It was just another night, meeting some friends for a few drinks at a local club.
A guy looks at me. I look at him. I keep talking to my friends. Turns out that the guy and me share a common friend. So we start talking. We trade numbers. Days go by texting. We seem to have a lot in common. We decide to get together to watch a movie at my place. The movie starts. Our hands wander. I don’t remember what movie it was. You get my point.
Since I met him through a common friend, I have a sense of comfort. I convince myself that I don’t need to ask him about his status, nor do I need to wear protection. And I tell myself, “After all, he looks OK.”
The story repeats itself four more times. Up to this point you may be able to relate to this situation.
What happens next isn’t talked about that often, but maybe it has happened to you.
We decided to get HIV tested before taking things any further. His test result came back HIV-positive, mine HIV-negative… He was in shock as much as I was; he did not hesitate in telling me his results. When I received the news, I felt as if it was my result that came back positive. Since I really liked this guy, I was worried for him. I wanted to support him, and didn’t know how. But I was also scared personally. All I could picture was all those sexual encounters, with no condoms being used. The slip of paper I held in my hand, showing that I was HIV negative? Suddenly that seemed like a cruel joke, setting me up for the next test result that could come back positive.
I knew that an HIV test can’t detect antibodies if a person had become infected in the week before. So I asked around, and found my way to a local agency that works in HIV prevention. The counselors explained to me that the “window period” before you can rule out a recent infection is from 2 weeks to 3 months. I understood that if I take another test three months from that moment, my results should approach 99.99 percent accuracy. However, I also knew for a fact that if I got tested after three months and it still showed negative I wouldn’t be 100 percent convinced. Fear was going to overrule logic. It was going to be a long three months, and I’d probably still have a nagging fear for some time after that.
After all those HIV testing posters I’ve seen, and HIV prevention messages printed in magazines, I was kicking myself for drifting into unprotected sex without even talking about whether that was what each of us had wanted. Maybe if we had talked about it, we both would have realized that even though we both assumed we were HIV-negative, past hook ups probably meant we should test first, before thinking about taking the condoms off. The agency I went to has an MPowerment group for young Latino guys like me. They taught me how to talk about safe sex to my sexual partners, how to negotiate the use of a condom if a guy doesn’t want to wear one, or doesn’t want me to wear one, and even what to do if there is not a condom to be found.
My life has changed. Because of this experience I decided to become a HIV counselor, too. Every day I am learning new facts, and helping other guys to protect themselves and others. I am not looking at my life the same way. Not after this. I have to be more careful. Even though HIV is not a death sentence anymore, I see what my friends living with HIV have to manage: Doctor’s appointments, worries if their blood work numbers come in lower, fears of being rejected by partners who learn their status. I know what I have to do to stay away from the worry now. And I hope that you do, too.
Jose Javier works as an Mpowerment outreach worker and HIV test counselor at Latinos Salud. www.latinossalud.org