I became openly positive to many of my friends and my family first, and then as I became more comfortable, I started becoming more open to almost everybody I met, including people I wanted to socialize with. And I started finding more people who were also positive, so that made me feel more comfortable. But it wasn’t until I retired that I started becoming a openly “poz” person in the paper. I discovered, when I started going around to senior facilities, that heterosexual seniors did not think they could get HIV, and I was really alarmed at that. There’s a local DC paper called The Beacon which is for seniors, and I felt it was so important to get the message out that I interviewed with them, and stressed the fact that seniors can get infected.
There’s still a lot of stigma. For instance, there’s a group here in town that I’ve been involved in for more than 20 years which is a social group for gay positive men. At first it was like the biggest secret society that existed in Washington, DC. Even at the big gay events they would never go and have a booth and try to get people. Only about two years ago did they actually say, “We’re gonna set up a booth at the gay pride day here in Washington, DC, and give out cards that have, you know, “Would you like to come to a social with other positive men?” And so I think we’ve come a long ways here in Washington, DC, in a short time, but before that it was a looooong time coming.
I have heard a lot of talk about stigma. I’ve begun to realize the more I am openly positive, the more stigma goes away. Because people say, “Oh. He’s just like a regular individual, he doesn’t look he’s gonna die tomorrow.” You know, whatever their mistaken image of a person with HIV is, it’s not probably me. And so I think until we all come out as positive people, just like many of us came out as gay men and women, that we’ll continue to have a great deal of stigma in this country.
Interesting thing, when you get older, the stigma for being older I think has overtaken the stigma of being positive, quite frankly. Because the gay community is such a young-oriented community. They did a study here in Washington, DC, of gay men – about HIV, actually – but one of the findings was that men over the age of 30 were considered to be old in DC. I was stunned. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t think it was that bad. And then I think back in my own life, and when I was 22 I probably thought being 30 was really old. Fortunately, my attitude’s changed.
I think there are people who react very negatively, emotionally, with a lot of anger. One of the things about mellowing when you get gray hair is you understand that people, they’re not being vicious, they’re just being stupid. So I try to say they’re probably doing the best they can from their experience and their training, and is there anything I can do to help them kinda inch along in their knowledge base. But I don’t consider it my job to make everybody in the world free of stigma of any kind. Just one little inch at a time.
When I first became positive I used to sit around and just cry ‘cause I didn’t think I’d ever date anybody the rest of my life. Those days passed, ‘cause I figured out, I did date other people, I’ve had good relationships, I have good relationships. I think about those deep times of sorrow and how I thought nothing could ever get better, and it did. So I think, well okay, this may be a down day, but just like in the past, it could get better, and it probably will. So that keeps me going.
This is my time. In the past, I had to have a job, I had to worry about feeding myself, having a house and getting clothes, having a career, having the next success. I’m fortunate enough to have this pension that keeps me going, and I don’t have to worry about those things any more, which means that everything I do now is my choice. I don’t really have to do major things, anyway, because somebody else tells me to, because they’re paying me. I can choose. And I choose things that make me feel fulfilled. And that’s why I would say look forward to seniorhood – whatever you want to call it – because some people may not be able to have a totally work-free seniorhood, but some or all of your time will be your time, just like I say it’s my time. And it’s a wonderful feeling, to get up in the morning and know you’re doing what you want to do, not because you have to go to somebody else’s choosing.