This article from This Positive Life by Warren Tong first appeared on TheBody.com here.
How do you start the conversation with somebody when you're disclosing to them?
Well, for me, it's actually been pretty easy. Because I don't know if I copped out. I mean, I posted it on Facebook, and I have a blog. The blog is now at almost 15,000 views. Then being on the cover of the magazine here, locally. Everyone here, as far as the gays in town, they're all aware. I guess some of them are probably tired of me talking about it.
But there's other things that I had to think about. I have a company and I have a staff, and we have interns and that sort of thing. And so I've made it a decision again -- it's not my legal responsibility -- but I made a decision that I was disclosing to everyone.
You know all the pink stuff, the marketing for breast cancer awareness? Susan G. Komen for the Cure? People walk around and they say stuff like, "I'm a survivor of cancer." Or, my mom -- I've done MS Walks with her. And it's very easy for her to tell people that she has MS. I see it real similar, that it's just a disease that I'm fighting. There's no cure yet, and there's no vaccine that works 100 percent yet. So I'm just on a journey, just like other people; but it just happens to be that what I'm fighting is HIV.
It is so important to me for people, and particularly -- and that's where my heart is -- ifor Nashville, because this is my home; I've lived here for 10 years. So it's so important for other people that have HIV that in any way feel like they're scared or feel less or whatever. I want them to know that they're still the same person, that they're OK, and it's going to be fine. So that is really the bottom line on all of it.
The benefit for me, with the way that I disclosed, and that I've told everyone and I've told them so quickly was that I haven't gone to the bar or to the club or whatever here, and knew that people were talking about me, about something that they haven't heard from me about. So I don't feel uncomfortable going out now. And I'm sure there are people that are going to say things. But I've tried to be honest and I've tried to be transparent.
And some people have called me brave, which I don't think at all. I don't think that what I'm doing, or what I've done and what I'll continue to do, is brave. But if it helps one person or two people here feel like they're OK, then that's enough.
A good example of that is I got a call, a couple of weeks after I released the blog, from someone -- and I couldn't even tell you who it is now -- but they called me. It was a 22-year-old here in my city that had just found out a couple days before they called me that they were HIV positive. And they contemplated committing suicide because of it. And they happened to see someone reposting my blog on Facebook and they read it. Then they felt compelled to call me.
From there, I talked to him for just a few minutes. And he said that because of the blog he decided to tell at least one of his friends, or a couple of his friends. So now he's fine, you know? He didn't commit suicide.
I don't think that I had anything to do with that, except that I know that's what people feel, or that's what people have told me that they have felt immediately. And so if my being able to talk openly about how I contracted it, and what I'm going through, and how I feel, and all those things, if that helps other people then it's worth it to me. Because I'm in a position where I can, you know? I have a strong support group around me. My family means the world to me, and they're OK.
I don't think you give yourself enough credit. It sounds like you saved that boy's life. Would you say that's the best response you've gotten from sharing your status?
It's funny, but I have been flooded with different stories of people. And so some of the best responses to me are people that have been living with this disease for 15 years or 20 years, and they come and say, "Thank you. I haven't been in a position where I could really talk about it like you, but thank you. It makes me feel a little bit more normal at least." Just as a whole, that's the stuff that feels good.
But there have also been a couple of bad things. I got a really nasty e-mail from a previous pastor. He told me everything that he thought about why I got the disease, and how I'm living with it, and all that stuff.
Then, you know, there's thedirty.com, which is a funny website. Somebody posted something not pretty about me on there, basically saying that I'm trying to get fame from this, or monetize this. And that's not the case at all. I haven't made any money from talking about my status, and I wouldn't.
But all that is to say that there's good and bad, but the great things have far outweighed any negative that could ever come at me.
What did your youth pastor say to you, and how did you react?
Basically what happened is that I released the blog, and then the pastor saw the blog and sent me a very long email, basically saying that it's unfortunate that I contracted the disease, that he saw the disease as a direct result of me living a sinful lifestyle from my sexuality, and that God really wants to love me, and so I need to repent and turn away from all of this stuff. Just a religious rant. But the hard part for the email was that it was really tied in with some things that were very personal to me that he really used as weapons -- the fact that I had been molested as a kid, and the fact that the pastor's oldest brother passed away from HIV, and that sort of thing.
He was trying to do exactly what he thought was right, which was to email me and tell me that I'm wrong and that I'm sinful. Although I disagree, adamantly, with every theology that he discusses in the email that he sent to me, I really truly believe that his heart was in a place where he thought he was doing the right thing. So I don't hate him or despise him, but I did respond to him via a blog.
I basically just told him that HIV was not a result of God being angry at me, and that eventually I would be in heaven and that I'm OK.
I did rebuke him a little bit, in a nice way. I told him that this was the absolutely wrong email to ever send to someone that's recently infected, and especially someone that's recently infected and then trying to talk about it in hopes of decreasing stigma and also furthering the discussion of prevention in others. This is totally the wrong tone. And so I responded in that way. But I haven't directly spoken or had a conversation at all with that pastor. And I don't really want to.
He sent me the email but I responded to him in the only way that I knew how at the moment, which was via my blog. But I did disguise his identity so hopefully he hasn't gotten any hate mail, or anything.
But, you know, it was totally the absolutely wrong thing to ever say to someone, particularly someone that's recently infected.
Let's talk a little bit about dating and relationships. Has being positive affected your dating life or your sex life at all?
During the three weeks that I was waiting on my results, that constantly came over my mind. I was absolutely scared that I would never be loved again. I felt that maybe that the gays in my town would think that I was used goods. I had already come out of the closet about sexuality, and that had limited the people that would want to date me. And then now that I'm HIV positive I was like, wow, that even makes the pool even smaller. Because I thought that only someone that was HIV positive would even want to date someone, you know, like me. I was real nervous about that.
The other thing that was really hard is that during the middle of finding out, I had met someone that I hadn't been intimate with, but I'd seen him out several times, and was really kind of digging this guy. And the thought of having to tell him that I was positive: I just knew that he would run away. So I was kind of preparing myself for that.
I didn't actually call him and tell him that I was positive. We hadn't have sex or anything like that, and so I didn't have to tell him anything. But he is a friend of mine on a social media; and so when I released the blog on my Facebook, he saw it. And he actually called me and he said that he wanted to see me. And I said OK. We met, and he told me that it was OK.
I think the coolest thing that could ever happen for someone that is positive is if someone that is negative just wants to date them. I think that is the coolest thing, and one of the bravest things, in the middle of all this. With that said, of course dating and relationships and that kind of stuff is overwhelming. I mean, when do you disclose to someone? Do you get them to really start liking you before you tell them? Or do you tell them from the very beginning, when they have absolutely zero invested? I don't know. I think that's a question that keeps going.
Obviously, I've researched and looked online. There are tons of people that only want to hook up with someone that is DDF (or disease-and-drug-free); they would never want to date somebody that was positive. I've seen stuff online, blogs and forums where people are saying that positive people should only date positive people so it will quit happening. That was something that I was really concerned about. It was a decision that I had to make, because I didn't know how he would react, or anyone else would react. But I decided I was OK with being alone the rest of my life if I could talk, if I could tell my story, and if I could in some way decrease the stigma and then further the discussion of prevention. That was more important. And so I had to be OK with that. But it worked out really well for me. So I'm dating somebody that I've been dating for over a year now.
We've already established that on top of that, you also have a very close and supportive family. Did your relationships with them change at all after you disclosed to them?
The only thing that changed was that the first several weeks after I told them that I was positive, they wore me out with phone calls and text messages, asking how I was and how I was feeling, and that sort of thing. So it was appreciated, but I finally had to tell my family: "Listen, you don't always call me every day anyway. So you still be you, and I'm still me. We can talk; but you don't need to ask me every day how I'm feeling, and if things are OK. Because I'm fine." But besides that -- which is, obviously, appreciated -- my family really rose to the occasion and have been amazing supporters for me.
That's wonderful. Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in West Tennessee, in a small town called Jackson. It's between Memphis and Nashville. A lot of people know Jackson for one reason, really: My hometown has gotten hit by tornadoes a lot.
It's a very small conservative town. I never hooked up or anything in my hometown; that would have been way too weird and that sort of thing.
When did you tell your family that you were gay?
I moved to New York right after high school, to go to an acting school. That was the first time that I had voluntarily had sex with a guy -- a terrible experience, by the way -- then I moved back.
I kind of dated a couple people after I moved to Nashville for college. I first told my sister, when I was around 24, that I was gay. And she was fine with it. I hadn't told my mom and stepdad, or my stepmom or my dad, yet.
So I went home one Christmas the year after I told my sister. My mom, again, has MS. We were in the bathroom, and she was getting ready or something. She asked me, "Are you dating anyone? Because I never hear you talk about anyone." And I kind of smiled, and I said, "Yes."
And she said, "OK. Well, do you want to tell me about it?" I started telling her about it. But it was very generic; but still, to me, it was obvious that it was about a guy. So I thought I had come out to my mom.
So she would call me for the next six months, and we would talk about the person that I was dating. But I didn't realize: Because of her medicine she was on, she didn't remember that conversation, and she didn't realize that I'd come out to her. And so for six months, we had talked on the phone and she would ask about whoever I was dating. But it would always be, you know, "How is your friend So-and-So?" And so I just assumed she just wanted to call him friend, which was fine. But she really thought it was a friend.
There was a day that I realized absolutely that it wasn't clear to her that I was gay. And so I had to come out to my mom a second time, which is funny.
How I came out to my dad is, I had called my stepmom. I told her. And I told her to tell Dad. An hour later he called me and asked me if I needed to tell him anything. And I said, "Nope. You probably know everything."
He said, in his Southern way -- he's a fisherman; he's a tire salesman -- the nicest thing that he could say was: "You could kill someone and I'd still welcome you into my house." Which makes other people laugh; but that's totally my dad's character. So I knew it would be OK.
But since that time my sister has come to visit; I've taken her out to the gay bars and she obviously has met who I was dating and that sort of thing. My dad and my stepmom: I convinced him to let me take them to a drag show, and to the gay bar. And they know who I'm dating, and who I've dated. My mom is the same way. It's awesome, because it's completely open.
The one thing that's cool now is that my mom sent me a text the other day saying Obama is backing gay marriage. And I was, like, "Yeah. That's really cool."
And she said, "Yeah."
And so I sent her a text message -- something like, "So, are you ready to walk your son down the aisle one day?"
And she replied back: "Absolutely." Which was just a cool text to see from my family. But, yeah. I'm completely out of the closet about my sexuality and, I guess, my status.
When did you know you were gay, yourself? And was that difficult?
It's always a funny question to think through. I remember when I was a kid, and I don't know the age -- 5 seems to be the right one to say -- but I remember playing with the neighbors, the little boy next door; I remember kissing him. And that obviously is not what other kids do.
But also, we lived in a small town. I had girlfriends, and I really liked them. But it wasn't ever where I wanted to go home and sleep with them, or anything. You know, we were just friends, I guess.
What I explained earlier about when I was younger and was molested: That was when I was older. I was, like, 10, or 11, or 12, or something like that. It was a family member. But as far as knowing I was attracted to guys, it was early on. I remember kissing that boy.
Do you want to talk about the molestation at all?
I'm really OK with it now. It was a situation where it was a family member and I was told that this is what guys do, you know, when they're older. And so when I say molested, there wasn't ever anything violent or anything like that. But I absolutely was taken advantage of as a young person. And that should not ever happen by an adult, obviously.
But in the same instance, although I've kind of blocked those circumstances a little bit, the fact was, moving forward, that I don't think that that had any influence on me being attracted to guys.
Do you know what happened to that family member?
No. I told my family and my sister, and then there was a kind of division that happened in the family because of that. Years after -- I think I was 18 when I finally told them what had happened -- there was a lot of anger. I talked everybody down. I said, "I'm really the only one that has the right to be mad, and I'm not mad. I'm fine. And that's that."
The thing is -- I don't want to give too much information -- that some families have uncles that aren't legal yet. So they may be 10 years older, or something. But it wasn't like a fully grown adult.
There was nothing else that needed to happen. I'm completely fine with it. I've forgiven him. I mean, I'm not going to go to dinner with him, probably. I don't go to extended family reunions, anyway.
Let's talk about health care and treatment. What has your health been like since your diagnosis?
January was a total wash for me. I was completely sick, and not feeling great. I finally saw a doctor on Valentine's Day. The reason why my viral load was so high at the beginning, readers may or may not know, is because I found out so soon. It's been remarkable -- and those are the words that physicians have used -- being able to really track my process and my progress, particularly because of the vaccine study. They've had my blood work and have been viewing everything when I was negative, through seroconversion, all the way through now being four or five months into being infected.
It's been interesting. I've had; every two weeks or so, I've had CD4 counts and viral loads, which is way more information that I would ever suggest anyone ever have. But that's just the way that it's worked out between doctor visits or vaccine visits. My viral load came down, and it's come down even more.
I have made the decision right now, in consultation with my HIV specialist, to not begin medication, as my viral load (at last test) was 1,102 and my CD4 count is 730, with great percentages.
It's important to understand that although I am not on medication, that I consider myself in therapy and in treatment. This discussion of being "on" therapy and "on" treatment leaves out a very attentive, concerned and responsible group of individuals -- like myself -- that, at the given moment, are not taking HIV meds.
Deciding which medication, if any, that I will choose at the exact moment that I feel is best for me, personally, is just that: a personal medication decision I will make based on my body and health, consultation with my doctor, and the current information and research that appears to apply to me. I'm not a one-type-fits-everyone kinda guy. But just because I'm not on medication, doesn't mean I am not taking this as seriously as others.
To be continued . . .
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