Life under the cloud of HIV

Brian Thornton

On his birthday last March, we sat around the crowded restaurant table as he mentioned casually that he had been feeling ill for weeks. He was tired, he said. He had lost a lot of weight. He had scheduled an appointment to see his doctor.

For gay men, there’s a strange feeling you get when you hear those words. You’re nervous and sad and maybe a little angry. Nervous for his results. Sad when your mind jumps to the dark thoughts of what he might be facing. Angry that his actions put him in this situation.

A few weeks later, we were standing in a bar when he turned to several of us and revealed the diagnosis: HIV.

You don’t get to be a gay man and ignore HIV. There are bowls of condoms sitting out at bars, ads for HIV medications in gay publications and HIV-status check-boxes in profiles on every gay social networking Web site. Each day, I’m reminded of the pandemic dozens of times.

But in almost a decade of being out, I had never had a friend seroconvert. Sure, I’ve known plenty of men with HIV or AIDS. But there’s a difference between meeting someone who has been living with the disease for years and watching one of your closest friends suddenly realize his life expectancy just plummeted — that he can now predict what he will die from.

A study recently released found that HIV-positive people in the United States will live, on average, 24 years after they are infected. I don’t plan to have kids, and romantic relationships can be fleeting. I’ve always counted on my friends being my life companions.

Now I wonder if I will even reach retirement before I lose my friend.

In July, just three months after I learned of my friend’s diagnosis, I was standing in the same bar, in almost the same spot, when another friend turned to me. He also had an announcement to make.

I don’t really hang out in that part of the bar anymore.

By the time I turn 60, I have a 58 percent chance of becoming HIV-positive. That’s according to a shocking University of Pittsburgh study this year, which predicted that better-than-half of gay and bisexual men will face the disease in their lifetime.

It was a very disheartening study to read.

This year, I went from living in a bubble — protected, almost cocoon-like, from HIV — to having that bubble burst. Until now, I liked to think my circle of friends was immune, that somehow we could move through the minefield unscathed. Now, two of us have HIV. I’ve begun to wonder who is next. Is it me?

This fall, I’ve found myself living under a cloud of inevitability — that no matter what I do, someday HIV will come knocking on my door. Statistics say it’s coming for me. My friends were safe, and now they’re not.

For years, activists have been trying to remove the label that HIV is a gay disease. But the majority of new HIV infections in the United States continues to be among gay and bisexual men.

I’m gay. Like it or not, this disease is my disease. And no matter how safe I think I’m being, no matter all of the precautions I take, one day I too may be positive.

And until there’s a vaccine or a cure, that’s what I have to live with, each and every day.

Brian Thornton is a graduate journalism student and Forum editor for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].