I can’t remember not being aware or living in fear of HIV. Long before I was even able to articulate my own sexuality, it was hammered into my psyche that if you were gay you would automatically get AIDS.
I had four HIV tests at the Department of Health in Poughkeepsie, New York when I was a first year student at Vassar College.
I hadn’t even had sex yet.
That’s how ingrained the stigma and phobia were embedded.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I worked as a bar back at Prime Time, which was a long running gay Hudson Valley night club in Highland.
Prior to going to Prime Time that night, I had been to bars in the city, particularly Crow Bar in the East Village. But I was deathly afraid to go into a gay bar here, lest I saw someone I knew.
I don’t know if I was just stoned or buzzed enough, but one of my friends finally talked me into going.
It was a Thursday night and the place was dead, but I was left in stitches by the now deceased manager, Kevin Finlay. He greeted us at the door and questioned my ID (which was my older cousins and said I was 27).
Finlay got on the PA system and announced to the handful of patrons and said “Perk up girls, fresh meat in the house! Meet Ms. Savis! She’s a Vassar girl! Open those wallets and buy her a drink you cheap bastards!”
I should have been mortified, and I partly was, but he also made me laugh.
Later that night he asked me if I wanted a job. The bar back Mickey “had fallen in love and ran off to Minnesota.”
“All you girls leave me eventually.”
He offered me a bar back job that night.
That summer I met my first “gay” family. An eclectic cross section of the kind of low and high brow folks from the Hudson Valley. Butch dykes from the Newburgh projects, sissy boys from Millbrook, a drag queen who was so wasted she was propped up during most of her performances.
I met and dated another 19-year-old kid named Jon from the area.
He gave me my first blow job during the Lion King at the Hyde Park Drive In.
Hearing the Circle of Life still gets a rise out me.
We would go skinny dipping at one of the waterfalls near Lake Minnewaska and fool around in the woods afterwards. One of the times Jon lost his footing and fell down the side of an out cropping. Blood was everywhere. I picked him up, covered in blood and walked him back to my truck where I applied almost an entire roll of paper towels.
He was In a lot of pain, so I kissed the biggest boo boo on his knee to make it better.
That summer I volunteered for ARCS (AIDS Related Community Services) now Hudson Valley Community Services (HVCS) and learned a lot. The first thing I learned was at the time African-American women were actually acquiring the virus more than any other population in New York State.
It was not a gay disease.
Two weeks later, in late August, he asked me if I wanted to get tested with him. For what I asked? He told me he was getting an STD test because his last boyfriend gave him Chlamydia — something I wish I’d know earlier, but I digress. I never went because I was leaving for school and had to pack.
A few weeks later he called me hysterical. Actually his friend Mike did, because he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He’d tested positive he told me. He had AIDS.
I totally freaked. Sex non-withstanding — all I could think about was kissing that scrape.
I think about that a lot. Mostly at my shame and embarrassment that I felt and the quick schoolyard impulse to totally reject Jon from my life.
This is what stigma feels like.
Today is World’s AIDS Day, and it’s day that for me marks the beginning of the holiday season more than Thanksgiving. It’s a true living memorial day for many to reflect on the lives and accomplishments of the people we lost.
This year, huge gains have been made around de-criminalizing HIV, the prevention pill PrEP is more widely available then ever, and the new CDC endorsed science of ‘Unequal Equals Untransmittable,’ has determined that people adherent to modern Anti-Retroviral treatments (ART) like Genova, with trace, undetectable viral loads, are not able to transmit the virus.
Today, if you test regularly and acquire HIV, you’ll be put on a regimen of ARTs that have made the illness less deadly than Type-2 Diabetes.
But people aren’t getting tested.
I spoke to Jay Dewey, who handles communications for HVCS. “The good news,” he tells me, “Is that HIV rates in the Hudson Valley continue to fall.”
The rate of new HIV infections in the Mid-Hudson (Dutchess, Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties) dropped from 6.2 percent (per 100,000 population) in 2014 to 5.2 percent in 2015, which is the latest data set that the New York State Department of Health AIDS Institute can provide.
After many years of stagnant rates, they’re finally starting to fall, and HIV prevention and screening efforts are finally paying off.
“Governor Cuomo set an ambitious goal of reducing new HIV infections in New York State to zero by 2020, and the state has really focused on HIV testing so that those who are newly HIV-positive can get into treatment as soon as possible. People are most likely to infect someone else when they are newly infected themselves, and don’t know it yet. There’s also been a lot of scientific studies confirming what we long suspected: that HIV+ people who are on medications and are fully virally suppressed (the virus is making so few copies that it doesn’t show up on a viral load test) are essentially unable to infect someone else. It’s called treatment as prevention. There’s also a big push for PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, in which high-risk people take anti-HIV drugs even though they are HIV-negative, and it prevents them from becoming infected. That’s helping the HIV rate too, as more and more people learn about it and go on it.”
There is however, some not-so-great news in the data: Most of the new HIV infections are disproportionately among men who have sex with men—58 percent of new cases in the Mid-Hudson. And most of them are young: ages 13 to 24. And the majority of newly-positive people are African-American or Hispanic. As they historically have, these marginalized communities bear the brunt of the new infections, even when the overall rate is going down. We as a community can do a lot more to help these groups.
Get tested, get educated, it’s not that hard folks.
This post originally appeared on HIVPlusMag.com when the author, Savas Abadsidis, was the senior editor of Plus and The Advocate magazines, and digital director for HIVPlusMag.com. Follow him on Twitter.