Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Virus with a Face

The social experiment I described in my post entitled “Finding social interconnectedness: My online experience” has yielded a personally-enriching series of interactions, and I don't regret it at all. Several, such as my “first date” Aigidios and another guy, Damien, who I met for a charming stroll, simply disappeared from my life despite my efforts to maintain the friendship. Étienne and Jean-Marc I have never met (despite our efforts to arrange something), but they have become my friendly acquaintances after each had an intense period of exchange with me. I remain an encouraging, supportive, and largely online persona in their lives. Remarkably, when I introduced Étienne and Jean-Marc to each other online, they really seemed to hit it off. Who knew?! Two other individuals that I have met in person in the past few months, Robert (described in the post “Shopping Around”) and Farid (I did not meet him in the social networking site but rather haphazardly in the real world), have become new good friends, and I feel very fondly toward them and look forward to future growth in our respective friendships.

However, I have not yet recounted one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had since beginning the exploration of my sexual identity that started with this blog. Almost immediately after I joined the social networking website I discussed meeting I met several people right up front, such as Aigidios and Damien. However, another’s name was Michel. He initiated an extensive conversation with me in August, then disappeared for several weeks, reemerging by the time the whole “First Date” drama with Aigidios had come and gone. Suddenly, we were talking to each other at least an hour a night. Despite his busy schedule in school (he, a little over a year younger than me, was finishing his undergrad), he always made time to talk to me. It was clear, by the intensity of our fast-paced and increasingly intimate conversations, that we were courting each other. Our discussions always strongly intellectual, we talked extensively and ceaselessly for what must have been over a month, and during that time I started to truly care for him and feel fondly toward him, even, perhaps, in a romantic way. I knew it was crazy; how could I be having real feelings toward a computer, toward a voice?! He was eager to meet me, quite eager, and he made allusions that he would like to start a real relationship with me. To him, I was the scientist with whom he could discuss esoteric topics, and I was always interested in what he was learning. I am necessarily summarizing our incipient friendship here, without extending on the joyful experience that our interaction truly meant to me at the time. I actually left the social networking site thinking that I had more than satisfied any real need I had for it, in the person of Michel.

Our eagerness toward each other was unfortunately short-lived, lasting only for that month. His enthusiasm clearly fell apart before mine did for reasons that were not terribly clear for me. His seemingly insatiable desire to meet me waned quickly; he suddenly had other unspecified obligations. Then we had that dreaded sexual philosophy showdown, where I defended the position of Aphrodite Urania, sex initiated within the context of deeper ‘celestial’ soul-love, and him on the side of Aphrodite Pandemos, sex as a physical act, a chemical reaction, with no meaning beyond the pleasure experienced and with no union of souls. It was a difficult conversation in which it became clear that he was rather sexually liberated with a lot of sexual experience behind his belt, despite being younger than me. He, on the other hand, couldn’t believe that someone our age (me) could actually be a virgin. We left that night not having resolved the conflict (neither one of us is likely correct in our views) and understanding each other less than ever. His “free love” sexual philosophy was rather disconcerting to me, and I wasn’t sure if we could reconcile it if we did decide to have a romantic relationship.

Following that confrontation, Michel dropped off the radar for the most part for the following week or so, and I figured that he had lost any interest in maintaining the friendship given our earlier intensity. I continued my friendly overtures, but he did not seem nearly as enthusiastic as before. While I was at work, on the afternoon of my second failed attempt to get Gardasil (see the article “One Less!”), he popped online and said ‘hello.’ I thought, “if he wants to pop out of the box at this inconvenient occasion, I’m going to dump on him about my Gardasil vexations.” I was dead-set on giving him a lecture. Shockingly, he informed me that he was vaccinated with Gardasil a few years back. He actually knew more about the vaccine than me, but we were matched on our knowledge of HPV. Apparently, he had been consulting a gay-friendly STI doctor for several years, ever since becoming sexually active, and he has been making a concerted effort to live a healthy life in this regard. I was pleasantly surprised that he was so knowledgeable on these issues and the importance of taking STI prevention seriously. As the conversation evolved, at one point I told him, "I should probably be more concerned about HIV as a gay man than about other infections, but that HIV is more difficult to transmit with high-quality latex condoms and lubrication, whereas HPV often spread outside of the area covered by a condom." He agreed, but then said "yes, speaking in clinical terms: but you will surely have non-protected relations later, whether it be with the man of your life or with others—human passion does not necessarily listen to medical recommendations.” I replied, “no, sorry, I could never do it. My brain never ceases to remind me of the things”. He then said, “you are a man, not a theoretical entity: you can forget yourself.”

While what he said may very well prove true, I refuted it, giving him the low-down on how I planned to proceed with my sex life, if that were ever to become an eventuality. I said that I would be involved in a monogamous relationship for a couple months. Furthermore, that person I would require to not have had sex with anyone in the past 6 months before having sex with him, and that he would have to take and HIV test and a Herpes test. If I were really hot and heavy to have sex with him, I would permit less time, but I would make him take one of the rapid (and probably expensive) tests that can be taken in place of an antibody test. I would do the same, and then we would share with each other the results. Then, I would have sex, but probably protected initially in any case. I told him that the leap to sex would be a slow one, because I don't trust anyone with my own health (including myself sometimes). I promised my mom after coming out that I would never get HIV as a consequence of my sexual identity, and I plan to keep that promise. I have been and always will be very calculating, rational, and careful. At the end of the day, I may end up a 40 year old virgin, but at least I will be a healthy one!

The talk about HIV clearly struck a nerve with him, so I let the conversation evolve. I wasn't very sensitive or understanding with respect to HIV, indirectly alluding to it as the worst of all possible fates when he asked me how I would live if I had HIV. I returned the question and was mortified to hear, “ when the doctor told me that I had HIV, I was very surprised and I tried to figure out how that could happen, but then I rapidly understood, thanks to my doctor.” He continued, "my doctor had a lot of serious information for me, and he reassured me that now, in 2009, things are no longer as they were in 1985, and that I will live until 70 years old, travel, have children, work, and retire. Furthermore, the discourse of abstinence, the death sentence, of perpetual misfortune, it’s from 20 years ago.“ I was reeling from the news; while I don't understand his mindset (and I that the fate he describes, even with today's advances, is a possibility but not necessarily a probablility). I do understand that he is putting on a facade, coping in the best way he knows how given the circumstances. His story of his father’s own death was similarly blithe. Later he told me how it happened. He said, in English, that “I lost myself [in another person]." he did not have protected sex (he was not in a monogamous relationship at the time), and it was with the "wrong person."

Apparently he just learned, testing positive about three weeks previously. I was shell-shocked. First of all, he is the first person I have ever personally known to be infected with the virus (undoubtedly he won‘t be the last). It was suddenly like it was all coming home for me; all of my fears justified. It was also scary in that he once, like me now, took a strategic approach to his sexual health, and yet at the end of the day all of that fell apart for him. I'm vindicated at the end of the day; clearly my lifestyle choices and planning thus far have been beneficial to me, but that didn’t make me feel any better about myself or him. In fact, I felt just downright sad. It was that familiar aching I felt when a good friend told me she had cancer a few years ago. I knew she'd survive, and she lives fabulously now, but I was just so sad for her and the pain I knew she would have to endure. Even though I've never met Michel, somewhere along the way, during our many conversations, I started to genuinely care for him. I don't know when or how that happened, but the sadness I felt when I found out was proof of that. I also think now I understand why my mom said she was "sad" for me when I came out of the closet. At the same time, even though I feel this way, I think that these kinds of experiences, talking to people, learning, and enriching myself with these new perspectives, is the best part of being gay.

I asked for us to talk in English (our first time) so that he could tell me about his experience and I could respond in a more nuanced way. I became more sensitive, embracing an active-listening approach to the conversation, asking to hear his opinions. He had been talking to me like a carefree young person these last few weeks, yet clearly this has to have been on his mind, pulsing through his feelings and dreams. He told me once that he pretty much figured his dating life was over now, but that he was ok with that. I stopped active listening to provide one little anecdote. At one point during my work in the gay community, I ran across a couple in which one man was seropositive and the other seronegative, and they had been together for nearly two decades like that. While it might have been something of a fairy tale, it does prove that there are understanding people out there and that he can meet an amazing man someday. My story unfortunately ended with the unneccessary, voluntary transmission of the virus to the seronegative partner, which disappointed Michel. I will say, however, that I learned a lot about living and coping with this infection from my subsequent conversation with Michel. I think he also learned to think of it from a foreigner's perspective (aka, mine), where getting HIV would bring about great financial harm. He's getting free treatment, but for foreigners one must take into account the issue of private insurance, the lack of public aid, and the inability to become privately insured or immigrate successfully once getting HIV or diabetes (or any other serious health issue for that matter).

Michel was in my thoughts nearly constantly for the following week, during which I didn‘t get much sleep. He was the last thing I thought about when I did manage to fall asleep and the first thing I'd think about when I woke up. The day after that life-altering conversation, when I woke up, I thought to myself, "no, it couldn't be, it couldn't have happened, please God, not to him," and then I realized that it was all true. The next night I had nightmares all night, that is, in the 3am-7am period during which I actually was asleep, and they were all relating to him somehow. I should have just skipped the sleeping and worrying and wrote this instead.

Why was the news affecting me so strongly? Am I just going crazy? Why am I so disturbed by what happened to Michel, when it is hardly news to me that unprotected sex can lead to HIV? After all, he could be the poster child for HIV statistics: gay man, transmission through anal sex, part of the growing young demographic oblivious to the disease (or under the impression that it doesn't matter all that much), more interested in pleasure than protecting himself. I could go on and on. It's not like I haven't been in contact with people who have HIV, especially during my volunteer work in the gay community, and I talked to them rationally like everyone else I've ever talked to about this issue. Furthermore, I sat in a room full of people with HIV at the STI clinic (where I was hoping to get a Gardasil shot), relatively unphased by it. But I don't understand my own feelings; how could I have been so secure and serene in interacting with these people, when with Michel it clearly served as a wake up call, an eye-opener. Why did I, and do I, feel so sad? Why did it take five minutes of choking up over my words when I was trying to tell a friend a couple of days later about what he is going through? By the way I was carrying on, you would have thought I was the one recently diagnosed with HIV. Why did I feel like this, why did it upset me and unnerve me so thoroughly?

In our many many hours of conversations for the last month and a half, he really won over my affections. He also couldn’t wait to meet me. For a time (before our sexual philosophy showdown) I was genuinely hoping to start a relationship with him. I was even fantasizing, for example, that he might be my first kiss. But now the very thought freaks me out. I‘m not experienced in kissing: what if I had bitten him on the lips, causing him to bleed! My god, I was having feelings for a man with HIV! How could this happen, so quickly upon deciding to be a part of the gay community, on the first time I had the opportunity to act with romantic intent? I’m not so surface as to cut him off out of fear of his HIV. But in my own semi-paranoid manner, during this period of my life I thought I would never have a romantic or otherwise physical relationship knowingly with someone with HIV. I thought I would be insanely frightened, fear would take over my life, I wouldn’t be able to function. Not even the deepest love could shatter my grasp of the reality of this terrible virus and my inherent and deep-seated fear of it for both rational and irrational reasons. It would be very difficult to do, and I wouldn't even contemplate it without my love being stronger than my fear. After all, it scared me then and freaked me out that I was even thinking about being in a relationship with him and enjoying the thought. But then I felt bad for him; he doesn’t deserve to have such feelings of fear directed at him. From a romantic standpoint, he deserves someone who is more realistic and can rationally handle the pressure and the risks that the disease presents. Fortunately, since my initial reaction to his infection, my realism has returned, and I don't automatically rule out the possibility of having a relationship with someone with HIV. It depends on the person and how he would treat me.

Furthermore, I will readily admit that I'm both open-minded and highly judgmental, depending on the circumstances. I'm open-minded about diverse lifestyles and how other people live them, as long as something that I view as unpleasant doesn't affect me or my world personally. If it does, it doesn't take much to get me to react in a highly judgmental manner. The more I care about something or someone, the more I judge, as my mom could definitely attest. It’s certainly not one of my more charming qualities. Michel is a strange paradox in my life; he was able to get just far enough to enter my sphere of personal concern, so that his choice to have unprotected sex revolted me. I was angry, so angry with him (without expressing it)! How could he, a brilliant person in and of himself, carefully plotting out his sex life, behave so stupidly, and why couldn’t he control himself a little better? He was very conscious of STIs from before contracting HIV, why couldn't he have put that knowledge to practice, used his brain, do something other than what he did?

I realize that such a mindset in reality only blames the victim. I talked to one of my friends the following Friday, who I thought might have a unique perspective on the HIV issue, considering she spent most of her life growing up in sub-Saharan Africa and has a more well-rounded set of social experiences to work from in this regard. I wanted to know: what should and shouldn't I talk about, what should and shouldn't I feel? She had some interesting insights, not all of which I would necessarily prescribe to, but certainly one of them was important. She said that I shouldn't be judgmental toward him. What's done is done, and all the vexing in the world over what he should have done is pointless. Furthermore, she said that if I felt like I couldn't respect him as a friend, given what he did, that I shouldn't continue trying to be his friend. If I simply stuck around because I want to be sympathetic toward him without loving the individual he is, with all his faults up to and including that one fatal act, then I should back out now, as the last thing he needs at this point is someone who is sympathetic but not genuine in affection/respect toward him. I think there is some truth in what she said.

Her advice helped me realize that I didn’t have to necessarily respect and happily accept Michel’s act, but I should respect Michel for the person he is and separate my disagreement of the act with my pathos toward him. Furthermore, I should understand and respect the person that Michel was the night he was infected with HIV. Separating the person from the act is not always the easiest thing to do. I need to simply respect him and remain honest and true to myself and him, and that was the part of her advice that rang most true for me.

What makes me feel a bit better, in my incessant obsession to understand him and what he did, is that I can understand it to a limited extent, even from my theoretical worldview. I can see a beautiful human quality in what he did, even if I cannot see the act as a good one. It was recognized and written on scrolls so many years ago, commented on so wonderfully by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. Something about our nature as human beings drives us to lose ourselves in each other, something more powerful than our bodies, something more divine than our minds, something that drives us to care, to merge, to love. I think that’s why Plato alluded in the Symposium that any kind of Eros, even the basest and most misdirected kinds, is more beautiful and divine than our mortal nature.

This rather lengthy post has been mostly about my reactions, trying to understand how news of Michel‘s HIV has affected me. I’ve fallen into the same old trap I’m always falling into, trying to micro-analyze, intellectualize, and understand a situation, including my own role in it. The fact of the matter, though, is that, deep down inside my feelings for him and my sadness, really aching, was not about me. I currently live a beautiful and free-spirited life; I’m healthy, I have no diseases to worry about, and my future’s not at stake. I’ve never met him, never acted on my former romantic inclinations toward him, and thus there’s nothing about Michel’s situation that directly, physically affects me. Yet I still very much care about him in some undefinable way, and that’s why it hurt to learn his news, and that’s why it still makes me sad. Ultimately it’s that aching for him, not for me, that dominated my feelings. I wouldn’t feel that way if he was, to me, only yet another brash young person to behave stupidly. There’s something deeper there, and I resolved to overcome my prejudices and harsh judgments and continue to be his friend, a genuine one, not just a sympathetic one.

However, that one conversation was fatal to our friendship. We’ve talked since, but only on very rare occasions (once or twice a month) in the most superficial of ways. I made the very concerted effort to keep our intensity from after his “coming out.” However, he has never since made an effort with me, in spite of my many e-mails, overtures, and invitations (all rudely ignored). This year, I decided to give up on him: I will let him slip away like so many others in my life before him.