Even the most casual of encounters can speak volumes—volumes about how we see ourselves and how others perceive us. Being a gay man, as well as an HIV-positive one, is not something I consider myself ashamed of. But when I have a negative encounter—a negative encounter with another gay man especially—that shame comes swimming back and washes over me, leaving me with yet more shame. Yes, I’m ashamed of being shamed by another person—what sense does that make? But beyond the initial wound to the pride of this very proud, HIV-positive man, I’m left with disappointment and dissolution. Next step? Putting all of this negativity into context and learning from it. Learning where we, and especially I myself, can grow and thrive. It’s times like this that I feel even more privileged to have this platform.
I’m still working a very limited number of hours at a local grocery store. It serves two purposes: It brings in a little extra money and it gets me out of the house, where I do most of my work. With more writing jobs coming in, I’ll be happy to take my leave of it soon, but for now I’m determined to work hard and make the best of the experience that I can. It’s tough at times, it’s a job for which my previous business experience vastly over-qualifies me, but I was taught that whatever you’re doing for money, be it picking up trash, running your own business, or running a large department of someone else’s—all of which I’ve done—you do it and give it your best. Recently I grew bored in my capacity in the store’s meat department and decided to apply for a new position, as a cashier—something to give me a new challenge and a fresh attitude. The customers have been great, the vast majority of them patient and kind as I learn the ropes.
Last night however, I had quite a different experience with two fellow gay men who came through my line. I’ll admit it, I might have started out with a little chip on my shoulder—I cringe at being judged by my peers, a problem intensified by the fact that I’m used to moving in what I felt were more elite circles. I have no problem doing this job in the small city I grew up in. If I were doing it when I lived In New York, L.A., or Denver—where I’ve resided previously—I’d be in a state of constant panic over someone I knew in my previous life seeing me humbled. But I pulled it together as they came through my line and decided to do my best, though, admittedly, there were a few glitches. One of the men, when he tried to access his discount card with his telephone number, had no success. I called for a supervisor as he was very adamantly making very clear that “he lived in NYC now.”
I tried not to judge; I myself enjoy it when I can make it clear that this town is just a brief stop for me. I’ve always lived in major cities as an adult.
The second problem came up as I was trying to weigh and find the code for all of the produce they couldn’t be bothered to label themselves. I was glad to do it; it just slows me down a little. His supercilious friend, obviously still an embittered resident of this upstate city, found the produce codes on my screen as I grew flustered trying to find them myself and sarcastically read them to me. He was also simply amazed that—when we have about twenty separate varieties of each vegetable—I was bothering them by asking what kind they had picked out. His disdain, and his disdain for me, were palpable and aggressive. As my Irish gran would have said, “If he had rolled his eyes one more time, they would have been stuck in the back of his head.” All of this just made me more stressed and even slower. After goodbyes dripping with acid on both our parts (I couldn’t help myself), I moved on happily to the next customer, one who was seemingly straight, smiling, and patient. Whatever he identified as, he was kind, which is the most important thing when all is said and done.
I was glad to put the night behind me, but had trouble processing what had happened. I couldn’t let go of my anger and wounded pride, so I had a long think. Why, in times like these, with our community under such attack from those who hate us, would any one of us treat the other, or anyone, this way? As HIV-positive individuals we can all relate to this. We see it constantly online, especially gay men. There is such stigma. After the horrific early days of the plague, have we forgotten our own tolerance? Just read a few profiles on Scruff or Grindr and you’ll see it. “Disease-free only,” “white men only,” “clean,” “no Asians”…the list goes on. They’re careful to point out that it’s “just a preference.” In the community as a whole, we’ve seen people like the odious bigot Milo Yiannopoulos admitting that having sex with black men is one thing, but acknowledging their humanity and civil rights, not important.
Maybe I’m making mountains out of molehills, but I can’t help wishing that we as a community could just start treating each other with a little more respect, be it in encounters innocuous or more significant. We face so much stigma and senseless hatred still, that it’s a shame when we can’t treat each other with a little tolerance. It’s time for all of us, be it LGBT, the HIV-Positive, or any minority to lead by example.
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. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he writes reviews for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.