About a month ago, I met up with an older man in a park.
He was riding his jungle red bike down the street and decided to stop right before me. I was holding an empty cup, raising money to fight pediatric HIV/AIDS. He stopped, reached his hand into his pocket, and whipped out his wallet. It was nice to see someone willing to donate after a particularly dry spell. Attempting to grab a stranger’s attention as they walk down the street with conviction is challenging, but inspiring them to connect with your message is even harder. But with this man, it was a different story.
HIV had affected his life back when people were first connecting the numerous hospitalizations facing many to their new cause: HIV/AIDS. He had the unfortunate timing of encountering HIV when we were first learning about it and faced very deep emotional anguish. He saw many of his friends die when they were too young. His pain was amplified by the lack of clarity as to what was even happening to each of them. Now, however, he expressed gratitude for the development of drugs to keep the virus at bay. He is still alive. He donated money to help fight pediatric HIV/AIDS, and he hoped that no one would be born into the legacy of that history and its hardships.
That interaction was refreshing. At times, HIV seems far removed as a death sentence from today, simply a problem of the past. However, that moment also reminded me of another interaction I had while working in an HIV lab. I was talking to an older researcher when he began to rant about how Millennials do not take the HIV/AIDS epidemic seriously. According to this man, we are not as safe as we should be because we don’t really understand the consequences of having the virus, and we view pre-exposure drugs and antiretroviral therapy as something like a cure. Many options that were not available to them when AIDS broke out. To those who were alive when HIV was first discovered, the virus had a completely different meaning. It was somewhat shocking to be present during that conversation.
In a way, I was an outsider gaining a whole new level of understanding, yet I felt far removed from his conclusions.
Growing up in the 2000s was complicated with my identity as a gay man. I was raised in a Catholic household, and I was paranoid about what people would think of me if they found out my sexuality. The homosexual identity is tangled with much more than simply romantic attraction. I always had the feeling I might have HIV, merely because I was gay. I never actually engaged in any risky behavior that would have exposed me; however, this feeling of fear remained. The nature of how the virus is transmitted causes many social ramifications, one of which includes a personal and cultural perception of what type of person you are without your input or actions to justify it. I think most of us are scared of HIV, but I think most of us have a comparable fear of not finding love. Not only in the sense of a romantic love interest, but also in the widest sense of finding a sense of belonging. Sometimes I feel ashamed that I do not feel as strongly as the older generation does about HIV, but this may be because I have been lucky enough to have not lost any friends to it.
However, we should not ignore the consequences of HIV in the pursuit of a fulfilling life.
The best way to find love is through yourself. Love yourself by being safe. Sure, HIV is no longer a death sentence, but we should not ignore it. More than 20% of new HIV diagnoses were among people aged 13–24 in 2014 (CDC). Moreover, 44% of people aged 18–24 who had HIV did not know they were infected in 2012 (CDC). We are blessed with medications that many others did not have at a different time (or even in different places in the world right now). We must recognize the progress that we have made all-the-while being safe and supporting each other. I hope that with these advances and understanding we can help bring these numbers to 0.