Do Something New: Get Tested For HIV

Here’s something I don’t want to admit: I’ve been advocating getting tested for HIV for the last half of my life – literal half; I’ve been doing activism in the LGBT community since I was 14 years old. But despite being sexually active for almost as long, I’d never gotten tested myself.

There are a million excuses you – OK, I – can make for not getting tested. I’ve gotten tested for chlamydia, syphilis, and herpes during regular exams, and it’s always turned up negative. I’ve had sex without a condom, but it was always with people who I knew and trusted. Even using condoms, I’ve communicated with my partners beforehand about whether or not either of us had any knowledge of having STDs, and I’ve had no reason to believe that anyone I ever had sex with had one.

Well, except one: The very first guy I ever had sex with, who I was friends with at the time, but who I later found out had engaged in some really risky sexual and health behaviors. And the very first time I ever had sex, it was one of those remarkably stupid instances in which I didn’t use a condom. And it’s nagged at me since then. I knew, even then, that I should have gotten tested. And I was my school’s Queer-Straight Alliance president; I believed that my behavior should set an example for my peers, and yet even though I advocated safe and responsible sex, I didn’t always practice it. I’m willing to chalk that up to being a teenager and dumb.As for not getting tested, well, I chalk up to not having the courage.

I’ve been a health mess recently, though. I wrote last week about my molluscum contagiosum, the skin virus that’s super common but also super difficult to get rid of. In a fit of frustration, I took to the internet to research it, and I came across an informational site that said that if you have immune disorders and especially HIV, molluscum can be particularly hard to fight. Granted, of course, I’d only been treating the molluscum for about two weeks, when it can take months to get rid of it with treatment, but in a paranoid fit, thinking back on that one time that I might have put myself at risk of contracting an STD, I finally decided that I was going to get tested for HIV.

It’s the pettiest possible reason to get tested, I know. That excuse of “Well, I have no reason to believe I have an STD” is easy to maintain when you don’t give yourself the information you need to make that judgment, and that’s not fair to your sexual partners. And using “you” doesn’t feel right here: It’s my sexual partners. The fact that I cared about them should have been reason enough to suck it up and go get tested, especially when there are so, so many resources for free HIV and STD testing. And especially when I knew that, because I’d worked with those resources as an LGBT activist.

I made an appointment with the Center on Halsted, one of Chicago’s largest support resources for the LGBT community. They offer therapy groups, workshops, networking, healthcare resources, recreational programs, GED courses, career development and job training courses, a computer lab, a legal clinic, and, of course, free testing, with case managers assigned to each person and support groups for HIV-positive individuals. They are, suffice it to say, an incredible organization, and I heartily suggest donating or volunteering.

When I went in, my case manager met me in their medical center, escorted me to a private room, and talked to me briefly about how the test works before administering it. It’s really just a tiny little poke in the finger to collect a small sample of blood – like the glucose monitors people with diabetes use to test their blood sugar. And then you wait for 20 minutes. The Center’s way of passing that time is to have you do a verbal survey with your case manager so that you’re distracted enough for it not to be maybe the worst 20 minutes of your life. I told mine about the molluscum, too, and he showed me an informational video he’d just made for the Center staff on that very subject.

So, tick-tock, tick-tock, and then … Negative. Definitively, absolutely negative. I do not have HIV.

I consider that a privilege, and I consider it lucky, after 14 years avoiding that knowledge. Had I been positive, by the way, my case manager would have been right there with me, and the Center would have provided me with all the resources I needed to process it and get my health on track, which is why community health resources like the Center on Halsted are so vital.

I know that sexual interactions are often spur-of-the-moment, that asking a lot of questions about health when you’re about to have sex feels awkward and unsexy, and that every single knowledgeable adult who cares about safe sex (which I hope is all of us) does risk assessment about STDs, whether or not we communicate that out loud. It’s easy to fall into guessing about your status – I guessed that I didn’t have HIV, based on what I knew about it and its symptoms and how and when they show up, my sexual history and how I’ve communicated with my partners, the number of partners I’ve had and what I know about their own sexual histories, the fact that I’ve tested negative for other STDs, and my health overall. I guessed right, but I was still guessing, and that’s really not good enough.

It’s also easy to avoid talking about it or confronting it if you’re already in the middle of a long-term relationship, because we all know that sexual health is something we should talk about with our partners at the beginning of our relationships, whether or not we act on that knowledge. Talking to my fiancé about it felt like a betrayal, like I was admitting that I had put him at risk. I’m extremely glad that I have a partner who loves me enough to understand the neuroticism and paranoia that was making me worry about it in the first place, and who loves me enough to say that if I tested positive, we’d get through it together. HIV, as he pointed out to me, is not a death sentence.

So please, find a resource in your community that will protect your anonymity and your emotional well-being, and go get tested. It’ll take only a tiny bit of your time, and beyond the fact that it’s only fair to your partners to do it, it’s also only fair to yourself – once you get tested, you’ll be armed with important knowledge about your own body that’ll enable you to take care of it correctly into the future.

Send me a line at [email protected] and follow me on Facebook. Check out the Do Something New series, every weekday in the month of June 2015.