You are born a boy into a rural community in early 1989. As you hit puberty, somewhere around the turn of the millennium, you start to obsess about boys.
There is a passing and cryptic mention of “homosexuality,” as the gym teacher calls it, at school. He looks so uncomfortable talking about it that all the kids laugh. You laugh along too, but your face flushes, your ears turn red. You know people don’t really talk about homosexuals; people talk about fags: they’re sexual deviants, weaklings, perverts, child molesters and most of them have AIDS or will get it — and die from it — eventually.
In 2006 you’re 17. You’ve come to accept that you dig dudes, and not just in a bromancing kind of way. You’re gay, you guess.
You finally decide to flee. The city is a bit overwhelming at first, but you find a cheap place to live. You discover the gay strip. You even manage to get into a gay bar one Saturday night.
There, a beautiful, beautiful guy chats you up. He’s in his late 20s and seems to want to show you around. He’s the hottest guy you’ve ever seen in the flesh. You can’t believe your luck: he’s so nice to you, he hangs on every word you say, he buys you drinks and tells you you’re hot.
He invites you back to his place, just to smoke a joint. You’re nervous but you go. You want to go. One thing leads to another and you’re having sex for the first time. You’re terrified about catching an STD, especially AIDS, but he tells you he’s “clean,” that there’s nothing to worry about, that he doesn’t have any condoms, that it feels so much better without them anyway.
When it’s over, he says he’s tired and that he’s got work in the morning. He doesn’t give you his number but says he’ll see you around.
The next morning, when you’re sober, you start to think about it. You tell yourself you should have insisted on a condom. You promise yourself you won’t do that again.
But it’s too late. You test HIV-positive. You go through all the stages of grief. After a while you pick up the pieces and start over. You meet other guys — some really great ones — and you fall in love, again and again. You have great sex, safer sex. Usually, when you tell potential partners that you’re HIV-positive they get scared off before they even get to know you. So, most of the time you don’t mention it.
Then one day, when you’re 22, the cops show up at your door. They arrest you. They issue a media release with your name and picture on it telling the world that a sex predator is on the loose. They’re looking for anyone who might have come in contact with you. Your face, name and HIV status are in all the papers.
The community is abuzz that you are a sexual predator; that you have been deliberately trying to infect people with HIV. It turns out that one of your friends — who says you stole his boyfriend — called the cops on you, saying he had unprotected sex with you and that you didn’t tell him you’re HIV-positive. He says it’s only pure dumb luck that he didn’t seroconvert because of it. His name is never published because the court protects him, but news reporters follow you around for years.
You’re 27 by the time your case comes to trial. While you wait it’s hard to hold a job. You can’t hold a lease on an apartment because you don’t know if you’ll be in jail. You don’t have money for a lawyer. Many of your friends won’t talk to you anymore. You have so many secrets.
Finally, it’s over. Maybe you’re acquitted, maybe the charges against you are stayed, maybe you’re convicted. Regardless, the stigma doesn’t go away. It stays with you forever.
This reality — and others like it — has been repeated for HIV-positive gay men time and time again since 1999. It’s an abstract illustration of why the criminalization of HIV is so incredibly problematic. And it’s why each of us must take full responsibility for our own sexual health.