By Elias Diaz, Achieving Together Partner
I met Fear when I was just 16 years old. I was in a relationship with an older guy, and my friends called me to tell me to be careful with him. They had found out his previous partner had died of AIDS and they were concerned for my well-being. That was the first time I felt afraid of a partner, but it was definitely not the last.
As I reached adulthood, I remember clinging on to the fear that my next relationship or sexual encounter might give me HIV. I went through it again when I was 21. I was in an extremely violent relationship and my partner contracted HIV while we were together. I was consumed by fear that I would get it, too, and I did not have the power in my relationship to negotiate safe sex.
I spent the majority of my adulthood playing roulette every time I had a sexual encounter. Fear was my primary partner. As I weaved in and out of relationships and sexual encounters, I never lost sight of Fear. I kept Him with me everywhere I went. I took Him to the bathhouse and the sex parties, where I met multiple partners in one night. I made Him a cornerstone of my romantic relationships. I invited Him to my friendships, as I saw so many of my gay brothers contract HIV throughout their 20s.
Fear was my way of life. He was my toxic friend. He sat at my table every day. He lay in bed with me. He whispered quietly in my ear, reasons why I could not connect with men. Fear penetrated me with every single condomless encounter as I lay there… waiting. Waiting for my turn. Waiting for my time. It seemed inevitable.
When I was 27, I felt Fear touch me for the last time. I had just hooked up with a guy and when he left my house, he went to go get tested. I got a call a few hours later while I was at work. He wanted to let me know he tested positive and he wanted me to come in and get tested. I felt Fear’s heavy fist punch me in the gut. But as I drove 20 minutes to meet him at the testing location, I couldn’t help but think about how he must feel. As I walked into the testing site and I walked over to the semblance of the man I had met the night before, I watched him as he stood with his chin pressed against his chest, shoulders sulking down, and hands tucked timidly inside his pockets. I walked up to him and gave him a big hug. As I stood there holding him, he began to bawl. He said, “I didn’t think anybody would ever want to touch me again.”
It was at that moment that I realized why this work was so important. I got myself on PrEP and began to advocate for a revolutionary drug that afforded an opportunity for a different avenue for protection. That advocacy continues. But my advocacy is not necessarily for the pill. I’m advocating for a change in culture; a change in conversation.
I had let Fear seduce me into submission, through every single one of my relationships. I carried the burden of a generation before me that had learned to suspect the worst of the men they loved and were attracted to. The fear to love… to touch… to connect physically, all while fearing infection. I had seen it spread like the worst of cancers as I saw it ravage my community from the inside out.
We’ve inherited this existential crisis from a generation of men that survived daily trauma. These men had seen their lovers die in their arms. They’ve been to more friends’ funerals than they’d care to count. Their shared grief was ignored by a nation that looked the other way. The penance of survivor guilt loomed over their shoulders as they forged on, forming the habit of separating the “us” from the “them” in a game of pure survival.
We’ve made enormous strides in medicine and research. We’ve mobilized an entire nation to do this work and fight the good fight with us. We’ve secured funding and developed strategic plans. But we’ve yet to make a dent in this horrible stigma.
I don’t often share that I never contracted HIV. I know that many people assume that I am so passionate about this because I am positive. I don’t often correct them. That’s because I think that one of the greatest divisive qualities that influences the way that we, as gay men, relate to each other, is unfortunately still HIV status. Keeping my status to myself is often my way of standing up to Fear.
As mental health awareness month comes to a close, and we push awareness and initiatives that support mental health conditions, let’s pay close attention to the fear that bore this stigma. We’ve been afraid for far too long. That existential fear is our foundation, and no amount of initiatives will heal our collective trauma if we can not face it and look it in the eye. For all those men that didn’t make it this far, let’s learn to love each other. Let’s learn to love ourselves. Let’s honor our bodies by looking at ALL of our options for prevention.
Let’s break up with Fear. Let’s block His number and ignore His calls. Let’s put His pictures in a box and shove it under our bed… close enough so that we don’t forget what He put us through, but far enough to make room for someone else. Let’s change our bedsheets to get rid of the stench He left behind. Let’s get up, change our look, and go out into the streets to find somebody new.
Elias Diaz is certified by the Academy of Cognitive Therapy in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and has received specialized training in Prolonged Exposure for PTSD from the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional, with 10 years of clinical experience.
Since his return to his native Eagle Pass, Elias co-founded the first LGBTQIA Non-Profit Organization, EP SAFE. He has also taken a position as a Mental Health Clinician with Maverick County Hospital District, where he is currently working to improve health outcomes for people living with HIV.
As an Ambassador for the Greater than Aids Texas Spanish language campaign, he’s brought local and statewide attention to the topic of prevention. With the Texas HIV Syndicate, Elias serves as Regional Launch Coordinator for the Texas Achieving Together plan. He also serves as a contributing expert for The O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, where he works closely with other leaders to influence policies that shape the way HIV services are delivered.