“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men.”
~ Herman Melville
30 December 2012: I spoke to Bart a few days ago and he wasn’t his usual self. He had broken up with his boyfriend a few months ago and with the weather being wet and drab, and it being Christmas, I took his low tone as a slight bout of the Christmas Blues.
However, Bart phoned again today and this time there was urgency and slight panic in his voice. He started crying (very unlike him). I agreed to spend the night with him.
As we sat on his sofa, he spoke about the events that upset him, ending with the words: “I hate myself. I hate the fact that I am gay. I’m lonely. I always end up in the same place feeling like this. My life would’ve been different if I wasn’t gay… If it is bad news tomorrow, I’m not telling anyone and I will probably end it all.”
31 December 2012: We woke up at the crack of dawn since we wanted to be at the clinic first thing. As we trotted down the main drag of Soho, the disco-version of Abba’s Dancing Queen echoed through the doors of an empty restaurant into the otherwise vacant streets… The not-so-accurate soundtrack of our lives?
The clinic was packed.
We got seated in the waiting area and my thoughts started to wander: I really respect the doctors and nurses for working on the last day of the year. A Sexual Health Clinic is certainly the last place I would want to be on the 31st of December… How many of their patients’ lives will change forever today?
Bart briefly saw the humour in the situation and said, “I won’t be checking myself in on Facebook as being here.”
His mood changed: “When they call me, please don’t wish me good luck. I don’t want the rest of the people in the waiting room to know why I am here.”
The guy sitting next to me entertained himself on Grindr. In fact, everyone was on their phones, staring at their tiny little screens… cocooned in desolation.
It struck me: Even in this place — this clinic, the most honest and vulnerable place all of us are finding ourselves right now, we avoid making eye contact. We don’t acknowledge one another. We refuse to look in the mirror…
Instead, we ignore our ‘battle scars’ and turn our eyes downward to the touchscreen apps and websites, which have probably landed most of us in the seats we are sitting now. Devices filled with promises of bigger, better and bountiful beauty, not to mention the invitation of drug-fueled parties and deceitful whispers about limitless power and sexual escape. Like Bart and like me, we’re all locked in one way or another.
Bart’s number came up and I said nothing as he disappeared down the corridor with the nurse.
I will be next. I have nothing to worry about, right? I live a pretty sedate gay life. Besides, I am just having the HIV test done to support my friend. I haven’t had sex in the past six months, so I’ll be fine. Well… not any ‘real’ sex… or am I just being blind with defiance? What if I’m wrong? What will I do?
An hour later Bart and I toast on our negative test results with two Bloody Maries. We were both relieved. The sobriety and self-reflection of the past few hours have evaporated. All is forgotten and we can laugh again.
“Promise me that you will take care of yourself, Bart? You are my friend and I want you to be happy, not in pain.”
On 28 December, I had a conversation with my parents about my sexuality. It was the first time that we ever spoke about me being gay, even though I came out to them 13 years ago.
In the years between my coming out and that first honest conversation, there were times when I had no hope of fixing our relationship. I had lost my family and the people I loved dearly, all because of who I am. I believed that they would never accept me. I told myself that I was unlovable. As a result, for a long time, I behaved like someone who was unworthy of respect, love and a safe place in this world. I believed this. I lived it and acted accordingly.
Sitting in the waiting room of a Sexual Health Clinic on the last day of 2012, was a positive experience. It allowed me to reflect on the relationship I have with myself and it forced me to take a close look at our community. The pensive and pained faces of the men and women who sat around me made me wonder about their stories. What brought them there? Is there a common thread between us?
HIV/AIDS has always been a part of my life. Back in the 80s, when I first realised I was gay, it was all over the media. The world was scared and gay men were frightened to the point of almost being pushed back into the closet. In my twenties, I dated two guys who were positive and I know first-hand how HIV can affect one’s everyday life… something I was not brave enough to cope with.
Last year, my best friend, Jamie, died of HIV on World Gay Pride Day. He battled with the disease for nearly 19 years. He also struggled with drug addiction and a deep-rooted self-hate. Eventually Jamie had enough of the silent war he fought with himself and his own destructive behaviour. He stopped taking his HIV medication and indirectly committed suicide. He gave up.
Like many other gay men, I get tested every six months, no matter how safe I am. I will continue to do so for the rest of my life. It comes with the territory.
HIV is the most pronounced health problem the gay community is dealing with. Today, it’s a perfectly treatable disease and so we think that we have things under control. But do we really?
Sadly (and still not completely recognised within the gay community) contracting HIV, in the majority of cases, is the end-result of a set of risk-taking behaviours that are highly associated with each other, and with depression. These include sexual risk-taking behaviours, as measured by rates of new syphilis and HIV infections, as well as heavy substance abuse. This is according to a report, Living On the Edge: Gay Men, Depression And Risk-Taking Behaviours, by Spencer Cox the founder of Medius Institute for Gay Men’s Health.
In his report, Cox says “Although the links between drug use, sexual risk and depression are strong, it would be an oversimplification to say that depression “causes” the risky behaviour. Instead it appears that, in gay men multiple epidemics, such as depression, drug abuse, violence and HIV, interact to increase the risk for one another: depressed people, for example, are more likely to abuse recreational drugs; drug use contributes to depression and increases rates of behaviour that puts the user at risk for HIV; gay men with HIV are more likely both to be depressed and to use drugs.”
Spencer Cox co-founded the Treatment Action Group (TAG) in the 80s, which forged new American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines for drug approval, which helped make effective HIV medications a reality, saving millions of lives.
In the 80s, Spencer was in his early 20s. Since then, he remained active in the gay community, but like many Gay activists, once the battle against HIV was won, he was shocked see how little have actually changed within our community and he found himself in the same personal crisis as many of his contemporaries: struggling for a meaningful existence after years of combating the most frightening public health crisis of modern times.
Spencer died on 18 December 2012. The official cause of his death was noted as AIDS-related complications, which is understandable if, like in the case of Jamie, post-traumatic stress, despair and drug addiction are complications related to HIV/AIDS.
In reality, his report Living On the Edge, is a personal cry for help as it focuses exactly on the issues that were distressing Spencer personally: crystal meth abuse, loneliness, risk taking, feelings of confusion after years of accomplishment and purpose.
So my question is this: Have we really won the battle against HIV/AIDS?
Even though we are successfully managing the disease, are we not merely just treating the symptom (a ‘secondary infection’) of a much deeper epidemic that is at large among gay men: the trauma of growing up gay in an unaccepting world, leading to self-hatred, drug addiction, depression and an array of mental health issues and behavioural problems.
It’s something worth thinking about. As a community we have been reaching outside ourselves for decades in an effort to find a solution for the problems within the walls of our community, perhaps the last place to reach is inside.
Besides, others who are living this journey and this truth are saying the same. Perhaps it’s time to give heed to their words of wisdom:
“I know a lot of things went wrong when I was a child, a teenager, in my 20s, and finally in my 30s. This is especially true regarding sex and my perception of my own sexuality. Of course, there are times when I ask myself whether my experiences as a child, a teenager, and young man coloured my perception of reality and influenced certain choices I’ve made; life-style choices that resulted in destructive behaviour, and by extension my HIV status. I was diagnosed in 2009, and since then HIV has been putting me through my paces big time. BUT I am a fighter and I didn’t want to get sucked into another spiral of self-destruction, which is why I am writing these words…”
– Ronny — 38, contributor to ‘Love Me As I Am—gay men reflect on their lives’