Thursday, June 20, 2013

Avoiding Tired Old AIDS Queen Syndrome

Over the past couple of years I've seen this easily recognizable biohazard symbol...

... appear in some unexpected places -- like the bodies of other gay men.

Including gay porn performers...

Treasure Island Media's Ethan Wolfe

And at least one gay porn company has incorporated the symbol into its logo.

The biohazard symbol dates back to 1966. It was created for Dow Chemical Company by environmental-health engineer Charles Baldwin as a means of designating "containment products" -- biological materials that carry a significant heath risk.

The first time I ever saw the symbol tattooed on a guy's body, I thought, "Oh, he's probably got HIV." I eventually did a Google search for biohazard tattoo and convinced me I'd probably jumped to the right conclusion.

What does a biohazard tattoo symbolize?


A bio-hazard symbol tattooed on someones body could have several meanings but it is a very common tattoo used among gay men who are HIV Positive. Depending on the individual, it is a warning sign to potential partners, a sign of strength that they are dealing with the illness, or a discreet way to find people who have the disease in common with them. However, not everyone who has a bio-hazard tattoo on themselves is gay or HIV positive, many people have gotten the tattoo just because it has a personal meaning to them or they enjoy how it looks.

(It's a good thing I don't work for I'd be correcting grammar all day.)

Then I wondered if there was a real gay man with HIV who'd ever explained his own tattoo to a media outlet. Another Google search turned up this two-minute CNN video from 2011. Description: Michael Lee Howard, like many HIV-positive men, lives with a biohazard tattoo. He explains the significance of this "ink."

All this got me thinking about my own journey with the virus...

I was infected with HIV twenty years ago; June, 1993, a couple of days after my birthday. Yes, I know exactly when, where and with whom. There has never been an ounce of comfort in knowing... because knowing exactly has meant that I can relive it, turning it over and over again in my head until I want to take a hatchet to the memory. I'd rather be one of those people who couldn't recall the specifics of getting infected if their life depended on it.

My father died of esophageal cancer barely two weeks after I seroconverted. My mother succumbed to lung cancer a year and half later. If they had lived longer and known I was positive, I have no reason to believe they would have been anything but supportive. But many times I'm relieved they never had to witness the toll HIV has taken on my body, my career and my mental health. When I eventually got around to telling my siblings, my sister, a nurse and college professor, said, "I love you; please don't shut me out of your life over this." My brother's only comment on the matter was, "Man, I always thought you were smarter than this." Well, so did I.

Even though HIV has been inside me for two decades, I've lived with it much longer -- three freakin' decades. I started working at CNN in the summer of 1983, around the same time that the mainstream media began its dangerously maladroit reporting on the epidemic. I remember the first time I saw something about it. I was sitting at work reading the Associated Press wire stories in preparation for my shift and there was an article about how this thing that started as "gay cancer," and then became known as GRID (Gay-related Immune Deficiency) was now called AIDS -- Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. I shuddered; it felt like my lungs had collapsed. I scrolled past the story, but my brain delivered a chilling synopsis: I'm barely out of the closet and I've had sex with exactly one man. What does this mean? Shit. 

And then people started dying -- the famous, like Rock Hudson, and the friends, like Darrell, a guy I had known since first grade. They weren't beautiful deaths, like Ali McGraw in Love Story. They were horrible, slow motion departures that came one after another, made all the more excruciating by fervid judgment. I vividly recall a news report in which the leader of a Christian organization cruelly and casually remarked, "Well, as far as we can tell, this disease is killing all the right people."

AIDS was everywhere in the '80s and '90s -- the news, magazine covers, TV shows and movies (Beverly Hills 90210, thirtysomething, Designing WomenAn Early FrostParting Glances, Longtime Companion, And the Band Played On). It came to dinner with friends. It wandered around my eccentric pal Aubrey's annual Easter egg hunt. AIDS hung out at the bar. And it cast a shadow over every sexual encounter. Sometimes you knew who was positive because it was painfully obvious, or because they just told you. And sometimes you found yourself sucked into gossip about who has to have it because, you know, he's slept with everybody.

I remember hanging out with my mom on a day off  back in 1985 when she turned away from All My Children and said, "I'm afraid I'm going to get AIDS." I gingerly explained to her how that was not possible. I'll never know if maybe all she was really looking for that day was some kind of reassurance that her gay son wasn't going to get it. A few years later, the most heated argument I ever had with my boyfriend of two years, Tom (circa 1987-89), was whether or not to get the test. I said, "Isn't it better to know?" He said, "What could you do about it if the test is positive?" That was not an uncommon point of view at the time.

Unless you lived through that period, you simply cannot possibly imagine how pervasive AIDS was, or how hopeless things felt. And because I worked at CNN, it was literally impossible for me to escape the daily onslaught of stories. Sadly, the network eluded excellence on the subjects of HIV and AIDS, embracing a frequently irresponsible, overwrought style that regularly made me queasy. Yeah, I was there when one of our worst anchors went all bug-eyed for the camera, clutched her copy and exclaimed with hysterical urgency, "The AIDS virus has been found in tears!" I was also there in '95 when Olympic diver Greg Louganis revealed that he'd been HIV-positive during the '88 Seoul Olympic Games. To me, the story was: Here's an athlete under enormous pressure to compete and win (with the entire world watching) while simultaneously living with HIV and taking the first (and very toxic) AIDS drug, AZT. He suffered a concussion after hitting his head on the springboard during preliminary rounds, but went on to win the motherfucking gold medal anyway. CNN chose to frame the story differently: Greg Louganis cut his head and bled in the pool and we don't really know what that means, but we're just gonna go ahead and imply that he endangered everybody who got into the pool afterwards, you know, because he's got HIV. By this time, I'd really had enough, so I summoned the spunk to tell the supervising producer that we needed to change the way we were reporting the story because HIV is no match for thousands of gallons of chlorinated water. I reminded him that it was 1995, not 1985, so any doctor or scientist from the CDC could confirm that fact. He changed the story. Next shift, different producer, the story went right back to being all about the cut, the blood and that goddamned pool.

When I tested positive in 1993, the first thing I did was get the test again. Sometimes you just have to slap denial in the face, hard. Then I went to an infectious disease specialist who immediately prescribed AZT, the only approved antiretroviral drug for HIV at the time. I said no. Everyone I knew who took that drug was already dead or desperately ill (which makes the Greg Louganis story even more remarkable to me, frankly). The doctor said, "If you're not going to take this medication, then I don't even know why you came here." So, I never went back to see him. Instead, I volunteered at several AIDS service organizations and surrounded myself with all things HIV. Know your enemy. I became a peer counselor, a peer group facilitator, a safer sex educator, a workshop creator, and an expert on disclosing my status before sex -- and yes, I continued to have my fair share of sex. I chose, however, not to disclose my status at CNN. It wasn't safe to do so; that was my judgment call. (Side note: I am bewildered by people who won't shut up about liberal bias in the media. It's bullshit. Newspapers and newsrooms are filled with people from all corners of the political spectrum. For a period of time, I was supervised at CNN by a guy who voted for Pat Buchanan in the 1992 Republican presidential primary. Seriously. He didn't like the fact that I was gay and he certainly wouldn't have been okay with me having HIV.)

I was gone from CNN by the end of the '90s. It was difficult to abandon a career in broadcast news -- something I'd wanted ever since I watched the first episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a kid -- but I sincerely believe it would have killed me to stay in that business. You see, I progressed to AIDS in roughly four years. Why? Was it the stress of working in an environment with insane deadlines and crazy hours? Was my body simply unable to juggle the virus, a demanding career, a relationship and an intense schedule of volunteer commitments? Should I have taken the AZT? Did I wait too long to start combination therapy once the drug "cocktails" arrived? If HIV has taught me anything, it's that you can't change a second of the past. I've learned to live with my decisions and navigate the consequences as best I can. I've definitely fucked up a few times, but I've also made a bunch of smart choices.

So, I carved out a niche for myself in HIV/AIDS work and stayed busy writing dozens of articles, facilitating workshops and serving on committees and boards. I met thousands of people living with HIV and got emails from readers all over the world. I was asked to do more -- a blog, PowerPoint presentations, panel discussions, podcast interviews, TV appearances. I'm not even going to pretend that I didn't consider becoming a famous gay poz dude that would eventually end up chatting with Oprah, but I just didn't have the energy for it. I walked away from it all in 2008, choosing to focus on running a non-profit spirituality organization for gay and bi men for a while, and enjoying a sweet, three-year relationship with an adorable cub named Greg.

Now, somehow, it's 2013 -- thirty years since the first time I heard about AIDS and twenty years since my own infection with HIV. I made it to my 50s and reinvented myself more times than Madonna.  I've lived long enough to see one of my HIV meds go generic, to read articles about "the graying of the epidemic," and to witness the release of an Oscar-nominated AIDS documentary called How to Survive a Plague (2012). Over the past few years I've read multiple blogs written by newly-infected gay guys half my age who are promoting a new adage about living with HIV: it's all good. I confess that I wince a little bit when those bright-eyed, self-assured bloggers advise everyone not to worry because it's all manageable now, the drugs are better and everyone with HIV is going to live an average lifespan. Surely it will be better for their generation. I genuinely hope so. I just can't forget that it's been pretty devastating for mine -- innumerable deaths, discrimination, stigma, and that first wave of drugs that kept a lot of us alive but ravaged and disfigured our bodies in all kinds of unexpected ways while simultaneously elevating our lipids and spiking our blood sugar. Some, (okay, many) of us probably have Post-traumatic stress disorder. Me? I desperately want to avoid becoming a Tired Old AIDS Queen who waves his arms and shouts, "Hey, you HIV kids! Get off my history!"

Here's the thing. Right now, to me personally, it feels like there's a huge paradigm shift happening around gay men and the virus. It's feeling more and more like testing positive is becoming an acceptable, inevitable rite of passage. Get it. Get over it. Get on with your life. If I could illustrate what I think is happening with a meme or JPG, it might look something like this:

This is one of my Facebook friends. 
At first I thought he was being ironic. Now, not so much.
So, finally, that brings me back around to this phenomenon of HIV-positive gay men tattooing biohazard symbols on their bodies. I think it's... curious. And a little troubling. I mean, I LOVE tattoos, but I'm still wrestling with the fact that the symbol stands for toxicity, contamination and danger. As a means of communicating your HIV-positive status to someone else with HIV, I don't think a tattoo is a surefire shortcut. On the other hand, if it starts a conversation that gets everybody on the same page before sex, I'm all for it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I really need to go find a biohazard-tattooed poz dude half my age and have some raucous... um, intimacy. It might be the only cure for Tired Old AIDS Queen Syndrome.

Peace out,


  1. I'm a little confused by the post. For me a question would be how people who aren't HIV positive and/or LGBT would see this tattoo. Does it become the mark of Cain?

    1. I agree, it's potentially confusing. The guy in the CNN video doesn't exactly address that either. He more or less characterized it as a kind of "branding" that he seems willing to explain to anyone who asks though. Who can say how it will play out in any given situation?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Whew! You summed it up, David. Well done.

  3. David: Thank you for this. I am struck by how much our stories parallel - long-term infection ('83 for me), knowing its source, watching the devastation of the surreal Reagan years, working in media (print journalism for me) that was first complicit in ignoring the epidemic, then hysterical when it could no longer be ignored, struggling with the drugs and their secondary effects. PTSD, certainly. One thing that hurts me immeasurably is that now, I sometimes can't recall some of the names of men I knew who died. There were just far too many. I think I have come to terms with the rage that I carried for a very long time. I'm not so sure about some of the fears: that I might lose my mind, that I might become helpless and a burden to others, that I might die alone. Meanwhile, I try not to fall into the "bitter old AIDS queen" trap, I play music, I explore this lovely new city where I live, and I treasure friendships with men such as you. Bob

  4. Gosh, David. Excellent, excellent, EXCELLENT! So honest, so clear, so comprehensive, so compassionate, and so courageous. I didn't know my respect and fondness for you could get any deeper, but it just did. Thank goodness someone with your insight and temperament and humor and writing ability survived the Plague Years to be such a compelling witness of all that this virus has wrought (including all the morphing reactions to it). You've ably and movingly captured a very complicated phenomenon. Thank you.

  5. Hey David,
    The universe moves in mysterious ways! Please have a look at my very recent blog detailing my journey getting a biohazard tattoo as I would be open to your take on it and I think being of the same generation it may speak to your concerns. Thanks for the great article and yes, I have not forgotten all those who have fallen, it pains me to think of all the beautiful souls we have lost, but through my tattoo I honor them by refusing to live in fear of the virus or marginalize by the stigma of HIV. Instead I choose to face the fear and stigma head on and not just survive but thrive! Peace!

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  11. OK, I'm confused on something... the radiation symbol? I am an x-ray tech of 20 years and understand the biohazard glyph as a indicator of contaminated or hazardous material. But to me, the radiation symbol has very little to do with HIV. It signifies a particle or source (the dot) emitting radiation (the 3 wedges) and I often see these two very different meaning symbols both called "biohazard." Something I'm missing or is this just a mass misunderstanding?