Editor’s note: Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race is a collection of autobiographical essays by journalist Clay Cane. The following excerpt is taken from the chapter titled “I Am HIV,” which recounts, among other experiences, a 2008 visit with an old friend. You can learn more about the book and author on ClayCane.net and the POZ blog post “Where Madonna, Queen Bey, Sexuality, Love, Race, HIV and God Intersect.”
James was cracking jokes and laughing harder than usual. He flopped onto a couch, pulled up a small table, and rolled a blunt. “Sit down and don’t judge me for this blunt. I’m sure you’re still a prude,” he half-joked. He lit the blunt and took a puff. “Well,” he began. “I got the HIV.”
He sarcastically added, “Don’t go crying now—I got some Xanax if your ass needs to calm down!” We didn’t know each other anymore. He still saw me as the twenty-year-old in 1998 who was terrified of HIV. My sexuality came with shame that he helped me overcome. Sex did not mean death. In 2008, my twenty-year-old self felt like lifetimes ago.
I ignored his sarcasm. “How are you feeling?”
“Oh, I’m great!” He took a longer puff. “I know I’m skinny as all fuck, but I lost weight before I was positive, got this really fucked-up flu.” He puffed again. “I started experimenting in sex parties and drugs. Pill here, snort there. Yeah, the stat is true: If four people are in a room, one of them is sick—that’s me!” Big laughs. “I left you something in my will—but don’t get too excited, it wasn’t no money!” Big laughs. “I’ll be working on this porn, but I won’t be co-starring in it this time!” Big laughs.
These jokes were harsh and unfunny. I was getting angry, but he was using his version of humor as a coping mechanism. That said, I knew this mask wasn’t James. He was one of my best friends. He taught me what it meant to be bold and unapologetic. So I said what was in my heart: “Cut the bullshit. I’m not one of your dates.” He stopped smoking. “You can’t tell me everything you just told me and say you’re okay. Don’t lie to me and expect me to believe it—you taught me better than that.”
For just a moment, he slid the mask off and admitted he had a problem—but he was the problem; not HIV, not drugs, no one else but him. He confessed to letting his ex-boyfriend penetrate him raw, even though he knew his ex—who was now dead—was positive. “Maybe if I loved myself, I wouldn’t be HIV-positive. I was an HIV educator. Listened to all the right people. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t love yourself enough. That’s all I can say.” That’s all he had to say. Without a foundation of compassion for yourself, no amount of prevention or intervention will save or reinvent you.
HIV is not only a physical disease; it’s also an emotional disease. We live with a unique fear, one that does not foster an environment of empowerment for black gay men; traditional tools of prevention, one-size-fits-all PrEP pills, and information about condoms will not lower our rate of HIV/AIDS. Until we learn to navigate blackness, gayness and mental health, we will be the circus show of the cryptic CDC numbers.