This month marks one year since I started writing the Sexpert column for Quorum. Each month, I have an amazing opportunity to give my opinion, share advice and tell stories about something that is extremely important in almost everyone’s life, especially my own.
Many of our readers know that I work for AIDS Resource Center Ohio as the HIV Prevention Coordinator. I am responsible for focusing on men who have sex with other men (MSM); translation: in addition to providing HIV testing and counseling, I educate and raise awareness among gay, bisexual and non-identified men who have always and continue to be at increased risk for acquiring HIV and other STIs. What most do not know is why this specific cause is so important to me.
In the spring of 2011, one call changed my life forever. As a junior at Ohio University, I didn’t have a care in the world. I had my own apartment near campus and had recently turned 21 years old. I spent the majority of my time socializing with friends and experiencing this whole new world of the bar (not for the first time but for the first time legally). Looking back, some might classify my lifestyle at the time as problematic, but at that age, in the city of Athens, Ohio, it truly was what was expected. For good or bad, partying was as central to my day to day life as going to class and bathing, if not more so. No matter how much fun I had, I continued to get my work done. Getting to class and doing well academically was my biggest stress.
Then came that call. I will never forget the moment that the most important person in my life, the one I had looked up to for years and always strived to be more like, told me that they had tested positive. It felt like the world stopped spinning. I could do nothing but sob for days and wonder how this could happen.
At the same time, I was paralyzed with fear because of my own past. I tried drowning the pain in a never-ending glass of whisky, but the pain would not go away. As the token gay of my friend circle, I had, by far, the most knowledge of HIV and how it had ravaged my community. However, it was part of a long and terrible history in my mind. I knew maybe one or two people living with HIV at that time, and it was easily forgotten or pushed to the back of my mind because they didn’t seem sick. I knew it was still an issue, something to be concerned about, and I had tested once or twice before, but it just was not real to me until that spring day.
After the initial shock and terror of this situation, things slowly got better. I worked non-stop to inform myself and everyone in my life. I promised myself that I would do everything in my power to make the best of this situation. I encouraged my friend to get into care and take their health seriously.
While HIV is not the death sentence it once was, it is a major life-altering condition. Adjusting to all of these changes is difficult and takes time, but it is possible, and I am thankful everyday that this person was able to get through some of the darkest times anyone could ever imagine. A recent study showed that young MSM (ages 13-24) accounted for more than one in four new HIV infections in 2010. Gay and bisexual men are also the only demographic in the United States that has never seen a decrease in the rate of new infections since the beginning of the epidemic. It is clear that MSM are disproportionately affected by this disease and we, as a community, can do better.
Each year, September 27th is set aside as National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Given the heavy toll HIV and AIDS has had on gay and bisexual men, this is a day to remember what we have been through and the current state of the epidemic in our community. This year, I encourage all of our readers to take an active role and become involved in this ongoing gay men’s health crisis.
ARC Ohio is partnering with Axis Nightclub to host the third annual “Making an Impact” variety show, hosted by Nina West. All proceeds from this show will be donated to ARC Ohio Prevention Services and the annual community Client Holiday Dinner for those living with HIV and their families. Please come out to support and spread awareness of HIV in our community.
HIV is not a gay disease, but a number of cultural and physical differences put this population at a greater risk. Educate your friends, family and everyone you meet on the reality of HIV, and do all that you can in your own life to protect yourself and those you love.
Free confidential HIV and STI testing is available at ARC Ohio’s locations.
Anonymous HIV testing is available. For more information call 614-299-2437 or visit ARCOhio.org