first person

Why It’s Crucial To Know Your HIV Status

Oriol Gutierrez

Getting tested for HIV nowadays is a snap, at least compared to the old days. In the era of quick and easy testing, I’m befuddled why so many gay men, especially young guys, lack awareness of their HIV status.

I suppose part of the answer, at least for some young guys, is plain old feelings of invincibility. All young and young-minded folks share in those feelings. However, that doesn’t explain all of it to me.

Perhaps, for some guys, not knowing gives them license to say they’re HIV negative, since for all they know they are. For others, perhaps not knowing insulates them from any potential pain of a positive result.

Whatever the reasons, knowing your HIV status is crucial. If you test negative, you have incentive to stay that way. If you test positive, you can start the process of staying healthy. Better to know now than to be blindsided later.

Although I’ve been living with HIV for more than two decades, I still remember what it’s like to get tested for the virus. The fear is understandable, but it shouldn’t stop you. Your health is paramount.

I tested negative on my first HIV test. At the time, I had just turned 21 and boy was I psyched. I was cleared for duty, so to speak, as well as legal to drink. Watch out world, here I come.

However, I was more careful this time around. Before that test, I hadn’t always adhered to the condom rule although I knew the risks. Now that I was given this reprieve, I was determined not to squander it.

A year later, I tested HIV positive. I found out the day after my 22nd birthday. My commanding officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve read my diagnosis from a script. Cold, but tactful.

I knew the positive result was correct, but denial took over. I retested twice before accepting the reality of my situation. At that moment, I started believing that I was going to die before I turned 30.

It was 1992. Effective HIV treatment wouldn’t arrive until 1996 and AIDS-related deaths were still increasing. The death of my boyfriend in 1994 only increased my fear that I wouldn’t live much longer.

Fast-forward over two decades. Turns out I’m still here and I plan on being here for a long time. Testing HIV positive wasn’t the end of the world, but I must admit that I’d prefer to be HIV negative.

I’ve learned to live with HIV in my body, but the virus remains an unwelcome guest. If the cure for HIV was here tomorrow, I would quickly get in line to be rid of it. I have no romantic attachment to the virus.

I also have no attachment to any resentment about getting HIV. Despite my late boyfriend not telling me the truth about his being HIV positive, I agreed not to use condoms with him. We both shared in that decision.

I’m not alone. Much of why the epidemic continues can be explained by folks not knowing their status transmitting HIV unintentionally, but also by couples who ditch condoms before they know for sure each is negative.

You could argue that my late boyfriend had a moral imperative to disclose his HIV status that was higher than my moral imperative to protect myself. Perhaps you could even be right. However, even after all this time, I still haven’t decided.

What I have decided, now having lived more than half of my life with HIV, is that I did the right thing for myself by forgiving him. I believe he never intended to transmit HIV, so forgiving him wasn’t too difficult for me.

The anger I felt toward him in the first few years after I seroconverted was soon trumped by the experience of now being in his shoes. Not pretty. Rejection was everywhere. The stigma was stifling. I now understood.

And I still understand. Little has changed when it comes to HIV stigma. Not only has the virus proven resistant to a cure, it also has resisted decades of attempts to eradicate the stigma surrounding it.

Strangely enough, I believe testing regularly for HIV would do wonders in stomping out stigma. If everyone did it, and did it often, folks might finally start feeling like it’s not so scary. Peer pressure at its best.

Oriol Gutierrez is editor-in-chief of POZ magazine, which chronicles the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1992. He also is editor-in-chief of Hep magazine for people living with hepatitis and Tu Salud magazine for Latino health and wellness. He is a former vice president of print and new media for NLGJA: The Association of LGBT Journalists.