Boys Town

It rained all day.  Rain in Los Angeles makes the city feel clean.  The smog disappears; the dust is washed off windowsills and handrails.  There’s a distinctive smell in the air after a Los Angeles rain:  it's called petrichor, from the Greek words petra (meaning stone), and ichor (from Greek mythology, referring to the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods).  Before it hits the ground, rain is just water — it has no smell.  But after the drops hit land and interact with plants that secrete oils during dry periods and dirt where soil-dwelling bacteria known as actinomycetes have built up, a fresh, almost sweet fragrance is released into the air.

Le Dome in West Hollywood

I called Marvin about 8 that night.  “Hey, doin’ anything?…wanna come over?”  I’d met him at Rage Nightclub several months before.  We’d danced; done shots; gone outside for a cigarette; exchanged phone numbers. He was Salvadorian.  Five years younger than me.  Worked as a waiter at Le Dome, a very exclusive Sunset Strip restaurant opened by Elton John in 1977 that closed in 2007 which catered to Hollywood’s A-List and a who’s-who of the artists on the radio.

Everyone has their “ideal” of beauty and perfection, and Marvin was mine.  I could find absolutely nothing wrong with him.

Oh trust me, I tried!  I figured if I could find a flaw, it would be easier to walk away from this adonis among men, if it should come to that.  He was the perfect height.  His fingers were the right length — not deformed stubs yet not creepy tentacles either.  His smooth unblemished cocoa brown skin draped over a perfect frame that was poised right on the cusp of muscular enough not to appear skinny but toned and slender so as not to look like some freakish bodybuilder on steroids or a WeHo gym bunny.  His brown eyes were like vacuums; he’d be talking to me but his voice would grow further and further away as he did while those eyes sucked me deeper into him than I had a right to go at this point.

So when I heard, “Sí Mateo, I thought you’d never call,” I actually shivered with excitement!  I had goosebumps.  He didn’t have a car, so I navigated the wet streets of West Hollywood to pick him up, and within an hour we were sitting on my couch having one of those pointless conversations designed to make the evening feel less like a “booty call” … meaningless banter that calmed us down so what we both knew would happen next seemed “spontaneous.”

Could this be the first night of my dream coming true?

West Hollywood CA

Boys Town — West Hollywood, California
The Pacific Design Center is the red, green, and blue complex of buildings at the center,
and my apartment was a block northwest (to the left)

“I can see the Pacific Design Center from my bedroom window, wanna see?…C’mon.”  I stood up and grabbed him by the hand, then led him to the back of the apartment where my bedroom was.  I didn’t turn on the lights — so we could see out of the window, of course!  I put my left arm over his shoulders, and pointed out the PDC with my right hand. “There, see?”

It was a flawlessly executed move, if I do say so myself.  Within seconds, we were locked in each others arms, kissing passionately.  Months of dreaming of this very moment hadn’t prepared me for how powerful it was.  Every nerve in my body fired in waves of contented pleasure that rolled over me like a gentle breeze on a hot August afternoon.  I was caressed and caressing, and it wasn’t long before we were horizontal, with nothing between our naked flesh.

“Marvin, I have something I need to tell you.”

“Sí papi, ¿qué es?”

“I’m HIV positive.” 

I must have passed out when he hit me, because the next thing I remember was him walking out of my bedroom, fully clothed, and my jaw hurt.  I never saw Marvin with my own eyes again.

What had gone so terribly wrong?  Was I Icarus, had I angered the gods and flown too close to the sun?  Of course the lesson was that I learned HIV is not just a disease affecting the body, but it comes with a very real social stigma.  To the larger world, of course, it is still “the gay disease,” even though it affects heterosexuals as well and as often.  And it brings with it the homophobia people have of the gay community, even the ingrained shame and fear that members of the gay community sometimes have of themselves and their “kind” — within the gay community, there are those that treat the positive like lepers. I suppose this reaction was understandable at one time given what we had been through at the height of the AIDS crisis.

But that was a long time ago.

hiv poz

Today, advances in modern medicine, like Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Treatment as Prevention (TasP), have all but eradicated the threat of viral transmission in cases of sexual intimacy between serodiscordant (fancy, smart-sounding word for one positive and one negative) partners. This information is life-changing.  Well, for me it was.  Most of us living with HIV were led to believe that we would be infectious for the rest of our lives or until there was a cure.  Many still, mistakenly, believe that.  What’s more, they refuse to be convinced otherwise.  The message that we’re no longer doomed to pass HIV onto others in every instance of sexual intimacy is the breakthrough in the story of this disease, short of a cure, we’ve been waiting for.  It came too late for Marvin and me though.  Years later, I heard from a friend that he moved back to El Salvador.

The one area where we have not advanced since the mid-to-late 80’s and early 90’s is combatting the stigma associated with an HIV diagnosis.  I am not downplaying the ongoing danger posed by the virus nor dishonoring those who have died from it by ignoring its devastating history, but where are the success stories?  Ask many people, and they are ignorant of the advances I touted in the previous paragraph.  Ignorance is not synonymous with stupid — it’s not the inability to learn, it’s the state you're in before you learn.

And a lot of people, including a lot of gay men, have chosen not to learn (about the disease in general and if they have it specifically) because they fear the stigma associated with HIV.  They avoid being tested and, by extension, treatment because they fear the social discrimination associated with the disease. The problem is particularly acute amongst young gay men just coming to terms with their sexuality.  No matter how liberalized our society has become, at least in the West, there comes a time in the life of every gay man when he feels the weight of being a card-carrying member of the world’s most despised minority placed on his shoulders.  Add to that the hysteria of the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when the disease was synonymous with being gay — at the 1984 Republican National Convention in the United States, one of the speakers suggested that gay stood for:  "got AIDS yet?” — and you’re left with a toxic cocktail of fear and shame garnished with a sprig of bigotry.

So we avoid the one topic (HIV/AIDS) to make the other (homosexuality) more potable.  In this devil’s bargain, the success stories are a casualty; and yet, telling them is essential to combatting the ignorance that provides fertile ground for new HIV infections to flourish.

Kept a secret, HIV will continue cutting lives short; brought out into the open, we do two interrelated things:  we lessen the shame of being diagnosed with HIV, and the less shame the more people talk about treatment and prevention.  Those infected and seeking treatment are taking an important step in protecting their own health while simultaneously protecting the health of others, and being tested is the first step.

I eventually realized that extreme reactions such as Marvin's came from fear.

We fear what we do not understand, and if nobody is talking about HIV then there is going to be a lot of misunderstanding.  And fear.

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