Working through anti-Black ideas around HIV while my partner is HIV positive
If 1/2 of Black queer men are projected to contract HIV, we all have a responsibility to this story, & to be truthful about our fears of it
*Editor’s Note: March is National Disabilities Month and our themes at Black Youth Project are Ableism & Physical and Mental Health. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.*
Something is wrong with my liver. That’s what the test results my doctor sent to my inbox say, at least. She called, too, but for some reason it was from an “unknown number,” so naturally I didn’t answer. Blocked numbers are never anyone you want to spend time speaking with. They are always a trap. If a bill falls in your voicemail and you never come around to hear it, does it make a sound?
This time, however, the call was about my liver, and the tests I had to take in order to refill my prescription of Truvada. I call my doctor back immediately but learn she has left and will be out for a week. How ironic that trying to avoid the anxiety of knowing what I owe will lead to at least a week of even more anxiety of not knowing what I have. Somewhere up there, I can hear a spiteful god cackling.
I have been taking Truvada as PrEP to reduce my chances of contracting HIV for over a year now, since before I began dating my boyfriend. With him, though, it has taken on a new urgency. I am told his blood is a danger. I am told it isn’t content with just killing him, that it wants my life, too, and so I must be extra cautious around it. But no one has told me what to do when caution also insists on my death.
Like many medications, one of the most common side effects of Truvada is damage to the liver. Because it doesn’t recognize them, the organ sometimes thinks the things you put into your body to protect it are instead trying to cause harm. So it works overtime trying to get the medicine out, wearing itself thin in the process. In the year I have been taking Truvada, I have had other side effects as well. Nausea. Upset stomach. Mood swings.
Or maybe I was just depressed. Or maybe I was just a Black boy who knows too much about the history of medicine to ever fully trust it—who has seen this government that doesn’t give a shit about Black queer boys place too many ads featuring Black queer boys selling PrEP in my Black ass neighborhood to ever really feel comfortable with it. Maybe these otherwise normal changes to my body were misascribed to the medicine because my Black ass mother barely even kept Tylenol in the house when I was a child. But this liver shit is real. I see it right there. The numbers I don’t understand, but the warning that says “irregular,” that I do.
“I think I may have to stop taking PrEP,” I tell my partner, and I immediately regret it. Here is just another thing he has to blame his blood for, and I am making it all about me, I think. And the pats on the back from my condescending pity drown out how this—avoidance—is just a way to make it all about me, too.
Because of his own medication, his viral load is undetectable, and so the HIV is nearly impossible to transmit anyway. So why do I still feel like I can never be too sure?
Perhaps it’s because my friends say as much when they ask me, fear in their eyes, if we wear a condom during sex. Or tell me they don’t know if they “could do it,” meaning love the person I love, because of what is in his blood. What they are really saying—what they have learned from the world—is that I can never be too sure about anything except that acquiring that blood is the thing to fear most. More than not experiencing his love. More than my liver shutting down. HIV will find a way to ruin us. We never should have done this in the first place.
But how ironic that trying to avoid the anxiety of his blood might lead to other anxieties. How ironic that trying to avoid this particular type of death might kill me as well. All because spiteful gods have made it so that whatever death is seen as Blacker, as queerer, is also seen as worse. And if one out of every two Black queer men are expected to contract the disease, what could be Blacker or queerer than that?
I haven’t spoken or written much about my partner and my serodiscordant relationship because I’ve always felt as if this is his story to tell. He is the one who has to deal with this. Funny how this is also the narrative that gets me the most kudos. The most, “you’re so great for doing what you do.” That makes me the knight, him the damsel. That allowed me to write that he’s the one blaming and worrying about his blood when I tell him I might not be able to take these pills, though it’s me. It’s always been me. That makes the villains of my tale faraway dragons, so that I can forget about the monsters I have to vanquish within myself.
If half of us are going to contract HIV, we all have a responsibility to this story, and to be truthful about our fears around it. The truth is, I am the damsel here, too, in need of saving from the same stigmatizing thoughts about this experience everyone else is conditioned with. But neither me nor my boyfriend have shining armor. All we can do is try our best to protect each other. None of this is easy. None of it is our fault. But all of us have more to think about than just taking a pill. Than just loving each other despite. Than just the murderous parts of the same blood that keeps us alive. The story is so much more complicated than that.
PrEP won’t save Black queer folks, and we need to talk about the many reasons why. We need to talk about why we can’t take it, why we’re afraid to take it, and why that fear matters too, even when the world says the fear of HIV should trump it. We need to talk about why the CDC refused for years to acknowledge multiple studies showing undetectable viral loads cannot transmit the disease. We need to talk about the fear this refusal helps instill, where it comes from, and the very real damage that fear can cause. The world tries to kill Black queer boys in more ways than one, and it will never give us a quick way to stop it.
A week later, I finally reach my doctor, and she tells me the liver panels don’t indicate responses to Truvada. I don’t understand the medical jargon, but I understand when she says this type of liver irregularity is more commonly associated with drinking. “You should drink a little less,” she says, and all I can think about is how I need a drink to process this. Of how I have been drinking excessively since Mike Brown, honestly.
Death as a reprieve to death being a type that has always been a little less queer—a little less something to fear. But this time I hold out on going to the bar. Lent is starting today, and it may as well be a month of sobriety. I guess this is as good a time as any to think about how we interact with the many deaths we face a little more seriously.