Essay by Amy Peters
It was 1994. I was a nineteen-year-old college sophomore in Florida; I was also a member of the local ACT UP chapter, and freshly certified by the Red Cross as a pre- and post-HIV test counselor. This was in the days when HIV tests were done by blood draw, and you had to come back a week later to get your results.
I volunteered at a local clinic that offered anonymous testing. Confidential testing, the alternative, meant that you were “in the system”; someone, somewhere, would know your identity, to a certain extent. With anonymous, you could be virtually invisible. Many people preferred anonymous, so that they could know for themselves what their status was, before deciding whom else should know.
Our goal as counselors was to get people to come back. After all, with a week between the blood draw and the results, cold feet could happen. If they came back for their results, we could give them resources, and maybe even hope. The mid-90s were a transition time in society’s understanding of the virus. Some people were still unclear on the basic concepts of transmission. One of my clients, when I asked him about his sexual history, said he was a virgin, but he had kissed someone. It made him nervous—he wasn’t sure if kissing could spread AIDS, he said—so that’s why he had come to get tested.
If someone tested positive, they were sent home with a large packet of information. To prevent them from standing out while making their way back through the waiting room and out of the building, we gave everyone the same-sized envelope to carry out with them. If the person tested negative, the envelope had a smaller amount of information. I think it may have been a brochure on staying negative, and some condoms.
When a client arrived to get tested, he—they were almost all men; I don’t remember a single woman—was assigned to one of us counselors. He talked to one of us first, and then went down the hall to see the phlebotomist.
The following week, if someone tested positive, that person would be connected with their original counselor, who would deliver the news. If someone tested negative, they might get assigned to see any counselor, although, whenever possible, the clinic tried to maintain continuity.
One day, I had a client who tested positive. The clinic staff sat down with me to prepare me to give the results. I was told I could give the positive result and be done with my volunteer shift for the day. Others would handle my negatives.
I’m a black woman, and my client was a white man. In my nineteen years, growing up as I had in the South, it was probably the first time I had ever given a white man bad news.
He arrived, and I brought him to my office. We had been trained to encourage those who tested positive to get retested, in case of a false positive. Out of all the things I told him in the minutes that followed, that’s the only thing I remember now. “It could be a false positive. That happens.”
His face was so still, but his eyes were moving, bewildered. It’s been two decades since that day, and for many years after, I remembered the details of what he looked like: hair color, eye color, what he wore. But over time, those details have faded and washed away. I only remember the bewilderment, the shock, the not knowing what to do next, even as I told him my scripted, memorized Red Cross trained info: get re-tested, see your doctor, use these condoms, take this envelope and read the contents, etc., etc.
We were both in a daze as we made our way back to the waiting room. I walked him out of the building entirely and said good-bye and never saw him again.
I came back into the building, my face a mask to hide the reality of what had just transpired from other clients in the waiting room. Once inside the inner offices, I debriefed with clinic staff, collected my belongings, and left for home.
I never volunteered there again. I was still a child, and, in my fight to learn how to be an adult, I realized: I wasn’t cut out to be a messenger.
Amy Peters is the pen name of a former HIV test counselor and current LGBT rights activist and healthcare advocate. She lives in Florida.