So you know the exact incident in which you contracted HIV.
Yeah. It was at this bathhouse in Portland.
Up till then you'd been getting checked regularly?
Totally. No more than six months between tests since I was 16.
So tell me about the encounter and how you figured it out.
It was August of 2005. I'm 23, and I'd had a few experiences of getting with HIV-positive dudes without a condom, and it’d been fine—I kept getting tested, I was always fine. So I felt blasé about it, the way that, honestly, a lot of people do.
That day, I’m with this guy in the bathhouse. We’re making out in the steam room and he tells me he’s HIV positive. I say, no big deal. We start going after it, and I was drunk so it takes me a long time. We’re pillow-talking after we both get off and he’s like, “How long have you been positive?”
Yeah, it’s crazy, right? I should've been like *checks watch* a few seconds.
At the time I said that I wasn’t, but I wasn’t worried about topping. What actually happened was that that morning, I’d zipped a zipper and torn a little piece of skin off my cock. And it would've been fine if I hadn't fucked him for so long, or if he wasn’t freshly positive, meaning his viral load was really high.
Two weeks afterwards I got really sick. It was the acute HIV infection that happens when you seroconvert; the viral load spikes and your body just freaks out. Mine coincided with an incident where I also maybe gave myself alcohol poisoning, so I was locked in my friend's bathroom just shitting all over the place, and the next morning I woke up with what felt like a hangover plus a rash plus a fever that lasted about a month.
Did you know what was happening?
I didn’t. I was in denial. I treated it like a toxicity event; I fasted, quit smoking and drinking, did yoga. And that’s how I managed for the next six years, even after I was diagnosed.
WHAT? Okay. Tell me how you got to your diagnosis.
In May of 2006, I had this other hookup. This dude called me afterwards. I was like, “OMG! He’s calling!” only for him to say that one of his fuck buddies had gotten diagnosed with gonorrhea, and I was like…“Oh. So you don’t want to be my boyfriend forever. Fine, I guess I’ll go get some gonorrhea meds.”
So I go into the clinic, a different clinic, and they asked me when my last HIV test was. And at that point, I knew it was time. I was like, “I’m due, but I’m parked in a 45 minute spot.” They were like, “No worries, we have a rapid-result prick test,” and I was like “Bitchin’, let’s do it.
They do the pin prick. I spend 15 minutes hanging out with this cool queen with a shiny silver belt buckle, who’s saying, “Hmm, you sound like you have a lot of unprotected sex. How can we reduce your risk?” And I was trying to come up with accurate numbers for my partners in the last six months and it kept creeping up higher—30 became 38, and then I was losing track—and he was like, “Yeah. If you don’t test positive this time, next time you will.” And then the test came back.
I was like, “Huh. It doesn't NOT make sense.” The test had 99% accuracy, not 99.99%, so they say “preliminary positive.” But I knew it wasn't wrong.
I was in shock, but I did. It was sort of how my mom describes my coming out, when I said, from the back seat of the car, “I'm gay,” and she was like, “I knew you were gay, but it is still a shock to finally hear it.”
That was my diagnosis—a shock, and also a fulfillment of what I thought would happen.
So you did think this would happen.
I expected to die of AIDS. I was born in 1982. If I knew anything about being gay, it was that gay men die of AIDS.
But you also must have had some magical thinking to continue taking those risks. How did those two beliefs sit together, the certainty of escaping it and the certainty of contracting it?
Back then, I would’ve admitted to you at that point that one of my foundational beliefs of being a gay man was that I would die of AIDS. But it would’ve had to be a long, long conversation to get there. It was a big cornerstone of my politics, the idea of “It doesn’t have to be that way.” Back then I wanted to think I was this next evolution of gay man, that I could ward off the infection, manipulate my body with my mind. I was judgmental of friends who took antivirals.
Even after you were diagnosed?
Yeah. I was like, “I am going to manage this shit with yoga.”
What did it feel like in the moments after you got your diagnosis?
It was a little dizzying, partly because I’d expected to just be in and out of the place, and suddenly they were pulling out the hypodermics and tourniquets to do a confirmatory blood test, and I felt like I was going crazy because I’d given them a pseudonym and they were all calling me Mark.
Why a pseudonym?
Bush-era paranoia. I didn’t want to link myself to my diagnosis. So they’re like “MARK, WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO,” and the fluorescent lights are flickering above me and I’ve got super low blood sugar because I’d meant to get food immediately after, and now all these people with needles are staring at me, going “MARK. MARK,” and I was like, “I’m going to leave right now.” I didn’t have any pockets, and I had all of these pills and paperwork and walked out with three things in each hand, and it was so bright outside…
There was this hyper-real moment on the street. I’d gotten a parking ticket and that’s what made me shed my first tear. And afterwards I couldn’t decide what to do, get food or go to work or what, and I was sort of doing pirouettes on the crosswalk of this sun-drenched intersection, looking back and forth between the clinic and my car, and this girl was watching me and I finally locked eyes with her. It was the most intense eye contact I’ve ever had with a stranger. We were just staring at each other for a full minute, and she sort of wordlessly acknowledged, “You are having a fucking day right now.”
Did you go to work? Did you get food?
I think I got a stupid kombucha at the vegan store. I didn’t go to work. I called my coworker and told him to please make it okay that I was not there. I went to a friend's house whose long-term lover had died of AIDS. He was a recovering alcoholic, so I made him buy me cocktails at a bar while we talked.
What is the reaction within that community when somebody gets diagnosed?
With the more spiritually radical of my friends there’s this belief that I can’t quite articulate well—this sense of HIV as an evolutionary situation, that the RNA of this virus is part of some next phase. But in terms of the sexual politics in this progressive community, what it meant for me is that I didn't have a status to protect; instead I had a duty to disclose, which is not a big deal in a town like Portland or San Francisco or any major city where you're having sex with gay men over the age of 25.
So sexually it felt easier.
Totally. After the first awkward disclosure, totally. I sort of realized that the Internet would do the work for me—I was meeting a lot of people online, so anyone who was considering saying hello to me would already know. At most I’d be like, “Did you notice, on my profile?” And they’d be like, “Yeah, it’s no big deal.” It felt like the bogey man had been tackled and defanged.
Truly, aside from the month or so where I didn't feel well no matter what I did, everything was fine. I was really vigilant. No formal medical attention from August 2005 to June 2010.
That’s so hard for me to fathom. How did you feel? What constituted vigilance?
I’d watch how often I fell prey to a cold, or a flu that was going around my work or school communities. If everyone around me was getting sick and I wasn’t, I concluded that my immune system was not compromised. And as it turned out, once I started testing my T-cell counts, my immune system had not been effectively compromised.
It’s funny, in terms of the response to my not seeking treatment for a long time—or just HIV in general—it’s only a shock in straight circles, or encounters with new gays who are freaking out, or doctors that are like “OOOHH” and act like it’s a freak show and I’m like "Listen, I've been managing this since 7 years ago, please get out of my face.” I only get these pity-or-extreme-sympathy reactions in very specific scenarios. Among gay men who have friends who are positive, the most interest I’ll get is like, “Oh, are you on meds? How’s that going?”
Did you tell a lot of people after your diagnosis? Did you talk about it a lot?
At the time I was actually involved with this movie my coworker had written about a gay couple waiting for their test results—I was acting in it, I was one half of the couple. The day after my diagnosis I went over to the screenwriter’s house and had coffee with him and his wife, and I was like, “Okay. I need to control this topic. When this comes up, I reserve the right to arrest this conversation if it goes somewhere I don't want it to. I want to be in charge of the facts even if I’m wrong. I want to set the tone. I want to be the boss of this topic.”
And in the following years you just took really good care of yourself.
For the first two years especially. I didn't drink booze, I didn't smoke, I did a ton of yoga and went swimming all the time, I barely drank coffee, I ate very healthy.
What made you decide to start taking meds?
I went to college at 25 and got health insurance for the first time in a 10-year, legitimate adulthood. Health insurance was life-changing. I was on scholarship at my university and so everything was paid for, and I realized I was getting older, and that it was wonderful to just get certain things taken care of. And I know it sounds silly, but I felt better about the idea of registering with the state—“medicate me and I will not infect your people”—with a Democratic president in office.
So that planted the seed, and then I had this doctor with a public health degree, who would not only talk to me about clinical research but get very specific with the conditions and the results and the subjects. I appreciated that a lot. After about two years he convinced me that even though my viral load was low—low enough that the medical community is split on whether meds were necessary at my level—that there were major benefits to early medical intervention. So now I take meds. I’m a huge drain on the state’s resources. I take almost $3000 of pills every month and I’ve never paid one red cent.
Did you feel like you were capitulating when you started meds?
It felt a little weird. I had to really commit to it being a permanent thing, to ask myself: if I move—and I’ve moved cross-country twice in the past year—am I adult enough that I can get my shit in line wherever I go? Can I be perfect in my dosage? Am I ready to take on the logistical concerns of registering and starting up services wherever I go, forever?
I also felt like a cyborg at first. Now there is this pharmaceutical agent, on board my body 100% of the time; all of my chemistry is different.
How many pills do you take a day?
One in the morning and two at night.
So you went to college in your mid-twenties, you started meds, you moved—you live in the Midwest now. Is your sex life different?
I am experiencing decreasing levels of patience with ignorance, no matter what the issue is. I am very inclined to cut someone off if I feel like I am going to have to educate them. My fingers get tired at the thought of telling someone what “viral load” means.
Then, on the seedier side of things, I’ve got this pen pal—this guy I’ve connected with on a website. He lives in New York, and he’s this HIV-negative hardcore bareback bottom. He’s super turned on by pos guys, and he and I have this exchange where we text back and forth all the time about what he’s up to and how many pos guys he's getting with. I’ve never met him, though, and I’m not sure I want to. It’s more like this strange storytelling society—I have a friend who describes Scruff and Grindr like a short-form erotica workshop. I’ve got my line, you have yours.
How has Grindr changed your sex life?
Well, the location-based thing is pretty revolutionary. I’ve had sex with men from Grindr where it’s like, “What’s up,” pic pic pic pic, then address, then five minutes travel time, then boom.
What do you think would be different for you if you were a teenager now with Grindr in your pocket all day?
In a lot of ways I think I would’ve gotten into too much trouble. My mom worries about me hooking up with strange men, and I do—I go to their houses, and the neighbors can’t hear me scream, and that would have been really dangerous if I was some kid in North Carolina and Iowa. I got into enough scrapes when it was straight up analog, just meeting people in bathrooms—I was made to bleed any number of times, there’s no telling. And I’m turned on by extreme enough stuff as it is. It’s easy to talk shit on electronics. It feels like fantasy because it’s text-based. Today it’s very easy for me to be on a hookup and say, “I’m not comfortable enough right now to go as extreme as we were talking about,” but as a 16-year-old I never would’ve been able to say that to an older man.
Anyway, I'm always really pleased when I see 18-year-olds who know how old they are, who are like “I automatically block everyone who's over 24.”
How many people do you think you've had sex with?
Counting oral sex, I think we're to four figures at this point. Let's call it a thousand.
What percentage do you regret?
I feel decidedly harmed by about 1%.
What percentage do you remember with that sort of full-body sexual pull?
I could probably sit here and give myself erections thinking about 50 of those men, so 5%. I think I’m always just going to be a sex maniac. What are you going to do?
Photo via Tony Hammond/flickr