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 very easy to see, but when I catch a glimpse of it in a mirror, I’m reminded that I made it. I survived. I’m here.
For most of the three years since my HIV diagnosis, my status has been a secret. My family didn’t know. Most of my friends didn’t know. My mother frowned at the tattoo the following Thanksgiving. She surely saw it as childish but otherwise relatively harmless. She did not know what was lurking beneath my skin. My parents could not have known that it marked a crisis in my life — the closest I ever came to suicide.
My parents have ample experience with HIV and AIDS. As doctor 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 published, and it’s a good thing I did. Several friends and family members saw the article and called them about it. They were given no time to process my news before fielding questions from people. Publishing it without giving them any warning was a cruel move, and I regret it. But the article was the truth. It was how I really felt, and they needed to see it.
After that article, the world knew. Everyone in my life knew. The 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 black star.
Is it enough? This strain on my family, these pill bottles, these medical stresses — does a simple tattoo do all of it 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. HIV is not a battle to be won. It’s a friend, a passenger, an identity, a community, a history — a painful, devastating one. Radiation and biohazard tattoos are common HIV tattoos, and aesthetically they make a bit more sense. They are 90’s-era relics from the time when HIV-positive people were seen as toxic, dangerous people, and were reappropriated as a power signals by HIV-positive men, a way to strip stigma of its power. Embracing that demonization and stigma — the way we reclaimed “fag” as a power word, the way we made “queer” a democratic umbrella term — is a neat trick my community has learned to do well. We trump our enemies by embracing and glamorizing slurs and attacks. Am I ready for a biohazard tattoo?
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 ask for more life. And that’s what I’ve done.
I have met other HIV-positive 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 what life with HIV is like. Those who pull from HIV and its afterlife all the joy and pleasure a person deserves are blood-brothers in this history of a disease that should have never happened to us, and that we are still punished and persecuted for. We are all irrevocably changed.
The day I got the star tattoo, I had survived two months with HIV, and I felt confident that I would survive two more. That’s all it meant, nothing more than that. It was a mark to measure life. Maybe that’s what every tattoo is, in its way. No matter what happens now, I think of it as a reminder that I made it through at least one very dark time and found something better on the other side.
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