Seroparanoia and me: a timeline

Seroparanoia: the weight carried by men who have sex with men over the course of their lifetimes as they navigate a world in which HIV is stigmatized, queer people are demonized, and our choices scrutinized.

I am five years old. I’m seeing RENT for the first time on Broadway. I don’t know yet what the word “gay” means but already know I am different, different in the way the characters are different - especially Angel. I learn what AZT means but no one explains the battles and blood it took to get to market, and how many suffered and died because of inaction and vileness. Angel dies, all vibrancy removed,  and I don’t understand why. But I still give a dollar, surreptitiously received from my mother, to the cast member who played him at the exit, holding a red tin bucket.

I am eleven years old. I am taught in school what a condom is and what it can protect you from. It is demonstrated on a banana. Only heterosexual sex acts are named, and are the context by which the changes in my body are contextualized.

I am thirteen years old. I am forced to get an HIV test because a man I spoke to on the internet two years prior preyed on and abused dozens of children just like me, and painfully neither the detective nor my parents believe me when I say whatever conversation we had never escalated to anything in person. I had saved myself (I thought) long before they even knew. I had never been kissed, never dared to do anything but pretend to be straight even as my friends began to date, began to touch each other at school dances. My pediatrician took my blood, the first time I’d ever had that much drawn. He did not apologize and I wondered if I was the first patient to have ever shamed his office by needing a test like this.  I was uncontrollably scared that the test would somehow be positive, that I had been condemned to sickness because I wanted to touch and be touched by men. Weeks passed. The test is negative. Every annual check-in from then on comes with the fear of knowing that another man will need to touch my genitals to check for lumps, wrapped up in the shame of knowing he knew what I was, and anguish that I never thought I’d ever receive any kind of physical touch that wasn’t sterile and pathological.

I am twenty years old. My first and only and long distance boyfriend mentions he had gotten tested recently “just to be safe”. I go to the university health center to get tested based off his suggestion. The technician swabs my mouth, and mouth that has finally seven years later been kissed, and in the ten minutes we wait for the egg timer to go off, he asks me the standard questions that make it clear there should be no need for me to get tested given me and my boyfriend’s presumed practices. I agree. The egg time rings harshly, and the test comes back negative once again.

I am twenty four years old. The same,  now on again/off again, boyfriend and I are caught in a moment somewhere between off and on. One day after work he asks me to come to the local LGBT health clinic where he pulls me into a lifeless, cold staircase and breaks down, saying he had unprotected sex with someone who later disclosed he was positive. It was a night, I realized, in which I said I was too tired to trek from my neighborhood to his - and therefore, I was replaced for the evening. My not quite boyfriend goes on PeP and later PreP, a decision I don’t have the guts to question. I get tested at the LGBT Center the next day. Both my test and his come back negative. I want to get back together, but require monogamy again from then on. He agrees.

I am twenty five years old. My now on again boyfriend breaks up with me utterly unexpectedly while I am out of town, and before we’d even had the chance to get our stuff back from each other’s apartments, I discover that we had not in fact been in a monogamous relationship and almost never had been for the duration of our time together. I had gotten gonorrhea three months earlier and somehow rationalized it away as an artifact of past indiscretion. I once again return to the doctor and get a full suite of testing, because you never know right? The tests come back negative. The PA I see doesn’t have the heart to fully dispute my sham of reasoning around how I must have gotten infected. I see my parents for the first time after our break up, and my request not to talk about it is almost entirely honored - except for my mother cornering me by the bathroom to ask if I had been tested, as if I had not already had the thought and urge myself. I wonder - would she have asked any of her other children the same question after a break up?

I am twenty seven years old.  For the first time in my life begin to have casual sex. It is both liberating and terrifying, and oftentimes more work than I am willing to put in for mediocre sex. I longed fruitlessly for the combination of physical and emotional intimacy I had experienced, the only kind of sex I knew how to have. Despite the infrequency of my casual and superficial hookups,  I ask my doctor about PreP and begin taking the chemical prophylactic driven primarily by some sort of inborn moral responsibility. I am only able to do this because, for the first time in my life, my doctor is also a queer man - the first doctor with whom I never felt judged for anything I shared or any choice I made. Testing becomes a way to mark the changing of the seasons, every three months a lab and an appointment to confirm that it is still safe for me to take the medication. Even as I have less and less casual sex as I come to understand the ways in which it leaves me unfulfilled,  it feels insurmountably irresponsible to stop taking the medication when I have access to it. At the same time, I am given the opportunity through my graduate program to learn more about the crisis and ACT UP and the history of my own city and my own community and all I can do is grieve for those I will never know. I grieve for myself too, and the stories that have been hidden from me, stories of strength, and pain, and bravery that were deemed unimportant. Every quarter, the tests come back negative.

I will soon be twenty eight years old, and while I did not live through the AIDS crisis and am not positive now, it ripples through my life like the echo of a gong in an empty orchestra hall. With every reverberation comes messages that queer people are sick and dirty, that positive people are irresponsible and dangerous, that I am destined to die tragically young yet somehow also guilty and deserving of my fate. It is impossible to escape and haunts every sexual choice I make, every body I consider contacting, every fluid that slicks my skin. All I am left with is the tension of grappling with the joy and freedom of queer sex, and pleasure fought for in innumerable ways both small and large, held always alongside the legacy of disease and fear.

I will one day be thirty years old, one day be forty years old and so on, or one assumes. Maybe some of the promising research will have turned into a vaccine. Maybe long term studies will show that PreP has left us all permanently scarred in a different, unseen way. I hope for a world without stigma, where we face that the crisis still exists and that we are leaving behind countless positive people, many of them black and brown bodies, to die in the same way our never-to-be-elders did. The reckoning starts here, for me, with the tracing of my own history and the stories I am focused on learning, and those I am desperate to unlearn.

Matthew Kastellec