also get tested regularly. Pacitti mentions that the people at GHAP are very helpful, offering to set him up with a doctor on staff if he ever wants to investigate further.
“I think that TRUVADA’s done an interesting thing,” Pacitti says. “It’s allowed a safe zone to have medical staff and clinicians open up this dialogue if they know they have a gay patient.”
While he appreciates the advocacy and education that come along with this dialogue, Pacitti also worries that gay men might think that TRUVADA makes them invincible to STIs.
Trano, who started taking TRUVADA as soon as it was available, has similar concerns. With younger sexual partners, he notices that they typically fall into one of two categories: the man who is overly concerned about safety and the man who says that there will probably be an HIV vaccination soon enough, so why worry about it?
Trano says there was no such thing as “sexuality without fear” 30 years ago. Avoiding the virus was like a constant game of hide-and-seek, and before long, some of the players were giving up.
“I remember at least once or twice, some guys who decided to make love with a guy who was sick,” he says. “It was like, you know what? I’m tired to live; I’m not tired to love.”
Trano identifies a change over time especially when it comes to ‘Gay Pride.’ It meant something different to him when he was younger.
“It was complicated to meet people,” he says. “It was adventurous, it was dangerous. It was really feeling that we were different, and this difference is what we called at the moment ‘pride,’ because we were proud in a certain way, to live a very intense life. We had the feeling that love and sex was so obvious for people, but for us, no, each time was a victory—it was taboo.”
Pacitti tells me that he has been dating someone for a year now, an actor who is currently filming on location in Key West. I ask him if he’s ever dated anyone who was HIV-positive, and he says no.
“Would you?” I ask.
“Um, yeah. It’s not a screening for me.”
Pacitti believes that as he’s gotten older, he’s been able to detach himself from the stigma surrounding HIV, but he’s not sure exactly how that evolution has taken place.
“I don’t know if this an age thing or a generational thing,” he says. “Is it maturity or is it education?”
I ask Flores the same question: if he would be open to a relationship with a man who has HIV.
“I don’t know. Probably not,” he says, then pauses. I can tell that he is considering his answer, like maybe he spoke too soon. Finally, he says, “I guess I just have to give you a clear-cut answer: no, probably not.”
I don’t begrudge him his response; I know that I once felt the same way. But in my mid-20s I met a man who was HIV-positive, and we ended up falling in love. I was aware of his status before our first date, but I was attracted to him, and I respected him for confronting the difficulties that he had experienced in his life. He was a successful, evolved, kind, and funny human being—a human being who happened to be HIV-positive. Our relationship didn’t work out, but I’m grateful that I didn’t let my fear stop me from dating him and that my naïveté didn’t deter him from becoming involved with me.
Trano and I end our conversation with a discussion about the debates within the gay movement that often surface over its central tenets, things like acceptance and assimilation within a heteronormative society versus radical deviation from societal expectations.
“We were attacked by AIDS. We faced a monster, and in a certain way, what happened is that to get out from this, the next generation [of gay men] became, for me, more conservative, trying to live like other people to be accepted,” he says.
This morning, I got my test results back from GHAP, but I’ve decided that I’m not going to share them here. Not just because it’s nobody’s goddamn business, but because I would rather have anyone who reads this consider why they need to know.
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