Editor’s note: I wrote this story in April of 2015, but I’m re-posting with permission from Healthline on my own website since Healthline’s Contributors site has gone dark.
I moved to Los Angeles in 1992 after graduating from college. As soon as I got there, I kicked the closet door down and decided to act on three words I never before had been able to say: I was gay.
I called a gay chat line and nervously struck up a conversation with the first guy I was connected with. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I remember what he said:
“So, let me get this straight. You’re from the Midwest, you’re 22, you have decided you’re gay, and you’re ready to come out to the first person you meet on a chat line and have sex with him?”
I said, “Yes. Well, maybe.”
He said, “I’m not going to have sex with you, but meet me at the Blue Marble Coffee Shop in Costa Mesa.”
And I did meet him. He was an older man, a professional, and we sat and had coffee. He told me all about HIV, what was safe and what wasn’t safe, and even the best number to call for phone sex at the lowest rate. “You’ll rack up phone and credit card bills otherwise,” he warned.
He told me about the Orange County Center for Gays and Lesbians, where I immediately began attending the young adult support group.
He was just a nice man who expected nothing. He sensed a “fresh off the boat” Midwestern boy about to enter a dangerous world. Sure, he was looking for something. But not sex, at least not from me, someone his junior and a “gay adolescent,” as he described me.
He has been a mentor to this day. You just don’t find those kinds of decent people everywhere.
I Once Was a Circuit Boy And a Meth Head
In my role as a journalist writing about HIV, I don’t think I ever have written about my own experience with the disease. But as I get ready to report from California AIDS/LifeCycle in a couple of months as an embedded reporter, I thought I should share it.
I am HIV-negative despite the fact that I spent a couple of years as a West Hollywood circuit boy and, unfortunately, a couple more years after that simply a strung-out mess. It pains me that crystal meth still is a crisis in Southern California. It is entirely intertwined with HIV. I wrote a little bit about that last summer in this story for Healthline.
I am lucky. From day one I had the best information about HIV prevention available, not only because I worked in the news business, but also because of good people who happened to enter my life at the right time – right down to that first guy I met off a chat line.
But as time went on and I celebrated that joyous feeling of coming out, soon I was hitting the clubs, snorting drugs and being pretty free with love (albeit safely … I used condoms every time … and I would have for sure chosen PrEP back then had it been available to me).
Working as executive news editor of The Advocate and later as executive news editor of the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, I would spin like a top until dawn on Sunday mornings at a nightclub in Hollywood called The Probe. There was a big gang of us who all had met in Orange County and “came out” together. We called ourselves “The Unapproachables.” Boy, we sure thought we were all that!
And then one day came the knock on the door of my West Hollywood apartment. One of the key people in my little gang, the one we called “Julie the Cruise Director” no less, came in with his boyfriend and dropped the news. He was HIV-positive.
Spreading the Word to Those Not as Lucky as Me
Looking back, I worry I sounded insensitive with my reply. “Well, it’s not the end of the world. I’m sure you’ll be fine.” We had been writing a lot at The Advocate at that time about what was then a new breakthrough in HIV treatment: protease inhibitors.
We also were writing stories about the viaticals going out of business. Viaticals were companies that bought out the life insurance policies of dying people so they could enjoy the money while they still were alive.
For the most part, my little group from Orange County has weathered the HIV epidemic well. I think of a core group of about 10 of us who ran around in the 1990s, two, maybe three, became positive. Of course, three is too many, but all three are healthy to the best of my knowledge.
I think it’s honest to say most of us came from pretty privileged backgrounds with access to timely information about HIV and great health care. Living in Southern California, even in the 1990s, there was very little stigma directed at gay people. Most of us migrated from Orange County to Los Angeles a few years after coming out, and life there is about as open as it gets for gay people in the U.S.
Unfortunately, HIV continues to shatter the lives of people who don’t have access to the things we did – basic things like accurate information so they can make informed decisions related to sex and drugs, and places to get tested and treated. Just look at Southern Indiana: Poverty, lack of education, extraordinary stigma and a government that criminalizes HIV. In fact, most states do have HIV criminalization laws, something many people find shocking.
Whether I’m writing about how African-American leaders are tackling HIV in their communities, why you need to get behind the transgender equality movement, or the hazards of HIV and smoking, I try to make sure my stories reach people who will find them useful and on whom they will have a lot of impact. I try to stay on top of how HIV affects all kinds of communities, from women to the Deep South, now considered the epidemic’s epicenter.
When Career and Life Intersect for a Ride
That all of my skills and life experiences have converged into making a living working from home, writing about HIV for various online clients, is pretty awesome. Having the opportunity to work as an embedded journalist for AIDS LifeCycle is just incredible.
Now that I’ve shared my not-so-uncommon story about HIV, I can’t wait to share the stories of others. Everybody rides for different reasons. And as a Los Angeles Times billboard campaign once proclaimed about news in general, “In every person there is a story.”
What is California AIDS/LifeCycle? It is a 545-mile bike ride (not a race) the first week of June down the California coast – from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Nearly 3,000 riders will raise more than $15 million to benefit the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center in their fight against the disease.
In addition to profiling many of these amazing riders, I’ll be shooting videos for Healthline’s You’ve Got This project, which offers support to people newly diagnosed. I’ll be tweeting too, as well as posting updates on Facebook for Healthline, Imstilljosh and my own David Heitz Health.
I’ll be writing more Contributor pieces about AIDS/LifeCycle leading up to the event in the next several weeks. What goes into putting on the event is a column in and of itself. And the experience of camping while traveling down the coast? I can’t even imagine what that’s going to be like. I’m not known for my camping skills!
Please feel free to find me and say hello if you plan on riding this year. I’ll be in a black T-shirt with “MEDIA” stamped on it. Can you believe they had no XLs, and one person actually ordered an XS?
This is sure to be the opportunity of a lifetime, and I can’t wait to tell so many inspiring stories.
(Photo courtesy AIDS/LifeCycle … and that perfectly fit man is not me… and I’ll be riding in the media van, not pedaling.)