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Gay, Black, and HIV-positive

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I am the 50 percent of black gay men who will become HIV-positive.
By Kahlib Barton

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report on black gay and bisexual men that affected me on a profound level. It stated that half of my fellow gay brothers would transmit HIV before the end of their lives. The moment I heard the information, all I could do was drop down on my knees and cry; and then I reflected on my experience as a black gay man.

I wanted to understand what went wrong in my adolescence that led me to becoming HIV positive. This is my story:

When I tell most people that I am from Marshall, Texas, I receive mixed responses; those who are completely oblivious counter with a blank stare. Those very few who are familiar with the area respond with their repentance as if they were the ones who had to grow up black and gay in the rural south.

The truth is that unless this is your experience, you cannot begin to understand my confliction—each day waking up feeling as if you could never be completely who you are. As if your external persona is acceptable as long as your internal struggle is not evident.

Masking feelings of regret and self-loathing with a tailored button-down shirt, a pair of slacks, and a smile can only lead me to a state of confusion. I had no idea who I really was and that brought me to become the man I am today.

One of the more prominent ways my trajectory was affected by my upbringing pertained to my sexuality. My area of the south is considered the “Bible Belt,” and everyone in my family claims to be devout Christians (regardless of circumstance), so church was where I learned much of my value system.

Attending a black church taught me more about gender roles than the restroom signs labeled “men” or “women.” There are specific roles for the “men” of the church; one of them is called the deacons. The deacons are symbolic of the black church’s expectation for men. One of those expectations is to marry a Christian woman, who would become a “deaconess.”

No disrespect to any deacons—because I know it is an important role in the church—but even if I were straight, I would still have no interest in being a deacon, because it seems a bit cathartic to me. However, being that I am gay, it makes it more difficult for me to find my place in the black church, so I stopped going.

The church should have been a safe space for me to go when I was dealing with growing pains, but because of my sexuality, I did not feel comfortable. I assumed the next best option for me would be to learn about my sexuality at school.

I knew I would be required to take a semester of health class in order to graduate, and my preconception was that this course could teach me everything I needed to know about being gay and sexually active. Unfortunately, the sex education piece was only one week of the entire semester.

I left that course feeling and thinking exactly the way I did when I went into it. I still did not want to speak to my parents about sex, and I was definitely not about to tell my white female teacher (who just so happened to have a son attending school with me) that I enjoyed giving football players fellatio every now and again. The messages being taught did not cater to me, and it was very abstinence heavy; I felt significantly displaced.

I recall walking through the halls of my high school. I would hear the laughter of my peers and the voice of one of the assistant principals telling us all to hurry to class. Most of all, what I remember vividly was the amount of black teenage girls and boys whose lives were in the process of drastically changing—over half of the girls were pregnant, and the boys were fathers to their babies. There were news reports about the “epidemic,” as they called it, but no one stepped up to provide a plausible solution.

No one cared to educate us on our sexual rights and responsibilities despite the fact that many of us were sexually active. After all, the majority of the individuals who were pregnant or had sexually transmitted infections were black students who were on free lunch. Not to say that white students were not having sex—they were; they just typically had access to birth control or contraceptives via their families.

I felt as a queer student of color that I had nowhere I could go to even ask questions about my sexuality. I was already sexually active, and I wanted to use protection, but had no idea where I could access it. If I tried to go to the drug store, they wouldn’t allow me to buy contraceptives because I was “too young,” and the idea of a “safe space” was unheard of when I was in high school. This fostered a lot of risky behavior for me.

Fast-forward about three years (19 years old)—I am sitting in a doctor’s office inside my college campus’ health clinic wondering why I just received a very conspicuous phone call. Prior to receiving the call, I had a series of weird feelings. I would pass a billboard with “Know Your Status” and my heart would drop, or I’d hear a radio ad about HIV and my ears would begin to ring. I felt as if my spirit was preparing itself for the news—already building up a wall tough enough to keep reality at bay.

The nurse practitioner called me into her office. She asked how I had been feeling and began initiating small talk that I did not have the patience for. I asked if she would simply explain to me why I had been called to the office. Her temperament changed.

“You are HIV positive,” she said. Everything froze. I lost all conception of time and space, and I began to psychologically travel through my life span. I needed to know where I went wrong. I thought I had been “safe” and only dealt with “clean” people. Then I began to beat myself up. I convinced myself that I deserved HIV because I was a hoe. This was all in the span of about two minutes.

“Are you okay? Do you need some water?” she asked. I began to bounce back.

“I’m fine. I just need to go to class,” I replied. I then walked out of the clinic and did just that. I did not shed any tears nor did I think of my status for three years.

It was easy for me to live in silence, because the only phone calls I received that were intended to be linkage to care were from the Center for Disease Control, and they were asking me who my past sexual partners were and cautioning me to refrain from sexual activity. They offered me treatment at a facility, but the clinic was about 45 minutes away from my campus, and they did not offer transportation assistance. So I let it go.

I decided that because I deserved HIV that I may as well live the best life and prepare myself for an early death. I had given up, and I did not know who to ask for help.

After three years of living with the virus, I was finally ready to live. I moved out of the south into a better situation with comprehensive care. They helped me realize that my positive status was not due to my negligence, but because there were never systems in place to secure my ability to thrive.

Now, I am committed to advocating for people living with HIV/AIDS. I am living unapologetically in my truth as a black, gay, HIV-positive man, and no one can do anything to deter me from my course. With the release of the CDC report, my goal has become to never have another young person in the south have an experience parallel to mine. I believe the only way we can achieve this goal is prioritizing the most marginalized and exposing every system of oppression. One day, race may not be a factor in accessing care, but as for today, it is a prevalent issue that we must confront head on in order to achieve a world where HIV is no longer an issue.

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