Coming out, Take Two
Our new writer Michael Bouldin :"To my complete astonishment, after that positive test result, I found myself in a new closet, and guess what: it works just like the other one."
New York City, March 5, 2012
Hey there, PositiveLite readers. Hope your day is going well. Mine certainly is, and if you don’t terribly mind, I’d like to tell you why that is so, and how I came to write here. Many thanks, of course, to Bob Leahy, who’s given me the chance to do so, which is, you know, exciting.
He’s also asked me to introduce myself, which seems only polite, so here goes.
First, the basics. My name is Michael Bouldin, I’m a gay man living in New York City, forty-two years old, a blogger, and a social media junkie. Before moving to the City, I lived most of my life in Europe. I’ve been happily partnered now for eleven years or so, work out a lot, in short, the typical way of life of the red-blooded gay American male.
I also tested positive for HIV in August of 2009.
That sentence you just read is one I could not have published two years ago, for exactly the same reasons I declined an offer to be a poster boy for London Pride back in the nineties. Fear. Shame. Fear of exposing my deepest secret, the part of me nobody was supposed to see. In my early twenties, that secret was the fact that I was – well, still am – gay. My nose was already peeking out of the closet, mind you, but not to the extent that I would want it plastered fifty miles in every direction from Trafalgar Square advertising something gay.
Most gay people are probably familiar with that particular form of paranoia; just keep it quiet and hidden, be ambiguous, don’t flaunt it, because if you do, you’ll lose all your friends, and nobody will ever love you again. At least, that’s what you think, even if not a word of it turns out to be true.
To my complete astonishment, after that positive test result, I found myself in a new closet, and guess what: it works just like the other one. And oh, look, there come those old friends, fear and stigma, slithering back like some crashing bores you just threw out of your party. Once again, something to hide, something intensely personal but so much a defining part of yourself that it couldn’t, and can’t, stay hidden.
Let me to tell you a bit of the backstory. It’s really rather embarrassing in retrospect, but after I first suspected I was positive, I just couldn’t bring myself to take that test and have my worst fears confirmed. Better to live in ignorance and hope for the best. Seek some distractions. With George Bush in the White House and the country caught in the turmoil of two wars, there was quite a bit to distract yourself with. Shouting obscenities at the evening news on a daily basis comes to mind, marvelous aerobic exercise, really. The agony of the 9/11 attacks, meanwhile, obviated many private pains.
I grew up in the eighties. My years as a budding gay man coincided with the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. I’m part of a generation that was taught – or if you prefer, bludgeoned with – the idea that being gay wasn’t just completely unspeakable, an abomination in the eyes of God and Man, but deadly. A very simple equation: you fuck, you die. And not just any death: a horrifying, swift, and ugly death. The images alone were devastating: people withered down to skeletons that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in Auschwitz. Walking corpses, given perhaps the small mercy of blindness, so they couldn’t see the cancers devouring their bodies.
I did not want to be a part of that. Nobody does, I suppose. But after I got sick and diagnosed, I really didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.
As a blogger – one of the first political bloggers in the State of New York, thank you very much – I’m used to living a public life. Bloggers tell stories; it’s what we do. Sometimes, we even tell our own.
But would I be able to tell this story, my HIV story? Several friends insisted that, yes, Michael Bouldin, you’re an advocate, now advocate for this. Like, you know, all those brave men and women of ACT UP, their rage blazing through the streets in a literal race with death. Silence is Death, they said, and they were right. Still are, when you think about it.
I most decidedly did not want that. In fact, there were some rather heated fights about the matter, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say that I doubted very much whether I was hardened enough to face what I thought would be inevitable opprobrium, or whether anything was worth completely shredding my privacy for. In a word, much the same thoughts I had back when I was looking over my shoulder before scurrying into the gay bars.
I suspect that my first year living with the virus was much like everyone else’s. After the initial shock and panic wear off, you adjust. You design a new schedule, pop pills big enough to shame the Rock of Gibraltar, make new friends, at some point figure out the sex thing, and start telling people the news. In short, you put your life back together. It takes time, but it happens.
Throughout that process, something was gnawing at me: the idea that I wasn’t being completely honest, either to myself or to the people around me. A lot of people knew The Big News™, but others did not. How to keep the two groups separate? What story to tell, or what inelegant lie? Just how comfortable was this closet? And wasn’t there some obligation, noblesse oblige and all that, to use this to help others who may not have all the advantages I have?
I don’t know exactly how it happened, but one day in 2010, I woke up, here in the great, shining City of New York, sat down at my desk, and started to write.
I published the result on Daily Kos, the largest political blog in the world, on World Aids Day in 2010, under the headline I Am HIV Positive. It was a thunderclap. The piece went viral, was the most-read article on the site that day with hundreds of comments, and with a click of a mouse, put a face to HIV in the American leftwing blogosphere, starting a conversation about the virus that had never really happened before in that form. Short of renting a billboard in Times Square or running starkers up and down Fifth Avenue, there was no more dramatic way of coming out as poz. People still thank me for that to this day.
And fuck me, did that feel good. I’d do it again in a heartbeat; actually, that’s exactly what I’m doing right now, isn’t it?
But none of this is about me. It’s about you. About all of us, really; men, women, transfolk, black, white, poz, neg, rich, poor, or whatever other category of our species comes to mind. It’s about the stories we tell to each other and the rest of the world. It’s about speaking out and demanding to be heard. It’s about getting rid of the fear, shame, bewilderment, what have you, that come with that diagnosis.
We don’t need to see another generation burdened with that weight. They have nothing to be afraid of, or ashamed. None of us do.