The first HIV/AIDS patients observed in the U.S. in the early 1980s were treated as societal pariahs in many ways. The disease was misunderstood and seen as a time stamp on one’s life. Even today, as medical advances have allowed many to live and thrive with the virus, there remains a stigma. HIV/AIDS does not affect a single gender, race, class or sexual orientation but instead has the ability to affect all of us. As of December 2013, as many as 35 million people are living with HIV/AIDS across the globe. This is just one story.
Growing up in the early 2000s as the son of two Afghan immigrants who was homosexual made Sam a bully’s bullseye. “I was an easy target. I was either gay or a terrorist or a gay terrorist.”
From his early childhood in California, the world placed such unwanted labels on Sam. In his 20s, though, came a new label unsought: HIV positive. By the time of his diagnosis, Sam had learned not to conform to the boxes society had drawn for him.
The cruelty Sam faced in adolescence was intense, and not all of it came from classmates. After a gay-bashing incident caused his family to move when Sam was 13, it was clear that his parents were not accepting of having a homosexual son. Their culture and religion made the truth — that their son was gay — unacceptable to them.
After that, Sam felt like he had to play what he thought was the golden child. He focused on studying, playing sports and getting involved in leadership and yearbook. He helped with the family and looked after his sibling with special needs. He suppressed who he was and tried to act as straight as possible. “I did everything I was supposed to,” he said.
When he went to college in the fall of 2007, Sam was tired of being someone else. Away from his parents and preconceived notions, he was free to be himself. Like many 18 year olds on their own for the first time, Sam sometimes over indulged in freshmen-year freedoms.
In that year, his mother gave him an ultimatum: choose to be gay or be a part of the family. Sam’s choice to be who he was separated him from his family and from his schoolwork. He left the dorms and slipped into depression.
Depression gave way to problems like substance abuse and dangerous behaviors. Sam’ struggles over the next year brought his removal from the university, a stint in rehab and an attempt at taking his own life.
In the spring of 2013, Sam was traveling though the Mediterranean after attending his brother’s arranged wedding in Afghanistan. To celebrate his birthday, Sam went out for a few drinks hoping to meet up with a friend. When he woke up the next morning, alone and bleeding in an unfamiliar hotel room, he knew he had been the victim of a date raping. As he was hours from the nearest hospital and set to leave that day to work with refugees in a neighboring country, he pushed the experience from his mind.
Sam returned to college in the fall. This time, he wanted to make school a priority, and it seemed that things were starting to look up. Things with his parents were at peace, and he had his substance abuse under control. He knew, though, that something wasn’t right. He just didn’t feel well. A few months after being back at school, Sam decided to get tested.
When the doctor called and asked him to come in instead of sharing his results on the phone, Sam knew it was bad.
The doctor told him he had HIV.
After everything he had been through, instead of breaking down, Sam wanted to know, “Now what?”
What was daily medications in an attempt to control and maintain the virus, sharing with a few close confidantes his diagnosis and finding a new normal in life. Because of advanced treatments for HIV, within three months, Sam’s doctor told him the virus was undetectable. Sam was shocked and asked the doctor what this meant.
“It means that if you keep taking these pills everyday, you’ll live a long and happy life,” his doctor told him.
When he had shared the news with friends and a few close family members that he was HIV positive, they had cried while Sam kept his emotions at bay. “If I let myself cry, it was real,” he said. In the doctor’s office that day, for the first time since his diagnosis, Sam truly allowed himself to cry. “That day gave me a new perspective on life.”
Sam knew that he was blessed to live in today’s society as 20 years ago, his diagnosis could have been a death sentence. He had known other gay men living with HIV and how some had suffered.
“It makes me wonder why I was lucky enough to survive when others didn’t. It gave me strength to go on.”
After learning from his doctor that the virus was undetectable, Sam wanted to meet others living with HIV and turned to the internet to find support groups. After trying to date a bit, Sam also turned to popular dating apps in the hopes of finding other gay men living with HIV.
Sam has found that though treating HIV has advanced in the last 20 years, the stigma of the disease is still there. Even highly educated friends were afraid they might “catch” HIV from him.
Sam admits that his diagnosis can make getting to know people hard and that it makes dating extremely difficult. He is always upfront about his status with potential partners not because it defines him but because he thinks it is fair to the other person to know in the beginning and not be faced with a tough decision once feelings are involved. Sam is frustrated by questions like “Are you clean?” and the implications of “How did you get it?”
“Having HIV does not make me dirty,” he said. Sam chooses to see past the stigma still held by some. “You can either make it a badge of shame or a badge of honor.”
Today, Sam’s life is not greatly impacted by his HIV. He takes his medication regularly, which is second nature by now, sees a doctor every few months and has his blood tested throughout the year.
His diagnosis has, however, affected his strained family relationships. Though his parents and a few relatives know he is HIV positive, not all do and Sam believes he would be shunned from the family if they did.
“It makes reconciliation hard,” he said. “But I can choose to let it poison my future relationships or learn from it.”
Things with Sam’s parents are at an impasse, and he is focused on himself for right now. “I’m going to stop trying to please these people who will never be pleased. I’m going to stop trying to please society who will always have something to say,” he said.
As he has for most of his life, Sam continues to fight against labels. “I’m fighting for the right to be who I am,” he said. “I refuse to give up at this point.”
Today is World AIDS Day, and we remember the lives lost to the virus and the lives affected. As science progresses, there are new medicines each day to fight this disease, but it is society that needs to continue to fight the stigma. This stigma allows discriminatory stereotypes and scares others into getting tested. I encourage Grown Up Truth readers to fight the stigma, get tested and seek to understand one another regardless of HIV status. We are all the same people fighting for the same cause – a chance to thrive.