Circle of Life
In a Telling Roundtable Discussion, Six Young Men Open Up About Living with HIV & Finding Strength in One Another
by Chip Alfred
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Tara Lessard
You’ve probably heard the facts. Men who have sex with men (MSM) are most heavily affected by HIV infection, and the situation isn’t getting better. According to the CDC, between 2008 and 2010 the number of new infections among MSM increased twelve percent, with a twenty-two-percent rise among MSM age thirteen to twenty-four. Now you’re probably wondering why.
Seeking answers to this question and more, I recruited interview subjects from Philadelphia’s Mazzoni LGBT Health Center (and one of the nation’s oldest ASOs). In a very candid and enlightening conversation, this is what six twenty-somethings from Mazzoni’s “Living with HIV/AIDS” support group had to say. First, here’s some background on the guys, pictured (left to right) in the photo above:
David Dominguez is a twenty-eight-year-old bartender from Philadelphia.
Ryan Ruggiero is a twenty-six-year-old flight attendant from Philadelphia.
Colin Rossi is a thirty-year-old graduate student from Bordentown, New Jersey.
Geo Brewster is a twenty-five-year-old artist and model from Philadelphia.
Adam Straga is a twenty-five-year-old banker from Collingswood, New Jersey.
Amir Simon is a twenty-one-year-old college student from Philadelphia.
A&U: Several of you seemed eager to be interviewed for this article. Why?
Colin: Doing this kind of thing helps me cope. I think the only way to address something people don’t understand is to be honest and forthright about it.
Ryan: Our generation and even the younger generation are naïve about how it can happen. I’m not a whore. I wasn’t in a bathhouse. I wasn’t in a sling. I want them to know the real story. I guess I trusted the wrong person. I trust people.
Geo: I’m not fully comfortable yet with it. Putting myself out there will give an in for other kids who aren’t really cool with it or even with just being gay.
Adam: I thought that I could give more of the not-so-bright side of things as opposed to some of the people who were so excited to do it and are totally okay with being positive. I’m not so much.
Tell us about your life before you were diagnosed.
Amir: I knew about HIV but I was kind of oblivious—like it’s not going to happen to me. I thought I was being careful. I trusted the wrong person and that was my downfall.
Geo: My high school didn’t really educate us on HIV. It was more just a basic “sex ed” class. I dated someone who was positive, and I didn’t know much. We did practice safe sex, but there’s always that time when you’re out drinking and you get too wasted and things happen—and things happened.
Adam: I didn’t have much information about it. In school we never learned it. They didn’t really talk about the consequences.
Colin: It wasn’t like it was a complete unknown. It was just not on my radar in a tiny suburban town. It was never anything I even thought would find its way to me.
Take us back to the day you learned you were HIV-positive.
Amir: A friend called me randomly and said, “Let’s get tested.” The thought hadn’t crossed my mind I might come back positive. I just remember my whole body went numb and everything was moving in slow motion.
David: I was just in shock. I called a good friend who was positive and he dropped everything and came over. I didn’t ask him one question. He didn’t ask me how I was feeling. That day I didn’t need to talk about it. I didn’t need to do anything.
Ryan: [Being diabetic], I had a full workup done every three months. My doctor told me [the test results] and I just stared at her. I didn’t hear a thing she said. It was like one of those weird movies where you’re sitting in a room and everything is just stopped. I called my best friend and he said, “I’m coming to get you.” When I heard his voice I just lost it.
Adam: My family doctor told me the news and I could not believe what he had just said. I called the guy I had just broken up with because after a while we didn’t use protection. We got retested together and he was negative and I was positive. He held me and we cried right there. It was just the most horrifying thing ever…thinking that my life was over. I had contracted it beforehand and I didn’t know. Then I learned more about it.
Colin: I had to get some routine blood work done. I sat down with the doctor and he said, “You also came back positive for HIV.” I didn’t even react. It was like my whole body just stopped. I’m thinking he basically told me, “Your life is over.” I got in the car and I just broke. I couldn’t stop myself from crying.
Geo: I tested with a friend to support him. I didn’t expect a role reversal; my friend came out negative, I came out positive. It was a busy night in the city and I didn’t see anyone. I just kept walking in circles. I cried for a good three hours. Then I said to myself, “My life isn’t over. This isn’t the end of it. I’m just going to move on.”
How have things changed since then?
Adam: My mom said it’s her worst nightmare come true. She said, “Don’t be drinking from any of our glasses.” I had to take her to my doctor and he educated her, but we never talk about it. She’s never asked me how I’m doing. That is probably the hardest part.
Colin: I’ve been really lucky with the response to me. My sister showed up with a three ring binder with information about all these different resources and places for me. She wanted to create a handbook for me so that I could survive it. She is incredible.
Amir: Growing up in the city I witnessed a lot of stigma about being gay and a lot of stigma for people who have HIV. My dad told me that it was wrong to be gay. Now he is more accepting, but he doesn’t know [that I’m HIV-positive]. I feel that he’s going to break down and that’s going to cause me to break down. I don’t think I can handle that right now.
David: When I first found out, there was a giant thought bubble that just had a plus sign above my head. I did tell two of my cousins. One of them couldn’t look me in the eye. She just fell apart. I’m like, “You don’t get to fall apart. That’s what I get to do.” In Philly with the machismo of the Spanish culture, it would be fine if I was sleeping with women and I was HIV-positive. The gay thing is worse.
What’s the most difficult challenge you face today?
Adam: My biggest challenge is dating and disclosing. I struggle with when to tell somebody. A lot of people I tell really don’t feel comfortable with somebody who is positive. It almost makes me not want to date.
David: It was the dating thing for a while, but now I just don’t care. I met one person who I thought was amazing. When I told him my status, he freaked out. Now I’m starting to meet people that are positive influences in my life.
Colin: I feel like there was a lot that I wanted to do, a lot of things I wanted to try. And I don’t want to take risks anymore. I’m so worried about being able to take care of myself.
Has your HIV status transformed you for the better in some way?
Geo: It’s been motivation to get where I want to be in life. I have the support of friends now more than before, and my family is a big support.
Amir: It’s forced me to become more comfortable in my skin, and I met this group of wonderful guys.
Adam: I came to this group and poured my heart out and the overwhelming support from everybody was just amazing. That really helped me cope and helped me meet friends. The group has helped me be a happier, healthier person.
What about your hopes and dreams? Are they different now?
Colin: I’ve always wanted to be a dad and when this first happened I was terrified that it wasn’t going to happen. As I get more at peace with myself, being with my niece has put that spark back.
David: I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant. When I found out I was positive I said, “What is there to lose? Why not just go for what I want?” It’s more of a stepping stone to do the things I’ve dreamed about.
Ryan: My ultimate dream is to brand myself, be a household name like Nate Berkus, and write my memoir. It’s called Coffee, Tea or Me? Memoirs of a Jewish Flight Attendant.
Each of these young men has a different story to tell, yet they all share something that’s been vital to their well-being—the support group. “This group has definitely helped save me,” Colin says. And not only do they find comfort and companionship there, they empower themselves by helping the “newbies” who join them. “I don’t always come to the group because I need help anymore,” Adam chimes in. “I come to help be supportive for other people as well.”
Liza Linder, MSW, LCSW, founder and facilitator of the group, says in the seven years she’s been leading the sessions, she’s never seen a bunch of guys bond like this one. She also emphasizes the importance of always maintaining a sense of humor. “We do much more laughing than crying.” But there’s one thing that’s forbidden in Linder’s group. Nobody is allowed to say, ‘I am HIV.’ “If you’re going to think and say, ‘I’m HIV,’ she explains, “you’re going to think that’s all you are…It should not define you.”
“Young MSM are still where we’re seeing a lot of new infections,” states Andrew Goodman, MD, Mazzoni’s assistant medical director. “It’s sort of that adolescent developing brain that can know something on the one hand, but when it actually happens to you as an individual it’s a very different thing.” He acknowledges that “a lot of the thoughts about HIV have changed. Among the young men, that prevention message is getting out there, but translating that message into actual change in behavior doesn’t seem to be something that’s happening.” So why isn’t it? Goodman surmises that the fear-driven campaigns of the past may have resonated more effectively—albeit to a different generation. “Some of that fear is not there anymore.” When treating at-risk patients, he emphasizes that medical professionals have to choose their words carefully. “How you frame your prevention messages, how you use stigma is so important. If you go too far, you will create shame. People won’t talk to you, come in, get screening, or get treatment.”
For those already receiving treatment and learning to live with HIV, Colin offers this advice: “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but if you stop, if you get scared you’re nowhere but in the dark. You just have to keep moving forward.”
For more information about Mazzoni Center, visit www.mazzonicenter.org.
To find HIV/AIDS support groups or other resources in your community, call the CDC twenty-four hour hotline, 1-800-232-4636, or go to www.thebody.com/index/hotlines.html.
Tara Lessard offers creative photography in the tri-state area, radical or refined with rapid delivery and competitive pricing. She can be reached at 267-614-1778 or www.freedomgphotography.com.
Chip Alfred, an A&U Editor at Large, interviewed Miss Universe 2012 Olivia Culpo for the August cover story.