HIV in 2015 in the United States just doesn’t compare to the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s. There have been radical improvements in treatment and life expectancy since then. But while HIV may no longer be a death sentence in the United States, becoming positive in a society that pretends it didn’t commit atrocities against those with the disease during the worst of our epidemic (I’m calling you out Nancy Reagan, the GOP, all the churches who wouldn’t hold funerals for AIDS victims), and still pretends it is doing it all it can as the rest of the world still exists in a state of crisis, means that those with the disease are instead being sentenced to a particular kind of loneliness.
But I’m fine, really.
I can go throughout my day and do anything you can do. I am a great fellow employee, student, parent, or athlete. I don’t look any different than before I was diagnosed and don’t look any different from you or anyone else. I can pass as an HIV negative person. I’m not going to die early. I don’t have to come out anymore. I don’t have to willingly risk your judgment, worry, or even worse, your pity. I don’t have to stand up and represent the villain of your fears about same-sex love. I’m not forced to face the brunt of your terrible theologies of cruelty and hate. I don’t have to become an ACT-UP activist to fight for my right to medical care. I can just exist and go through the motions of my life, taking my “one pill a day” regimen and remain silent.
Yet, I’m not fine, not really.
It is withering and lonely to pretend to not be dealing with something and not feel able to say anything about it out of concern for having to deal with your fear, condemnation, or worse, your guilt and your rejection. Though it would be “unpleasant” to have to help calm your fear about HIV, and though I have deep wells of anger that I can pour on the fires of your condemnation, I am powerless to combat your rejection and feel unable to address your guilt.
The rejection that happens in the twinkling of an eye when you learn my status. The forced bravado and fake smiles followed by disappearing. When chemistry instantly turns to finding an excuse for you to withhold love and desire. The unspoken judgment that clouds your face. The knowing that who I am is forever altered and lessened for you. The recognition of guilt, the moment of watching you realize that you are going to sever yourself from me.
Against that I am powerless. There is no pill to make my heart immune to breaking.
The choice that presents itself to me has seemed to be between letting my heart wither away in the silence and safety of isolation, which is what I’ve been doing, or to make myself vulnerable moment by moment by risking the cruelest and most devastating heartbreak.
Lonny McLaughlin, while leading a Landmark seminar, said something that I just can’t get out of my head.
“The only cure for a broken heart
is the willingness to have your heart broken.”
Being silent and alone isn’t healing my broken heart. It isn’t getting better. So, I’m going to make a change, starting here, with you.
I am willing to have my heart broken.
So, I’d like to introduce myself to you.
“Hi, my name is Nathan Black, and I am someone living with HIV since February 13, 2013.”
For nearly three years, I have been carrying this alone and only sharing it with a small group of people. I have been withdrawn, isolated, and lonely. And I realize, in many ways I’ve done that to myself, justified or not. I’m not willing to be inauthentic or unknown any longer. I don’t need anything from you except for you to have the courage to stay in relationship with me and to process your reactions to HIV and to continue to love. I know many of you reading this would have been ready and willing to be there from day one, if you had known. I ask you for your forgiveness and grace for keeping myself from you.
Some of you won’t be able to continue to stay, process or love at this time. I’ve already experienced that with someone I loved. He’s apologized, but even after two years, the words he used still exist for me like I’ve been branded with them. Please don’t make that mistake with me or anyone who has HIV. I want you to know that while I may be upset at your reaction to learning I am HIV positive, however you feel about me being HIV positive is “ok” — AND, I request that you deal with whatever you have to deal with quickly so that people like me aren’t denied the opportunity of your love and relationship.
I’m no longer going to suppress who I am, my voice, my leadership or my love. I don’t know about you, but I have a life to live, work to do and love to create. And, in the immortal words of Michael Jackson, I’m starting with the “man in the mirror.”
Nathan serves as the co-chair for the Seeking Peace & Justice ministry at his home church, All God’s Children MCC, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.