Contracting HIV: My Story

I’ll Always Have Paris
Coming to terms with one’s own seroconversion
by John Francis Leonard

I’d been so careful for so long. Safe sex was being marketed and promoted heavily when I arrived in New York in 1987 at the age of seventeen. All the cool kids were doing it. But, as the nineties were drawing to a close, I and many of my gay male peers were ceasing to be as careful. I’ve heard it referred to as condom fatigue. It felt better, we told ourselves; it felt different. Coupled with recreational drug use, particularly my own, it was a dangerous combination. Drug and alcohol abuse lowers inhibitions and increases the likelihood of unsafe sex greatly. According to the NIH, one in four people living with HIV/AIDS has sought treatment for substance abuse. That statistic holds regardless of sex, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.

In ’98, I had my first opportunity to see the City of Light. My former partner, Stephen, surprised me and his business partner, Bruce, with an early Christmas gift, tickets to Paris. We all lived and ran a successful business together and we knew that Bruce would never make the trip alone. The only traveling he did was domestic and to the dog shows he loved. He needed a break, and would be comfortable traveling with me. I would be able to visit museums and sightsee during the day with him and could see what trouble I could make for myself at night with Bruce tucked safely in his bed.

I had a high tolerance for risk in those days and managed to secret a supply of liquid ketamine and some crystal meth among my toiletries. I indulged in the Special K as more of an an enhancement to sightseeing. I mean, what are the glories of Versailles without a little animal tranquilizer, right? The meth was more for my nocturnal wanderings. If one were to talk about taking risks sexually when under the influence, I was a poster boy. I was warned by friends that the city wasn’t necessarily a hotbed of after-hours fun, especially for the uninitiated, but I wasn’t thwarted. I found one-stop shopping in a notorious establishment along the picturesque right bank of the Seine. Downstairs, a hot leather and Levi bar, upstairs a very busy sex club with lots of private and public areas to indulge. I’d struck gold! The same Frenchmen who looked so disdainful in other situations trailed around me like lemmings. I was back the next night for more, high as a kite and ready to go.

I met a really handsome guy the next night. After I happily played bottom, the role I usually played and which is the riskiest, we both surprised each other by speaking English. He’s was a Texan in Paris for a friend’s wedding. We repaired to the bar downstairs and shared some beers. So went the pattern. We’d share a few beers and talk; we got along great in fact. He was a very nice guy. Then, when the mood struck, we’d head back upstairs for another session. The man had the stamina of a bull. He never offered to put on a condom and I didn’t ask him to. This happened at least three times and I was always on the receiving end, so to speak. He was certainly not my only sexual contact that week, but most of my other activity had been oral in nature and relatively low-risk.

We parted ways in the small hours of the morning. Neither of us was feeling any pain, and he walked me to my door. Not only was he hot, he was kind—a trait sometimes rare in American gay men when it comes to sex.

The next morning found me at the airport in large dark glasses feeling all the pain I hadn’t felt the night before. And who should I bump into? The Texan. He was boarding soon and we didn’t talk long, but he was giving me the strangest feeling. He wouldn’t look me in the eye and was very uncomfortable. I’m a great believer in instincts. They’re often right if you’ll only listen. Mine told me, screamed at me actually, that this guy is positive. And if unsafe sex were a baseball game, he’d hit at least three home runs the night before.

Some years later, I finally got tested. Yes, I hear my instincts but that doesn’t mean I always pay attention to what they’re saying. Through a genotype of my virus and a new knowledge of what seroconversion entails, I could narrow it down. Also, my sex-filled visit to Paris took place in the middle of a long and rare period of celibacy for me. So, I believe my gut was right and it was him.

The thing people ask me when they hear this story (besides “did he really orgasm three times?”) is “am I angry? Do I blame him for my contraction of HIV?” My answer is no. I still believe firmly in what young gay men were taught in the New York City of the eighties. When you have sex with another man, you have to assume that he is positive. AIDS first came to be public knowledge when I was hitting puberty; it was hardly a shock. Now, do I blame myself? In a way, but I try not to judge myself too harshly. Yes I was having fun when it happened, but did I really love myself enough at the time? The answer is no. And again, I would have made some very different decisions that night had I been sober. For many people who become positive, it’s a similar story. We took risks that we normally would not have and came up short.

John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.