26 Jun 2009

Living with HIV - My second coming out (Part 2)

So what would you do if you had just found out you’re HIV+ – and then your brother keeps bugging you to tell him something he thinks you should? This was the dilemma SL Yang was caught in when he was diagnosed more than a decade ago.

Coming out is not an easy process – as most of you would know. I came out to my parents as being gay when I was only 16. Lest you think it was a case of bravado, I must hasten to add that it was done more as an act of frustration and rebellion. I inflicted my mother with this terrible bit of knowledge during a quarrel, in a moment of unthinking angst and rage. You find out very quickly that what is said cannot be taken back. Luckily for me, my family accepted me for what I am – and I did not suffer the fate of being thrown out of my home… something, unfortunately that continues to happen to teens the world over who come out to their families.

With the act of coming out, comes the fear of rejection and uncertainty. With my brother’s constant badgering – “Is there something you want to tell me…?” - I finally caved in.

I blurted out: “I tested positive for HIV!”

An awful silence descended and I just closed my eyes, willing darkness to close in and cover me. After a very pregnant pause, my brother told me, “It’s not the end of the world…” and he proceeded to give me an awkward hug. Waves of relief washed over me… but before that could abate, he said, “I think you should tell mum and dad.”

“Oh, no,” I thought to myself… “Oh, no.”

I was a nervous wreck for two days – I was trying to psych myself up to tell my parents about my condition. I’ve never felt so alone and vulnerable. It was like the final judgement – what would they say or do if I told them?

My father had always been a stern disciplinarian since I was young. Emotionally distant, he seldom showed any signs of affection, like most men of his generation. My mother and I had a stormy relationship when I was a teenager – I always felt she wanted me to conform to society’s norms and I resented this, seeing it as a sign of her tacit disapproval of who I was.

So now I was HIV+… how would I tell them?

I burst into their bedroom one night, after dinner and announced: “I have something to tell you.” I felt as if I was rushing towards a speeding train. My pulse was racing, and I could hardly keep my voice from wavering.

When I did say the words: “I am HIV-positive…” I was unprepared for what followed. My father, a man of few words and resolutely undemonstrative… he came up to me and hugged me. He proceeded to assure me that I was still his son and that he would continue to help take care of me. My mother burst into tears – in between sobs, she professed love for me as her son, interspersed with the primal weeping that only mothers can make when something terrible has happened to their children.

Suffice to say, it took awhile before I could recover my composure. The future looked bleak, but thanks to the reassurances of my parents, I had an emotional anchor to hang on to. That love and support still continues to help me in times of depression or need. I am so grateful for that. Other HIV+ people I have met have not had that luxury – many have not told their parents or families. Most have not come out to their families as being gay, much less HIV+. The stigma and discrimination surrounding this disease has isolated many – and continues to do so till today.

With my second coming out, came relief. I felt that I could share the burden of my disease with my family – I need not do it alone anymore.

The big question for many HIV+ people is – who do you tell? In Singapore, the dilemma is even made more acute because of the various legislation that has been put in place.

The Infectious Disease Act requires that those who know they are HIV+ to inform their partners of their sero-status before having sex. Then there’s the provision that even if you don’t know your sero-status, but have indulged in risky behaviour – you can be charged. Unless you have informed your partner of your past risky behaviour, who then goes on to voluntarily commit the act. You are also not liable if he had a test done just before sex, or if you practiced safe sex. The penalty? Conviction to a fine not exceeding S$50,000 (USS34,000) or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years or both.

The Singapore government has decided use this piece of heavy-handed legislation to force people to use condoms during sex. Whether this will work or not is debatable – how far can you modify human sexual behaviour with  a piece of legislation?

So how do HIV+ people deal with this? Gay culture with its heritage of anonymous sexual partners has spawned the “don’t ask don’t tell” response. At saunas or through internet hook-ups, people have anonymous sex without asking for each other’s sero-status – it is assumed the onus on protection is on both parties. Most know how HIV is transmitted – and that condom use is the key to preventing transmission of HIV. It is generally assumed condoms will be used especially for these anonymous or first-time hook-ups. And with strong prevention messaging, it becomes the norm to use condoms – and peer pressure comes into place for people to use condoms.

One or two HIV+ people I know have told me they will tell potential partners they are HIV+ - usually over the net, protected by anonymity. And if the partners are OK with it, they go ahead with a meeting or hook-up. Others have stopped having sex altogether – or they look for other HIV+ people for sex. Sex is such a strong, basic, primal urge – would it be possible to stop it altogether? If you had HIV, would you tell a stranger you were about to have sex with?

Meanwhile, the climate of fear engendered by the Infectious Disease Act has served to further increase the sense of stigma and discrimination HIV+ people feel. And it has helped drive people who practice risky behaviour underground.

This is the second installment of a 6-part series which will run every other Friday.