Also, Being Dubbed a “High-Risk Homosexual”
A few weeks before I started taking PrEP, the once-a-day pill that would reduce my risk of contracting HIV by nearly 100 percent, a man traveling on business messaged me on Grindr, inviting me to his hotel room. I’ve always been jealous of my gay friends who hook up with abandon. The ones who visit bathhouses as casually as if they were going candle shopping at Target. The apps allow me to pretend I’m like them. Chill about sex. Reading the man’s message, I tried to picture myself showing up to his room. The door would be unlocked, he told me. He’d be waiting inside, facedown, ass up on the mattress. I could do whatever I wanted. I began to type out a response, but then the same anxiety crept in that always did, instantly shattering my desire.
What if I brushed my teeth too hard, and in one of the back rows there was a little cut, small enough not to notice but big enough for HIV to wiggle its way in?
My nails. I bite them till they bleed. All those wounds. What if his semen touches my fingers and . . . ?
And if the condom slips off? Or breaks?
And if he bites my lip?
And if he doesn’t regularly get tested?
I logged out. It was too . . . stressful. Too . . . scary. The rare times I did have casual sex, I had to bury my face in a pillow to stifle my nervous laughter while thinking, Hope he’s worth it, because this might kill you!
It wasn’t funny, but it felt true.
Perhaps educating myself would have relieved my overblown fear, but the little I did know about HIV terrified me enough, and I was afraid of what else I might discover if I looked closer. I knew the stigma surrounding HIV was so pervasive that even for people who are positive and undetectable (meaning the amount of virus in their blood is so low it is impossible to transmit through sex), dating became more difficult than it already was. The language men use on the apps alone was proof of that: “Clean and looking for same,” some write, like having an STD makes you dirty.
I knew that in high school, a new friend had been so cautious of sharing his status with me that while getting to know each other, he constantly accused strangers of having AIDS, probably to gauge my reaction before deciding whether I was trustworthy. I knew there was medicine, he must have been on it, but that it was costly, and in a year the insurance I had through my graduate school program would end. Add to all that what I knew from television and films.