I got a black star tattoo on my neck three years ago, two months after I learned I had HIV. I went to the tattoo parlor one day after class with some friends. None of them knew my reason for getting it. It’s a sign that I was once a very sad, very scared young man facing what I thought was a frightening future. It’s on the back of my neck, so it’s not easy to see, but when I catch a glimpse of it in a mirror, I’m reminded that I made it. I survived.
For most of the three years since my diagnosis, my HIV status has been a secret. My family didn’t know. Most of my friends didn’t know. My mother frowned at the tattoo at Thanksgiving. She surely saw it as childish but overall harmless. They did not know it marked a crisis — the closest I ever came to suicide.
My parents have ample experience with HIV and AIDS. As medical missionaries in Africa, they saw countless AIDS patients in the years we spent overseas. In 2014, 70% of all HIV-positive people in the world — about 25.8 million — lived in sub-Saharan Africa.
Last December, I called my parents from Los Angeles and told them the truth. I had published an op-ed in The Advocate about my HIV status and my reasons for keeping it a secret. The article was harsh, to say the least, on my parents. I called them the morning it ran, and it’s a good thing I did. Several friends and family members saw the article and called them. They were given no time to process my news before fielding questions from people. It was a cruel move.
After that article, the world knew. Everyone in my life knew. This dark little thing I had carried around was no longer a secret, and in the time since that day, I’ve been thinking about my little black star.
Is it enough? This strain on my family, these pill bottles, these medical stresses — does a simple tattoo do them justice? Have I learned enough from it? Have I grown?
Why do we mark ourselves for suffering? Self-marking from successful hunts and kills is an old tribal practice, as old as our species. But this is not something I’ll ever beat. Radiation and biohazard tattoos are common and make a bit more sense. They are 90’s-era relics from the time when HIV-positive people were seen as toxic, dangerous people. Embracing that demonization and stigma — the same way we reclaimed “fag” as a power word, the way we made “queer” a democratic umbrella term — is a neat trick my community is good at. We trump our enemies by embracing and glamorizing their slurs and attacks. The biohazard is more commonly associated with HIV — having one is an overt public declaration of being HIV-positive. Am I ready for that?
I have had to claim my HIV and celebrate the identity it brings me. What is my other option? You can only fear something that will never change for so long. Your option is to cower and apologize and hope people will accept you or stand up and demand more life.
I have met other poz men who marked themselves differently — with a bear paw, a plus sign. Some knew the modern reality of HIV before they tested positive. Others, like me, didn’t know anything and had to learn. Either way, we are all brothers. We’ve all been in some horrible clinic facing a life-changing reality. We all are irrevocably changed.
The day I got the star tattoo, I had survived two months with HIV, and I felt confident that I could survive two more. That’s all. No matter what happens now, I think of my tattoo as a reminder that I made it through at least one dark time and found something better on the other side.
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