It took about 15 minutes before he asked what I do for a living. Scruff dates can be awkward at first, so I was content to forgive his incessant rambling until we got settled with our drinks and could begin to relax at the coffee shop.
“HIV prevention. Mostly educational outreach,” I said to him.
Five words were all I got out before he hammered the nail into his coffin with one stroke. This was surprising, because after I’d just spent five months out of the country with no physical affection at all, I had every intention of sleeping with this guy… Until he opened his mouth.
“Oh. I am so over that,” he scoffed, rolling his eyes dismissively.
Twenty-two years poz, apparently HIV is the very last thing he wants to think about. I would later learn that he had recently been double dipping from his insurance and has a 12-month stockpile of Stribild, which made his out-of-state move last month easy as pie. He has all the tools he needs to pretend HIV just doesn’t exist anymore. For him, it practically doesn’t. The biohazard symbol inked across his bicep is a relic, a useless artifact of a world in which he is no longer trapped. He’s so over that.
Privilege is an insidious thing. It’s the headache we don’t realize we don’t have. But the issue here runs far deeper than a mere overabundance of privilege: He lacks compassion.
Compassion is the thing that tells us to empathize with the people who do have headaches even when we don’t have one. Compassion is why we say, “I’m sorry you’re hurting. Can I get you some medicine? Is there something I can do to help you with your headache?”
We don’t stand there and say, “Oh. I used to have a headache, but I take medication for it now and don’t have to think about it anymore. I’m so over headaches.”
When we do that, we sound like jerks, especially to people are troubled by headaches. I’m still startled when guys who spent the 80s and 90s living with the persistent headache known as HIV feel entitled to roll their eyes and scoff at folks who are experiencing that headache now. And if you were a gay man during this era, regardless of your serostatus, HIV/AIDS was a headache you felt.
Just because that headache has eased up doesn’t mean HIV is a fad that came and went. It’s not some minor inconvenience that only matters until you get a once-daily pill to make the virus disappear from your consciousness. There are millions of people who do not have and cannot get that pill. People are still dying, just like this guy’s friends did two decades ago. This headache is still real.
I have fought damn hard to be alive today. The people in my community have, too. Even this guy sitting in front of me at the coffee shop, bitching about how he can’t be bothered to care about preventing HIV – or even be appreciative of those who do care so he doesn’t have to – has fought valiantly and successfully for his life.
But the fact is, we haven’t survived all on our own. Someone helped us. Someone who didn’t share our headache, who didn’t know our pain, who wasn’t trapped in the same hell at the same time. Someone came along at some point and showed us compassion. They empathized with us. They reminded us why life is worth living and encouraged us to keep fighting.
We survived because someone cared whether or not we lived. They cared about our headache even though they didn’t have one. Can’t we show a bit of gratitude for how they eased our struggle by taking some initiative to ease someone else’s? Can’t we lend our hearts now to those who are still fighting for their own survival, who aren’t “so over that” battle for privilege we’ve already won?
HIV treatment means so much more than a stockpile of anti-retrovirals and doctor’s visits. How about we make an effort to see that everyone receives from us the treatment they deserve: Compassion.