How does one come to grips with his HIV+ status with himself and his family? “It feels like coming out all over again.”
After meeting Joseph Johnson III through a mutual friend almost five years ago, I have come to refer to him as a very close friend. We are very much alike: love for astrology (he’s a Virgo, I’m a Libra), a deep affinity for Asian cuisine and a common excitement over the newest phones and technology. An aspiring designer with dreams to be successful within the fashion industry, his down-south drawl added color to his inviting, charming personality. It was made funnier when coupled with his quick one-liners and uncanny delivery. To others, we seemed like polar opposites. Despite some similarities, he is the more outgoing and brash type, while I tended to be the more reserved and easy-going. Being fierce romantics that we have always been, our experiences in dating and relationships, both good and bad, always gave us much to talk about.
Within the gay community, the city of Atlanta, among other major cities, has grown an unfavorable reputation for having an increasing amount of HIV cases in gay and bi-sexual men of color. Men are considered unsuspecting and highly promiscuous, participating in gross amounts of unprotected sexual activities with both men and women. After moving from Southern California to Alabama before settling in Atlanta, Georgia, I had my reservations about Joe moving into his new surroundings. Before every date that Joe was telling me that he was about to go out on with some interesting dude of the moment, I would always say “wear a condom” mid-conversation, reminding him to be prepared just in case something were to happen.
On August 17th 2011, Joe went to a local Atlanta clinic to be tested for HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases, his first test in almost 18 months. Though he had not been tested since late 2009, he felt confident that his status would remain negative. When he came back for his test results five days later, Joe was taken into a separate office room before his results were revealed that he was, in fact, HIV+. “In my head, I felt like this couldn’t have been real. I was confused. I was lost. I was scared. I didn’t want to believe the clinician who told me. I wanted to see the paperwork. I needed to see the results with my name on it in order for it to transfer and register in my head.” Remembering the clinician, “she was very sweet. She held my hand, offered me a box of tissues before writing down some information for me about a HIV counseling center nearby. I didn’t call because I was getting ready to move back to California a few weeks from that time.” When asked about whether or not a visit to the counseling center would have helped the matter, Joe replied, “Probably. It would have helped to some degree being around people who know where my head was. But I couldn’t make sense of things at all. You never imagine that this could actually happen to you, so when it does, it’s…shocking. That’s really it. I just wanted to go home, stay home and deal.”
According to Joe, he believes he knows who transmitted the disease to him. “I have a pretty good idea who it is. I’m about 90% sure. He was the only one I had unprotected sex with in years. I don’t know why it happened that way, but I can’t take it back. I addressed him about it but, naturally, he didn’t want to talk about it. I felt that was disrespectful. He felt like I was looking for someone to blame.”
Joe’s mother recently relocated back to Los Angeles, California and his grandparents, retired, remained in Mobile, Alabama. Coming from a religious and close-knit family (who still affectionately call him by his childhood nickname “Lil’ Joe”), he knew that breaking the devastating news to his family would be very hard, but equally necessary. His mother, Monique Edwards, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, was the first to find out. “She just cried. She cried like it was happening to her, like she was in my shoes. She was upset that I was in Atlanta by myself. She prayed and cried and went on and on. But I couldn’t stay on the phone for too long. No one ever wants to hear their mother suffer like that. I had just stopped crying that morning and I didn’t have it in me to start crying again because I was afraid that I wouldn’t stop.” He went on to explain, “I didn’t want to feel alone. I felt like my family needed to know so that I could get the support I needed. I had to get it off my chest because it came to me as such a shock. But I knew in doing that would be an even bigger shock to them. I couldn’t keep this secret bottled up inside of me. My family needed to be aware because it was a lesson learned for me. I know most people in my family didn’t know anyone close to them who had HIV. Some of them don’t even know what HIV really is. But I needed them to know that it wasn’t just a colossal myth going around in the world. This affects real lives on a large scale and it is now affecting me.”
One would imagine the first few days would be the hardest, even unbearable. “I felt like Carrie when she was supposed to go on her honeymoon”, referring to a pivotal scene in 2008’s Sex and the City film. “That part when she was all alone and slept through what was supposed to be her honeymoon – that was how I felt. I was planning a backyard cookout for my birthday and getting ready to move back to California the week after. Your birthday is supposed to be a happy time for you. But I was numb. I was empty. All I wanted to do was smoke some blunts, drink liquor and listen to Anita Baker ballads in the dark,” he says after taking a deep and arduous breath. “I was so miserable. I felt like a part of me died that day. I couldn’t sew. I couldn’t draw. I didn’t want to do move. I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I couldn’t sleep. Since then, I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks. I’ve been so drained and tired because it was so much for me to take on at once.”
Upon returning to work as a waiter at Red Lobster (he had called in sick for the first few days), his co-workers noticed a significant change in his demeanor. The usually upbeat and personable Joe was more reserved and almost devoid of any personality. His eyes had seemed to be puffy from crying. “Everyone was asking me if I was alright. They were so used to me joking and fooling around that they didn’t know how to take me being so stiff. I literally had a wall up. They knew something was wrong but I didn’t want my problems to be their problems.”
“It feels like coming out all over again”, he says, correlating his current situation to his experience as a sophomore in high school. “When I came out in back then, a lot of people looked at me in a different light. It was hard to deal with. You know who’s meant to be around you after something life-changing like that happens. Being gay is one thing and I’ve done pretty well with that. I’m comfortable with it now being that I’m on the other side. But now it’s being black and experiencing racism, being gay and experiencing homophobia and now finding out that I’m HIV+. It’s just another hurdle that’ll making things that much more difficult.”
When asked how he currently approaches the issue of sex, he responds “The way I see it, I can’t see myself at this point doing something that put my health at risk. HIV is sexually transmitted, meaning sex that brought it on. Once you equate that, you totally lose interest and you want that aspect out of your life. What was supposed to be pleasurable is now petrifying. I can’t imagine having sex with anyone right now. It’ll come up one day but I’m not comfortable yet. It’s all still fresh.”
Joe recently completed his transition of moving from Atlanta to Los Angeles in September 2011. He currently lives in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles with his mother and his two younger siblings. He plans on taking fashion marketing courses at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College for the upcoming Spring 2012 semester as well as building and strengthening his clothing portfolio.