Saturday, June 28, 2008

The HIV Behind That Smile

My son and one of his friends were watching something on TV when a commercial came on. I was nearby, on the computer and doing my thing when I overheard it all.

The ad was about HIV. The people in it were saying one after another, "I have HIV."

"Man, that's so stupid," Xavier's friend said. "Why would anyone announce on TV they have HIV?"

"Yeah," my son agreed, "but they're probably actors. No one would be that stupid."

I looked up and feigned innocence. "What's so stupid about it?"

I swear to God, this is what his homeboy answered: "None of the shorties would want to get with you."

"Oh, I see," I replied dryly. "If you had HIV and met a girl, you wouldn't tell her."

It was an ah-ha, I gotcha moment. I caught the truth and both of them looked away. Too late; I saw it in their eyes and they knew it.

I glared at my son. "What about you? Is that a secret you'd keep?"

He shrugged, possibly to help his homie save face, or maybe he really feels that way.

"I use condoms most of the time," he said. "You know that 'cause you buy them for me when I'm broke."

"Yeah, I use them too," said his friend.

"Y'all are still trifling," I said, "letting your balls tug on your brains like this. If the girls you mess with think the same way, one day one of y'all might get burned. Won't be pretty."

They looked uncomfortable. Good.
I returned to my computer so they could chew on that shit. Notice that I hadn't said jack like "what about the girl if you're infected?"

This is because appeals of compassion are less effective than appeals to self-interest.

This is how, my sistahs and brothas, it gets played out and we get infected, so much so that HIV is the #1 cause of death for young black women, and after homicide, #2 for young black men in America.

Before my non-black readers get too comfortable and feel safe, White America is only around 20 years behind us and always has been, from losing virginity at a younger age, getting married less, teen pregnancies and having out-of-wedlock children, and sinking into working class status. Blacks only get hit with the bad first because we're the test subjects for how far greedy corporations and inadequate social policies will screw us all.

Now, allow me to give you another spin on the HIV situation.

The most powerful appetite is the one for food, and except for children and the elderly, the second strongest is for sex.

A lot of men will laugh and say, nah, I'd skip a meal for sex. Yeah, but if they hadn't eaten in a week, they'd opt for the plate... followed by the sex. Go ahead and chuckle, you know I'm telling the truth.

We are prisoners to our sexual urges, which is why total abstinence for the unmarried is an impossibility for most. It is for this reason that I don't rush to judgment and label people as necessarily selfish by not telling if they have HIV as long as they use condoms, although if they know they have it and don't use them 100% of the time, they are selfish, cruel, and worthy of being placed before a firing squad.

My own son was tested about two years ago and was fine. I know 'cause I dragged his azz to the doctor after he became sick as a dog, couldn't get out of bed and was having nightsweats. Turned out to be mononucleosis. Even though he was relieved, I had to drag him kicking and screaming for a follow up just to make sure.

He didn't want to know. He had been careless a few times between relationships and didn't know those girls well. He was relieved when he passed, and like many people when they test negative, vowed to use protection in the future.

I can't speak for his friend, but I know that Xavier hasn't been 100% consistent in the past. He has a nice girlfriend now and wants to marry her one day. Neither are promiscuous, but for them, condoms are for protecting against pregnancy, not HIV.

It's not hard to understand why. The world is an F'ed up place with so many mind-boggling problems that the ordinary person can't solve. Every time you turn on the news, you see a Chicken Little newscaster screaming about how the sky is falling:

"Terrorism! Iraq! Iran! War! Global warming! Melting ice caps! Floods! Wildfires! Racism! Murder! AIDS! Food shortages! Mortgage meltdowns! Economy dying! End times!"

In our communities, every bad thing there is only a microcosm of the larger world.

Young adults and teens were bottle-fed on bad news and many have become desensitized to it. They're not oblivious to it, but the negative information over-load has become like the sun. You know it's there but you don't look directly at it because it hurts your eyes.

I first read about HIV in 1981. They called it GRID - Gay Related Immune Disorder and didn't even have a test for it until early 1986. There was a small story in the Washington Post about a puzzling new disease that had claimed the lives of a few dozen gay men in New York and L.A. I read it to my best friend at the time, a gay guy who was also my co-worker.

"This doesn't sound good," I said. "Maybe it's a virus. If only the gay guys have it, it could be an STD. You'd better be careful."

"Pffft," he replied dismissively. "It's probably nothing."

That same year, he met a guy while partying in New York City. He fell for him like a ton of bricks and was going there every weekend.

"He's got the greatest smile," he'd tell me. "I'm so in love!"

Then one day at work, he was rubbing his throat. He said, "That's odd. My lymph nodes keep swelling as though I'm sick with a cold or flu, and I keep waiting for the sore throat to happen, but it doesn't."

There was something about that moment and his intensity that was unforgettable. Neither of us suspected he had contracted HIV - hell, it was a back page news story - but he had. He died in early 1986.

I ran into one a mutual friend at his service. I hadn't seen him since high school and didn't realize at the time he was gay. He told me he became 100% abstinent because he, too, suspected AIDS was caused by a sexually transmitted virus. A year later he was dead. So was a nice man who my late friend/co-worker dated after the New York love affair bombed.

By the mid-80's, I was fairly new social worker and not long out of grad school. One of our first agency cases became mine in 1988. A grandmother brought her adult daughter and two young grandkids to my office. The young woman, I'll call her Debbie, was thin and weak. She'd gotten strung out on crack and had sex with the wrong person or people. She kept her head on the table while I worked with her mother to get her approved for Relative Foster Care payments. Every now and then she would look up.

I said, "You look awfully familiar."

"I was thinking the same thing about you," she answered.

We did quick exchange of the schools we attended. Bam! Fifth and sixth grades at Catholic school. I remembered her well. We were so cute in our uniforms. She loved to jump rope. It broke my heart to see her come to this.

A college friend of mine was encountering the same thing. He's a doctor, and his first HIV patient was priest whom he'd known for years.

He later had another patient who was also a friend. This guy was successful and in his 30s and often cheated on his wife. He caught HIV and refused to tell her because he didn't want to deal with her anger over the adultery or her pain if she was infected.

"Can't you tell her?", I asked.

"No, it's client privilege, even in cases like this. It's unbelievable. I guess he'll keep right on fucking her until death do them part."

He also had female patient who tested HIV positive. She messed around even though she
lived with her boyfriend. Rather than tell him, she moved.

In 1989, I began working as a therapist and saw a fair number of gay teens. Until the late 90's, we weren't instructed to give them info about HIV, but to focus on family and individual therapy. I did anyway, for the straights and the gay kids, and boy am I glad.

One kid, a 16 year old who had become sexually active, told me a few stories which blew my mind. He had met a 21 year old through this guy's cousin, a girl who was his classmate, at a party. Later, he and the man decided to have sex.

"Something about his dick didn't look right," he said.

"He had sores?", I asked.

"No," he said thoughtfully. "I don't know what it was. Maybe it looked fine, but something didn't feel right. I had one of the condoms you gave me and at the last minute, told him to put it on."

"That's good," I offered, "but you should always do that anyway."

He nodded, still lost in thought. "We had sex. It was just okay. Then afterwards I noticed all these medicine bottles in his bathroom. I called my girl friend later and asked her if he had AIDS. She said yeah. I couldn't believe she didn't tell me this because she knew I was gonna go out with him."

Oh shit, I thought. That's fucking treacherous. With friends like that, you absolutely don't need enemies.

I asked him if he confronted either one about it. He said no, he couldn't. He was too hurt. He wouldn't give me the man's name so I couldn't report him. That's not uncommon.

I ran into him 15 years later at a mall. He was 30, fat, healthy, happy, employed, and driving an SUV. He treated me to lunch and thanked me for saving him. I thanked him for saving himself.


On the flip side, I worked with another teen about eight years ago who had an emerging personality disorder. This kid was as narcissistic as they come. The world was all about him. He was also one the brightest kids I ever met and had the IQ to prove it, but extremely damaged from growing up in a household where his mother and uncle were anti-social and dirt poor. His father sounded functional but lived across the country and rarely saw him. He didn't want custody. My teen recalls how he watched gay porn when he was little with his uncle and straight porn with his father as a teen. At 15, he was well on his way to a promiscuous lifestyle.

When I gave him HIV education mixed in with therapy, he was adamant that if he ever got infected, he'd do his best to spread it around. I made sure he always walked out of my office with condoms, which I routinely picked up on my own time from the Health Department.

One day he walked into my office and gave me a story that made me wonder why some people try to pass for human. He was at the train station, which has theaters and a bangin' eatery. A handsome, young adult male around 20 years old gave him a great smile and patted the seat next to him. He didn't waste any time.

"Wanna fuck?"

"Yeah, okay," my client answered.

He'd never done anonymous sex and the prospect of it turned him on. He was game for anything and thought this guy was hot. They went to the mens room and into a stall.

"Pull your pants down and turn around," the guy said.

He did, and at the last minute, the kid says, "Um, do you have a condom?"

The man sounded irritated when he said yes. He put it on, and performed anal sex on him.

"Did you have a condom with you, in case he didn't?", I asked.

"Uh-huh," he replied.

"Why do you think he sounded annoyed when you asked if he had one?"

"I don't know."

"Use your imagination."

"He doesn't like the way they feel?"

"You said he was grown. Don't you think that by now he knows that anal sex is the #1 one way HIV is caught, or transmitted, or was he a retard?"

"I don't fuck retards," he said indignantly.

"So what else might motivate a grown man to have unprotected sex with a teenager in public restroom five minutes after meeting him?"

He sat quietly. I let the silence build. His face turned stormy.

My narcissistic 15 year old client almost yelled, "No one would dare to that to me!"

"Because you're dazzlingly beautiful, brilliant, and hot, right?"


"Bet he thought like you, too, when he was 15," I snapped. "I'll be blunt. I think you had an encounter with the kind of person you could become one day - infected, vengeful, and dangerous. What are you gonna do to be different?"

He was so pissed that he walked out of my office.

He kept his appointment next week and every week like clockwork for many months. His mother, by the way, refused to come to therapy. I watched him yo-yo back and forth in our sessions. One week he said he'd infect the world, the following week he'd cry and ask how others could be so cruel. He finally got tested and was negative. He was overjoyed. After that he wrote a paper on HIV and gave an oral presentation to his class.

"Nice way of protecting your classmates," I said.

He waved off the compliment. "Oh, it was nothing."

But it was.

I don't know how his life turned out. He always carried condoms, but his prognosis is what mental health professionals call guarded. He had a lot of baggage: moodiness, narcissism, entitlement, sexual addiction, drama addiction, and a tendency toward emotional sadism learned from his family.

At least he learned that HIV could be hiding behind that smile.


Today is National HIV Testing Day. Information and a list of free testing sites are at


  1. There are so many men/women knowingly out there spreading the disease. Interestingly enough, I met a guy through a friend a few months back. She thought that I would find him attractive/intelligent/ we exchanged instant messaging names...we chit/chatted back and forth for a few days, but then I noticed his name had 'poz' in it...and it seemed to scream out at me...I didn't ask him about it at all, but I looked into the meaning of 'poz' on my own...and sure enough it had to deal with this status....then I went and searched his name, and I found out he was living with the disease for 21 years and was active in the DC community in regards to HIV Awareness....I wondered how long it would take for him to disclose his status to me. We went out on a few dates for a couple of weeks, he didn't mention anything for about a month and a half...Eventually he mentioned it, in a very nonchalont way, and it wasn't as if he was telling me, but asking me if I knew about his status. Which really pissed me off. Why are you asking me if I knew about your status, just because I know your line of work. I felt that the least he could do was TELL me. Why assume that just because I knew you worked with an HIV/AIDS program, should you assume, that I assumed that you were infected...

    In any event, we're still friends, but that's about all we could ever be.

  2. FBC, Your story says a lot for listening to your intuition or gut when something doesn't feel right and you're not sure why.

    To his credit, he was responsible and told you before a relationship could progress to a sexual level. People living with HIV/AIDS don't usually tell someone right away they are positive. There's too much stigmatism associated with it.

    Basically everyone hates rejection, and as they say, hope springs eternal. People hope that someone might still want them if they only you knew them first, despite their worst secret.

    Could be anything: HIV, doing prison time, being sexually abused as a child, having a serious mental disorder that's controlled by medication, being married, or if you're black, even being a closet Republican.

    Dragging it out for a month and a half was kind of long, though. I see this as an emotional set up by him, and if your girlfriend knew, a betrayal by her.

    I assume that since you found out about his status that the two of you weren't butt naked and ready to get busy before he 'nonchalantly' mentioned it.

    I've heard about this shit happening all the time in the gay community. If both parties had a great date and are drunk, it increases the chances that the non-infected one will say okay, just use a rubber. Sometimes that's a set up too: an ill person will try to say and do all the right things to get a healthy person to fall in love with them - so they can have someone to take care of them when their health declines.

    I've also heard lots of stories where one will admit then the other will say 'me too'. Part of this is the gay culture where so many of them are HIV+, as with your area (DC/MD/VA), where I lived and worked for years.

    FBC, if you check back to this post, I'd like to know if your girlfriend knew and deliberately didn't tell you, and what that conversation was like. Hell, you might even want to post that story on your blog.

  3. KIT:

    Nope she had no CLUE at all! Needless to say, when I mentioned it to her, she was FUMING! She wasn't as nice as me when it came to him. I also didn't tell her until after he disclosed to me, but they've known each other for years and it finally made sense to her why she never knew him to be in a relationship.

    Nope, no butt nakedness ever happened and I actually know why. I told him from the jump that I make it a team effort to go and get checked out before I travel down that road with any potential men.

    But I do agree that it was an emotional set up. Basically him reeling me in, and then giving me the news, to see if I'd deal with it, and in hopes that the emotional attachment would be there to keep me interested.

    I told him that I was pretty open minded about certain things, but that was a bit too heavy for me to deal with.

  4. Hey, FBC. I like the way you handled it, that it "was a bit too heavy for me to deal with."

    Very nice and diplomatic.

    The subject matter actually applies to other illnesses aside from HIV. My late father intentionally deceived his fourth wife by lying that he had no health problems. He was in his late 70s and had a heart problem and was really looking for a nice woman with a comfortable home who would take care of him if he got worse. She saw a lot of warning signs but ignored them. Fortunately for her, she asked him to leave after five years because he was too hard to live with.

    He wasn't evil; he was just afraid of living alone and terrified of being ill by himself. He ended up playing another woman and moving in with her.

    I begged him not to, to just get an apartment in the building next to my Mom and I could help him decorate and visit him often since she babysat my youngest. It's not like he didn't have a fat government pension check each month, ya know? But he hated housework and cooking, and never learned how to live alone without a woman.

    This new one developed Alzheimer's and he unexpectedly became her caretaker. He would have dipped out of there but he had convinced her change her Will and leave stuff to him. It was utterly insane. Caretaking wore him out and exacerbated his heart condition. After she was placed in a nursing home, and attorney for her also greedy step-daughter whom this woman despised in her better days got the Will voided. In the end, the attorneys got all the money.

    On behalf of all the great brothas out there, they get played too. This should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway lest anyone think I'm slanted toward one sex.

    All humans have the capacity to make decisions that are selfish, and usually it's because they can't figure out another way to get their needs met or if they can, have the courage to do it. They turn on the charm and sucker in anyone they can to save or rescue them.

    I'm glad you're careful of your emotions and health. At the same time, I'm lover of an occasional good fling. People just need to ask up front their your partner has any known diseases and use condoms. Sometimes these even work out great, and we unexpectedly find love...

  5. Your points are valid about the need to be wary, but I also want to point out to everyone that some of these relationships work out.

    I doubt if I could make that choice since I want to have children. HOWEVER, I know a couple where the man has it but the woman doesn't. They religiously use condoms and are one of the happiest couples I know.

  6. Kit, you made this life-or-death topic real, and I'm going to send this post to a lot of people I know. Thank you for getting this out there.

  7. Kit, I couldn't find an email address on your site, and there's something blog related that I'd like to ask you about--could you please email me at unmakingmacon at gmail dot com?

  8. Anonymous - I agree on all points and glad you mentioned this. I've met straight couples speaking at seminars where one is HIV+ and the other isn't. In a legit relationship, love conquers all.

    Macon - Much thanks, email sent, and neat idea.

  9. Hello there KIT!

    Soooo many people are out here spreading HIV and if people are still choosing to have casual sex...they are taking a death walk...

    I have never even heard of POZ so that is brand new..."HIZ positive"

    Total celibacy will save your life, ladies!!

    Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

  10. Lisa, I understand your fears associated with HIV. I absolutely, however, disagree that lifetime celibacy in the absence of marriage is an answer that the general population can or even should strive for. It's like giving up food to avoid salmonella.

    I'll share what an HIV counselor shared with me. He said that the kind of client he dreaded most was guy (or woman) who walks into his office and says, "I've been celibate for months (or years), but one evening..."

    He calls those his 'kaboom' patients. They deprive and starve themselves of sex, meet someone and go nuts. They throw all caution to the wind and have a reckless encounter. It's no different than food starvation: if you're hungry enough, you do like the most destitute Haitians are currently doing: you'll eat a mud pie.

    In the case of women, they are more prone to get involved with a man who is a closet homosexual but wants to put on front for the world that he is straight. They may hide behind religion or high moral standards. Some women feel like they've won the perfect man, because he's not 'all over them' and 'out for one thing.' Yeah, well the reason is because he's not straight, and they suffer from unfulfilled sexual desire when/if they get married and are higher risk for contracting HIV if he's still cruising for the boyz when you think he's doing something else.

    The other problem with long-term celibacy is that our bodies and minds weren't created for this. Our mental health suffers. We need to be touched and preferably loved both emotionally and physically, and without this, people can become depressed or neurotic.

    I checked out your site and get the sense you've deeply religious. We may differ in opinion and that's fine; I just have a different perspective on long-term celibacy. In the end, I think that it's excellent to not be promiscuous and to always use or have your partner use condoms, and yeah, I know they occasionally break. Life is full of risks. For most, it's preferable to the alternative.

  11. Your blog is the effing truth. I'm officially addicted.

    I'm working my way through all your old stuff now.

  12. I double Big Man's comment. Thank you for reflecting and sharing your experiences and wisdom with us.

    Keep up the dope work.

    It is much appreciated!

  13. Thank you Big Man. Already said hi to you on other article and added your site, Raving Black Lunatic last week. It's very good.

    Welcome, Claudia Veronica, and thank your too!

  14. What a great post. I found it from a link at Sista Kit, you are so right. People have to be so careful. I am a 25 year old gay man who narrowly escaped not one but two bad situations. In one I was incredibly lucky because I was ready to have unprotected sex with someone who was infected but I didn't know it. This gorgeous man looked so healthy and I had too much too drink and neither of us had condoms. The only thing that saved me was my brother knocked on my door. He was a mess because he had been fired that day.

    I barely knew the guy in my apartment who left after my brother kept glaring at him.

    I saw Mr. Hottie again a week later when I was with a HIV+ friend who told me that guy gets meds at the clinic he goes to! I wanted to beat that son of bitch bloody but for obvious reasons didn't. Then I was depressed for weeks because I would have been as much to blame as him.

    The funny thing is that my brother and I have never been close. He was overprotective but also my worst enemy when we were in high school and I came out. I used to wish he was dead. He saved my life! I told him this and cried. He said he loved me from the day I was born and always will. I cried again reading this today.


Hi, this is Kit.

I haven't posted since summer 2010, and comment moderation has been on for a very long time.

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