those three letters

Today someone told me that they’re HIV positive.  We were talking about something else, about our Public Health interests. He mentioned that the region he is interested in working in would not admit him. (Like I would mention my ex-boyfriend to indicate my gayness without asking permission for it). I had a split-second of panic, but I think my face did not give me away. I hope it didn’t.

I remembered a similar occasion a few months ago.  I was walking from a house party to a bar with some new friends and older friends. One of the new friends (I had just met him at his house party) noticed the shirt that I was wearing. My black Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) t-shirt with white “HIV Postive” emblazoned in huge block letters. I love that shirt, it reminds me of home, and it reminds me of the power of community organizing. I wear it often and deliberately. With conviction. He noticed the shirt and I started talking a bit about TAC and how I came to work with them.

He shared with me: “you know it took me a very long time before I could say those three letters to myself.” At first I wasn’t sure what he was saying. When I became sure, I froze. Again, the panic. What is the right thing to say back?

“It’s Ok” ?

“Well done for getting to this point” ?

“I understand” ?

I don’t think I understand. I don’t want to patronize. I am afraid, though, that my panic was read as something else – revulsion, judgement, pity. My new friend crossed the street and entered the bar – we didn’t talk again that night, and it is unlikely that we will meet again. I wanted to apologize, or have a do-over or something, but what good would that have done then? I failed.

Maybe I have been on the other side.  Being in, and then out of the closet taught me to be vigilant, and to be quick. We have always had to be watchers. I remember mentioning my boyfriend to an ex-supervisor who considered himself my mentor at some fancy hotel bar in Johannesburg. (I was still enamoured of corporate South Africa – I was trying to network, or something). I didn’t stop for feedback of course – I was not asking for permission. I did see the flash of panic in his eyes.  Our conversation struggled back on its feet clumsily, and limped on for a few more minutes before falling back to the ground. It was our last. I read his reaction as homophobia; clear and simple. I excised him from my life. I have excised many people from my life.

I wonder if it wasn’t something else though. A brief failure – one worth forgiving. I wonder how many such failures I have failed to forgive.


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