Not too long ago, I found myself in a place of connecting intimately with a men I had recently met.

Tall, strong, with deep dark eyes and a smile that destroyed me many times over, we had flirted off and on, and allowed our experiences to unfold as they tend to do with people we’re attracted to. Beautiful deep conversation, peppered with comfortable gazes in silence. The kind of gazes that are fed by sensing the communication that was occurring despite a lack of words being spoken.

If there is such a thing as falling in love in the moment, this was certainly one of those moments.

Then the time and opportunity arose to spend more intimate time together, the beauty of that flow shifted. I sensed a hesitancy. It puzzled me. Was I sensing something that didn’t truly exist? Had I run away with my own feelings and created the false belief that he wanted to be with me as much as I wanted to be with him?

I was perplexed.

As we prepared to head to bed, he seemed to stumble, fear was in his eyes. A torrent of pain was behind his gaze. I held firm and allowed myself to flow through that with him, unaware of the source or the meaning. Something was amiss. As easy as it had been for me in the past to step back from such deep connections and retreat from fear and rejection, I wanted him, and that was not an option.

I stood and waited patiently for him to give voice to whatever was threatening to consume him.

“I have to tell you something,” he said. “I want this, but I need you to know.”

“I’m HIV positive.”

In that tender moment, I recognized the depth of humanity and the excruciating pain that has plagued so many of us for so many years. What damage was created. Not just in his experience. Not just in mine. But in the collective of men throughout the generations who were, and are, men who love men.

The wounds of generations

In that moment, we were not there alone with each other. We were there with all men who have lost their dearest loves, friends, and lovers. We were there with the pain of gay men and others afflicted by HIV who were shunned, judged, and criticized, rejected and left alone in confusion, pain, and fear. We were there with all the men who somehow escaped the physical manifestation of HIV and AIDS in their own bodies, but who remain scarred, even to this day, with the fear of what they came to know of “that dreaded disease.” We were there with the souls left to die alone, for those surrounded by many at their transition, but somehow felt more alone than ever. Perhaps because it was not their time. Perhaps because they tortured themselves with the “what-ifs.” Perhaps because their death was so swift that they left this world without even knowing the reason for their fate.

In that tender moment, I held space for him, as he held space for me, and I comforted him in letting him know “You are loved.” He stumbled through letting me know he was undetectable, that he has been actively engaged in antiretroviral therapy for years, and that he would do everything to take care of me.

He would do everything to take care of me.

It was in that moment that I let him know that I would take care of him as well. I let him know that I was well informed. That I have knowledge of both HIV care and prevention, and that this was a journey we were taking together, regardless of what our interaction would ultimately become. And I told him that I loved him. And I told him that I was not scared of him, nor was I scared of that critical, essential, beautiful part of him.

His tears welled up and he cried.

The work to healing begins within ourselves

It was in that precious moment, and in precious moments such as these, that I came to have extreme gratitude for working through my own fear of HIV. My journey began with torturing myself for having same sex attractions, and knowing no one who could relate to me. As I struggled to embrace my being, I lived in the stranglehold of hate and judgment, embodying the belief beat into me that I would be destined not to live with HIV, but to die from it, and it was fully life deserving. I dove into the depths of darkness numbing myself through alcohol and meaningless sexual encounters, trying to run away, trying to forget, fearing I somehow “got it,” and being mystified, and even disappointed, when I was told I was still HIV negative.

As I climbed back out of that darkness, I found the most beautiful angels were there to walk the path to self-acceptance and self-love alongside me. Many of them were men living with HIV. And yes, some of them were even thriving with HIV.

As I became more informed and educated, and came to understand the realities of HIV care and prevention, I found that I had nothing to fear. Although I remain HIV negative, I count myself blessed by having so many loved ones around me who have learned to live joyfully with HIV. With modern treatments in antiretroviral therapy, adequate information about risk reduction, and expansion of knowledge about the many wonderful ways to connect intimately with others, we are truly finding our way.

Breaking down barriers: Listening to each others’ stories

A couple of years back, I found myself at a workshop that offered a session on living with HIV. The facilitator was clear to explain that the group that all were welcome–it was not only for those who were HIV positive. I found myself in a room with approximately 18 men, of diverse ages, backgrounds, and life experiences. And, as it so happened, through self-disclosure almost split equally among men who were HIV negative, and men living with HIV.

In the two hours of sacred sharing and discussion, each of us had the opportunity to share with the others what our experience had been living with HIV. The stories ran the gamut. Some men had acquired HIV in the first few years of the epidemic, and had lost countless friends, lovers, family members, and others in the years that followed. Others shared how the epidemic either led them to completely shut down any desire for intimacy, or to conversely act out in ways that put them at greater risk.

Some men shared how challenging it was, and continues to be, in finding partners and lovers, as stigma exists on both sides, and few men are willing to consider those of the opposite status. Some shared how they have taken measures including participating in pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP); others shared how they have stayed away based on factors such as slut-shaming, fear of the side effects of HIV medications, or just avoiding the opportunity all together.

Moving forward

As we walk forward and treatments become more effective, I truly hope that we are just as willing to open our hearts to each other. I am not advocating for people to be denied their choices in spouses, lovers, and sexual partners based on HIV status, but I am advocating for the need to love each other through respect, appreciation, and honesty without fear. When we react with hate, rejection, judgment or fear, we are allowing the destruction of ourselves and of those who walk with us.

This is the time to learn from each other, to bring down the walls, and to appreciate our collective path to a greater humanity.

Here is video related to stigma for those living with HIV:

Photo by Robert Metz on Unsplash