The First Test

By: Charles Stephens

I was 16 the first time I got an HIV test.  I was a junior in high school and had by this point been dating men for about a year. Like many of the other milestones in my life, I pursued my emerging sexual identity, passionately but strategically.

My life up to that point had been boring and expected. I wanted to please my parents. I wanted to live up to the expectations of my teachers. Everything was so high stakes, you either achieved or you become a statistic. We all heard the same messages. We learn to fear each other, before we learn to love each other.

Being gay was the first thing I discovered about myself that was transgressive, rebellious, defiant.  It was the first time I rejected the expectations placed upon me by my family and by my community.   It was the first thing about myself that I found exciting and interesting. It gave me a depth, made me feel more mature. I was able to cultivate an interior world that broadened what I perceived as possible for myself.

In that process I had a sexual experience that led me to believe I should get tested. Because I had gone to the teen support group at the Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Center a few times, I remembered the HIV testing service, so that’s where I went. One day after school, this was in the fall of that year, I took the train to Midtown. For black gay boys in Atlanta of my generation, we went to Midtown to find adventure and to find trouble, but mostly just to find ourselves.

For some reason I remember the person administering my test as a Nurse. Maybe he wasn’t, but that’s how I remember him. I don’t like needles, never have, so I was probably anxious about having my blood drawn. There was no pre-test Counseling. I maybe had a few questions, but was probably too inhibited to ask. I do remember him telling me to come back in two weeks for the results.

After the test, I got back on the train at Midtown Station and went home.  I felt so adult in that moment. Even then I had a sense of myself, beyond being gay, that I was somehow very different than my peers. I looked at their concerns as trivial: prom, SATs, college applications. I thought my life, my experience would always be somehow different, more serious, more heavy.   

There was something very defining for us, my generation, coming of age as young black gay men in the South,  getting tested for HIV. We are perhaps the last generation to grow up hearing about HIV in popular culture and yet still knowing so very little about our bodies, our desires, and what to make of being black and gay. Though Public Heath has rarely grappled with the question of “culture,” in a compelling way, and how it relates to the meanings we attach to HIV as black gay men, there is something very ritualistic, nearly ceremonial about getting an HIV test. Each time. Testing is symbolic in so many ways. Understanding this better is the future of the field.

I don’t recall being stressed out in the two weeks leading up to the test. I believe I put it out of my mind, in the way that in that period I always had so much going on, student government, French Club, A.P. History, crushes, that the HIV test just kind of faded into the background.

I also didn’t have a serious boyfriend at this point. I had broken up with the guy I had been seeing over the summer and was probably just going out here and there. I did confide in my best friend at the time, Tobias, about the test. His response was probably something encouraging but naïve. He didn’t know anything, and neither did I. We were trying to figure all of this out together, and our friendship was more strategic alliance and mutual survival than emotional affinity.  

When I finally returned to the Center to get my results, the tester said “you’re negative,” and that was the end of that. No comforting words. No encouragement. I remember feeling very empty after it was over. And alone. I think back at that time, to what I probably needed, not just from the guy that did my test, but from anyone.

Black gay boys are often watched, and rarely recognized. We were constantly under surveillance, by teachers, minsters, parents, friends, boys, girls, everyone. We are told “don’t sound like that.” We are told “don’t walk like that.” We are told “don’t hold your hand like that.” And yet we rarely feel loved. These are the unexpressed thoughts one might have when going through that first test.

Its difficult, and always an act of courage, to be a black man and not see other black men that way that dominant culture sees us. And yet, when we are able to do that, see beyond the dominant narratives of our brothers, its very freeing. But when we are able to see ourselves outside of the dominant narratives of black gay men, that is truly, truly transformative, and in a sense the ultimate test.

In recognition of National HIV Testing Day, The Counter Narrative Project is participating in CDC’s Doing It Blog Hop to share a range of perspectives on the importance of HIV testing. Check out the other posts from fellow Blog Hop participants and join the conversation online using #DoingIt and #NHTD.

Doing It: National HIV Testing Day Blog Hop

1.       AIDS.gov

2.       The Counter Narrative Project

3.       BenjaminDiCosta.com

4.       Healthy Black Men

5.       ShawnandGwenn.com/POZ

6.       The Healthy Latina

7.       Greg Revenj