HIV & Isolation: Who Me?

Finding a community is at the top of my list—but how?

by John Francis Leonard

Here I am, back in my hometown for eight years now. I don’t regret the move, per se, but it has presented me with some unique challenges that I didn’t foresee. It’s not a small town, but a small city I find myself in. A city that the average gay man leaves, moving on to bigger and better things as I did myself at seventeen. They say with increasingly more tolerant attitudes towards the LGBT community that more and more of us are settling down in suburbs, hometowns, and smaller communities alike, but I don’t see that here. As small as the gay community is here, the number of openly HIV-positive people is almost nonexistent. There is more uninformed fear of those who are than anywhere I’ve encountered. Far from breeding sensible caution, this fear seems to have little effect on sexual mores in this community especially among my gay peers. It’s much more of a “fiddle while Rome burns” approach.

When reaching out to other men, primarily online, I’ve seen that fear firsthand as well as a frightening amount of recalcitrance. I rarely connect with local men anyway, as they rarely interest me, and, believe me, I seem to hold little interest for them. This, along with the fact that most of my friends, whom I treasure, are far away leaves me feeling…well, isolated.

I can’t blame it all on my HIV status, but what I wouldn’t give to have access to a community of HIV-positive long-term survivors to connect with locally. This month, I’ve written a story on an incredible LTS organization out of Portland, LKA-PDX [see “Strength in Numbers”], and was just amazed at the large community they’ve built. It also reminded me that isolation when you’re positive is not limited to those in smaller towns and cities; even in a larger more diverse community you can feel like you’re all alone. Part of it is getting older. Your priorities shift and your expectations and even your geographical location change. When we’re positive and of a certain age and demographic, we may have lost lovers as well as many friends to the plague in our early years.

So, the question is, what do I do now? What I strongly believe, what I was always taught, is that it’s futile to expect others to do it for you—you must make some changes yourself. I’ve been writing professionally for a year now, and it alone has expanded my horizons immeasurably. I’ve had the privilege to meet and work with some incredible people that I admire greatly. People who are effecting change for themselves and their community. I’ll expand and broaden that work; it brings me so much. I won’t give up on meeting “the one.” If he’s farther afield, all the better. The great thing about writing is that you can do it anywhere. Newer horizons can only bring new material. I was recently disappointed that things didn’t work out with a long-distance relationship I had cultivated for over two years (yes, that guy in Canada). But, finally ending things with him opened me up for an incredible guy I’m interested in who lives down South. We’re planning my trip there soon. You never know, he could be it.

I’m also thinking about the possibility of moving on my own. I’ve already done major cities on each coast. I’m thinking of one larger than my own, but not too large. Somewhere with a community I can connect with, with organizations and services for a LTS like myself. Portland sounds awfully interesting. Perhaps most importantly, I will cultivate those friendships I do have, regardless of distance. I have some remarkable friends, both positive and negative. A great gift several years ago was the opportunity to reconnect with my best friend from high school, a remarkable HIV/AIDS advocate and writer in his own right. I’m made some incredible friends among my colleagues at this magazine alone. They mean the world to me already. I’ve lost touch with most of my friends from my previous life, but maybe that’s to be expected and is only healthy. I’ve grown so much in the past eight years; I’m not the same person I was then. Thank God for that!

I’m giving some thought to starting even a small support group here locally. There are a small number of doctors and even a local non-profit providing services to those who are HIV-positive. I volunteered for that organization upon my arrival to this town so I know there are some of us out there, especially in my city’s underserved urban neighborhoods. I could even finally give in and sign up for Facebook, as there are many online communities of HIV-positive individuals to join there. I guess my point is that I do have choices—maybe my mistake is in not reaching out and exploring what is already available to me. As the incredible Marianne Williamson says, “A miracle is only a change in perception.”

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.