World AIDS Day: Grieving my HIV status

By Hussain Turk, Esq.

I had only taken two other HIV tests by the time I tested positive when I was 19 years old.  I took my first HIV test when I was 15 years old, as an act of solidarity with my best childhood friend who was bold enough to lose her virginity before me.  I knew without a doubt that, absent immaculate infection, my test would come back negative.  That all changed by the time I took my second HIV test.  I was 16 years old and had recently slept with a much older man who, according to the Kalamazoo, MI gay-grapevine, neglected to tell me he was HIV-positive.  By divine intervention, I again tested negative.

When I took my third and final HIV test, I already knew I had it. By my late teens, as my addictions to drugs and sex progressed, so too did the risks I was repeatedly taking with my seemingly invincible body. On one occasion, I knowingly shared a needle with a fellow injection drug user who was kind enough to warn me that he was HIV-positive. Without missing a beat, I snatched the syringe from his hand and plunged it into my left cubital vein. With as much reckless nonchalance as I could muster, I retorted, “If I don’t have it yet, I’ll get it soon enough.” I wasn’t wrong.

My capacity to feel anything (other than drug-induced euphoria) was long gone by the time I was told I had HIV. Although I felt nothing about this news, I suspected it’s reception was an occasion upon which I should probably show some figment of emotion. Having perfected the fine gay performance art of faking-it in order to survive a brief but traumatizing series of Wahhabi Islam-based gay conversion pseudo-psychiatry sessions facilitated by Dr. Marwan Tabarrah (Professor of Psychiatry at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine), I dramatically buried my face in the palms of my hands and faked a deep belly-heaving cry. It would take another fourteen years before I could actually and authentically grieve my seroconversion.

Along the way, I have been profiled as one of the “Ten Sexiest Gay Men Living with HIV” by Queerty and one of twenty “Amazing HIV+ Gay Men” by the Advocate Magazine. I have successfully lobbied the legislature of the State of California to modernize archaic HIV-transmission criminal statutes, which disparately impacted women of color engaged in survival sex work. I have served as director of the Los Angeles HIV Law & Policy Project, an HIV-legal services program that provided direct legal aid to people living with HIV/AIDS across L.A. I have authored and litigated a civil rights and wrongful death lawsuit that resulted in the arrest and federal felony conviction of Ed Buck for the killings of Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean, two HIV-positive Black gay men who died after being injected with lethal doses of crystal methamphetamine in a clandestine party-and-play fetish gone wrong. I have had the honor of being the shoulder upon which many newly diagnosed HIV-positive transgender women and gay men were vulnerably strong enough to cry. But in the spirit of RuPaul’s wisest words, my commitment to serving and loving others with HIV paled next to my inability to love myself.

Behind closed doors, I routinely forgot to take my antiretroviral medications because I was too busy (or too intoxicated) to remember. I sometimes intentionally refused to take my medications because I was too depressed to want to live. I would often starve and dehydrate myself because I hated my body. I missed appointments with my infectious diseases physicians because I was too ashamed to ask them for help. I would roam the streets of Los Angeles for days and nights on end while the key to a beautiful West Hollywood apartment was always tucked safely away in the pocket of my designer jeans. My inability to grieve was literally killing me.

HIV is no longer a death sentence. That’s the company-line that Western medicine healthcare providers feed to those of us who test positive in the post-AIDS epidemic. And it’s technically true: those of us with the means to access and adhere to today’s antiretroviral regimens are capable of dying from natural causes at or near ages congruent with statistically normal life expectancies. But this equation fails to account for the generational trauma inherited by HIV-positive gay men who came of age after the nightmare that subsided in the mid-90s.

That trauma can be reduced to one word: stigma. Stigma is a mark of shame and inferiority that is both imposed upon and internalized by a marginalized community and its individual members. Stigma is a contagious breeding ground for isolation and self-destruction. Stigma tells me that no matter how beautifully or brilliantly I am perceived by the world around me, I will always be inferior to my HIV-negative counterparts. Stigma is what finally broke through the protective fortress that surrounded my grief.

After months of healing from a deeply traumatizing breakup, I decided I was ready to endure more trauma by searching for casual sexual companionship on Grindr. Grindr is a Chinese-owned gay geosocial hookup app that is notorious for profiting off of gay men while simultaneously promoting our collective self-loathing and destruction. When yet another headless torso rejected my headless torso, I suddenly began to cry.

At first, the tears poured out of me from a painful place of repeatedly being rejected by men who didn’t want me because of my serostatus. Those tears of rejection turned into tears of loneliness, and I found myself pleading out-loud for someone, for anyone, to hold me. But nobody was was coming to rescue me from my loneliness. My tears brought to the surface the 19-year old child within me who had just been told he was HIV-positive with nobody there to hold his hand or comfort the grief he had no choice but to bury. When I held onto myself, I held onto him, too, and for the first time in fourteen years we cried together for the years of loss and loneliness we had endured together.

As the tears continued to pour, I did what nearly two decades of therapy and support groups taught me to do: I picked up the phone and reached out to a complete stranger and asked him for help. The stranger on the other end of the phone was an HIV-negative gay man of color by the name of Joseph. Joseph and I had only recently virtually met, but despite our brief acquaintanceship, he generously graced me with just the right amount of love and kindness necessary to transform my tears of grief and loneliness into tears of gratitude and acceptance.

Joseph’s simple act and words of kindness showed me that although I have certainly felt lonely, I have never truly been alone. In an instant, I realized that I have always been nestled in the warm embrace of an entire family of people who have supported, mentored, healed, treated, and loved me along the beautiful mess of my journey as a gay Pakistani American Muslim lawyer living with HIV.

Throughout my journey, I have been held by Peter Staley and Larry Kramer and all of the other white gay men who leveraged their privilege to put their bodies and their reputations on both the literal and figurative lines of fire as the founders of ACT UP, a movement that single-handedly transformed HIV from a fatal illness into a chronic condition. I have been held up by Jasmyne Cannick, Nana Gyamfi, Esq., and Ayako Miyashita, Esq., whose formidable and unyielding commitments to protecting the lives and rights of HIV-positive people embody the rich legacy of fierce women leaders without whom ACT UP could not have achieved what it achieved. I have been held up by Emery Chang, MD and Margrit Carlson, MD, both of whom are highly skilled healers as well as highly qualified doctors. I have been held up by Anil, who modeled for me how a real man beautifully and gracefully grieves. I have been held up by my chosen siblings, Aldo, Darwin, Eden, Jenna, and Shyrissa, who remind me on a daily basis that my cup is always already overflowing with love. I have been held up by my gay Muslim brothers, Kamal, Faisal, and Taimur, who are living proof that Allah made each of us perfectly and whole. I have been held up by my parents, to whom I owe absolutely everything.

But most of all, I have been held up by the memories of Brandon Lacy Campos, Gemmel, Timothy, Todd, Rufus, Sami, and Alvaro, whose untimely deaths as young gay men of color who lived and died with – but not from HIV – are reminders that the fight against this virus, and the potent stigma that perpetuates it, is far from over.

Hussain Turk is HIV+ and is an attorney in Southern California.

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