Not long before the beginning of Pride season I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the 36th Annual International AIDS Candlelight Memorial Service in Pinellas Park. I was nervous because I didn’t want to speak on a subject I wasn’t very versed in.
After having conversations with friends living with HIV and doing a lot of research, I sat down and wrote the speech that I shared from the heart. I shared the story about the first time I went for an HIV test.
I was 17, a senior in high school and I had just had my heart broken by my first boyfriend. It was high school love so clearly I thought after one week of being together we would spend the rest of our lives together. After two weeks, he broke up with me outside of the show choir room. As my friends consoled me over chicken nuggets and cookies in the lunch room, one of my friends asked me if we wore protection. I told her no. It was my first time and I asked why I would need that since we were gay. I’ll never forget that look in her eyes as she said, “You don’t know his sexual past. You didn’t protect yourself. I’m taking you to get tested.”
So here I was, 17 years old, and my straight best friend Caitlin was taking me for my first HIV test. I was scared out of my mind because I had no clue about what being positive meant and what was involved in an HIV test.
We drove to the heart of Atlanta to an LGBTQ youth clinic. Everyone was so nice and supportive. I walked into a little room, had my finger pricked and the nice lady said they would call me in a week with results. This was in 2002, so results weren’t as fast as they are now and it was the longest week of my then-young life. I was afraid to tell my mom and my grandmother. Then I thought, “what if I am positive? How do I have that conversation?” A week later, I got the call that I was negative. Relief washed over me. I said from that day forward I would be responsible for my health and not take chances.
Fast forward to college and my early 20’s—I was reckless. It wasn’t until I was 26 or 27 and in Atlanta for Pride. My friends and I decided to get tested so we waited outside of these white tents as people went in for rapid testing. As we stood in line there was a young guy that came out of the tent in tears.
His friends were talking about what they were going to have for dinner and when they saw him walking over to them their faces dropped. They all huddled around him with love and support. It was a sad but inspiring moment. This guy had lots of support from his friends that would hopefully lift him up and be a network of love for him as he traveled that road.
That got me thinking about how many people don’t have that’s support. The people who are young and afraid to come out to anyone and end up living with this secret. Even though it’s 2019, the stigma is still here with people living with HIV. That’s why memorials are so important and why our fight for education and access to health is still needed in 2019.
The Florida Department of Health published startling statistics just last year. The number of HIV diagnoses increased eight percent statewide among people of all ages from 2014 to 2016. The number of diagnoses shot up 20% from 2007 to 2016 for people in their 20s across the state. The increase was 28% in Pinellas County. Nationally, people ages 13 to 24 accounted for 21% of all new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. in 2016, with most of those occurring among those who are 20 to 24.
So, what’s next? What do we do? How do we help millennials and Generation Z understand the effects of HIV and continue to work on the stigma? We have to talk. We have be open.
I’m putting this on myself as well. I have several friends who are living with HIV. As I was preparing to speak at the AIDS Candlelight Memorial, I sat down with them to ask about their experiences in the workplace and in life. I’ve known these people for years and not once had I asked them about their experiences.
They are my family. We go on vacations together, spend holidays together and never once had I talked to them about their experiences. We have to have these conversations.
When this epidemic started, no one knew anything. Groups of friends would be ravaged by this disease. Families would disown their own because they caught the “gay” disease. We aren’t in those times anymore. We understand what this is and how to fight it. We can’t be comfortable. We can’t sit still. We have to continue the education and advocacy of helping those living with HIV and make sure our younger generation is brought up to speed on what this disease can do.
We have to make sure complacency doesn’t settle in.
Miguel Fuller is the out and proud co-host of “The Miguel & Holly Show” on Hot 101.5 FM in Tampa Bay. He also hosts everything.