Positive since 1987
I was 21 years old when I became infected with HIV. Well, 21 years and 3 weeks, to be more precise. One should always be precise when referring to a life-changing event. HIV was not that event—at least, it was not the only thing that happened. It was also the night I lost my virginity.
I was in high school when AIDS suddenly erupted into the world. It terrified me. To be honest, it shoved me deeper into that proverbial closet. I did find it interesting that people claimed the virus was killing all the right people. I knew viruses might target certain genes, but that would mean being gay was genetic. Either way, I refused to accept that I was “that way.”
One day, a student in my school wore a T-shirt that was as terrifying as AIDS itself. It had an emblem reminiscent of the RAID bug spray. but it instead it said “AIDS.” The well-known tag line had also been changed; it read, “Kills fags dead.” It angered me how many other students laughed and joked about the shirt. and that the student was not sent home or suspended for wearing it. It was shameful that people would make light of the suffering of others.
In August of 1984, I started college at Texas A&M University in College Station. It took me two more years to finally accept my sexual orientation. Witnessing the final months of a 10-year federal court battle between Texas A&M and a gay student group, which ended in favor of the gay students, certainly helped.
I proudly joined the Gay Student Services at their first meeting of the semester. I asked if anybody knew of a gay bar in the area. A couple of people did. I got a name and address for the place. I just needed to steel my nerves enough to go check it out.
It was Friday, September 12. My roommate had gone home for the weekend. I decided that would be a good time to find The Crossing. It was where I met Keith, my first lover. We connected on many levels: our love of the bands Queen and ABBA, Star Trek and other sci-fi movies, TV shows and books. We talked into the night. He had mentioned he took a cab to the bar, so he wouldn’t have to worry about driving home after drinking—very responsible of him. When last call was announced, I told him that I could give him a ride home.
We went to a 24/7 pancake restaurant for coffee. We talked more, and I began to feel attracted to him. When we finally got to his place, we went inside. It was dark—Keith explained that he and his roommates hadn’t paid the electric bill. It was mid-September, and the house was warm and stuffy. After some fumbling, we agreed to go to my apartment, which had air conditioning.
I won’t go into details of what happened. I think the fact I lost my virginity says more then enough, and since it was the night I also contracted HIV, it’s pretty obvious that we didn’t use protection. To be honest, I really didn’t know anything about condoms. My high school sex education class in 1982 hadn’t mentioned using condoms as protection from HIV.
Keith and I would see each other off and on after that. I’d meet him at the bar, and we would go from there. I made friends with one of the drag performers, Silver Flame (or Robert). Sometimes we’d talk while I waited for Keith. One weekend we drove to Austin to hit the gay bars there.
Eventually I realized the only place Keith could be “out” was at a gay bar. He carried that closet with him everywhere. And here I was an out and proud member of a gay student group. As much as I cared for him, I couldn’t imagine myself going back into hiding. I’d worn a mask of heterosexuality for nearly 21 years.
With great remorse, I wrote Keith a letter letting him know that I was ending what we had. Before I did, I wrote a poem for myself so that I would better understand my reasons. The letter to Keith was dated one month after we met, October 11. The next year would see that date as the first National Coming Out Day at the Second National March on Washington.
I stayed away from the bar for a while, but knew I’d have to return on Halloween. It was my first as an openly gay man, but I chose to not wear a costume. That mask I’d worn for over two decades of Halloweens meant I had to go as my true self.
When I arrived, I sat at my usual place. Almost immediately, I spotted Keith across the bar. He was talking and laughing with his friends. Sorrow filled my heart. However, I couldn’t bring myself to go over and say hello. Suddenly, someone gently placed a hand on my shoulder. I turned to look, and there was Silver Flame. She saw where I’d been looking, and knew what I was feeling. She stated, quite bluntly, “He never wanted a lover. He’s young, and you were just somebody new. You weren’t the only person he’s been sleeping with.”
Unwarranted anger began to brew inside me. I felt betrayed, and the pain continued to grow. I thanked Silver for her honesty, then excused myself. I had to get out of there. As I drove back to my apartment, I kept telling myself not to cry. Once I got home and went to my bedroom, I started bawling into my pillow.
Around midnight, something new stirred in me. Something dark. I reached for my paper and a pen, and words began to scrawl themselves across the page. Words fueled by my rage. Emotions surged as they directed my hand, etching the ink on the paper with the force of an inscriber’s chisel etching letters on stone. When the frenzy ended, I read what I’d written. A madman’s grin crept over my face. I marked up a few changes, then typed the words of the poem into my computer.
I printed the poetic work, titled “Black Cat,” and drove to Keith’s house. I knew he wasn’t home, so I put it in his mailbox. I drove away thinking to myself, “I’ll never have to see him again.”
Three months later, I’d learn that “never” isn’t always as long as one would think.
In mid-February, there was a knock at my door. A very skinny figure was standing there, sobbing so hard that he gasped for breath. His face was buried in his skeletal hands. Somewhere in that gaunt, wasted face I recognized Keith. I tried to reject the thought that he had AIDS, despite him looking like every image I’d seen.
Then Keith spoke through the sobs. “Nobody will come near me. Nobody will even give me a hug. Everybody tells me I have AIDS. but I don’t. I can’t. I don’t have AIDS!”
His saying the word meant I couldn’t ignore the truth. My arms opened wide and he collapsed against me. I held him in a tight embrace, feeling every convulsion of his body, and every tear on my neck and shoulder.
I knew what it meant for me—that I’d waste away like him. His being healthy three months prior made me believe it would be the same. I thought briefly about the other men he’d been with. Did they know? Of course, there was nothing I could do for them. Keith was the one in my arms, needing comfort. He was the only person that mattered.
The next day, Keith left town without a word. I never saw nor heard from him again. It would take 13 years before I learned his fate; he’d died February 10, 1990: three years after that night at my door, and two weeks before his 27th birthday.
Everything I’ve done in the fight against HIV/AIDS has been for Keith. That night changed me. Before, I’d been a rather selfish person. Facing my mortality—and his—taught me what it meant to be selfless. To put others ahead of myself. To give, even if I had nothing left for myself.
I have been a mentor for a young HIV-positive woman from South Africa who learned her status after coming to the U.S. to enter a master’s program at Texas A&M. I’ve provided information on testing, meds and how to live with this disease. When I could, I’ve donated my art to silent auctions supporting local service organizations.
September 13, 2016, will mark 30 years of living with HIV. In all these years, I’ve never had an opportunistic infection, despite not starting meds until 2003—17 years after contracting the virus—and once having a T-cell count of 38.
I witnessed the beginnings of AIDS. I hope I live to see the end of it.
What adjectives best describe you?
Selfless, compassionate, generous
What is your greatest achievement?
Founding the GLBT Professional Network at Texas A&M, and serving as its first president. Through that, I gave a talk about my (then) decade and a half living with HIV.
What is your greatest regret?
That I can’t save everybody
What keeps you up at night?
Knowing that little has changed in sex education, and a new wave of youth is setting the clock back to 1981 as far as HIV/AIDS is concerned.
If you could change one thing about living with HIV, what would it be?
Getting the queer community to be as engaged in the battle as they were in the early years, and to stop shaming people for having HIV.
What is the best advice you ever received?
I’ve given better advice than I ever received. As I told the woman I mentored, the most important thing is not to panic. It increases stress, and stress lowers the immune system.
What person in the HIV/AIDS community do you most admire?
Michael Callen. He did more than anybody else to raise awareness. More, even, than Larry Kramer (who is second on the list of people I admire).
What drives you to do what you do?
Richard Keith Harris (February 23, 1963–February 10, 1990)
What is your motto?
Not sure I have one. I guess I can borrow from Dory and say, “Just keep swimming.”
If you had to evacuate your house immediately, what is the one thing you would grab on the way out?
If you could be any animal, what would you be? And why?
A lion. It’s my spirit animal.