I want to talk about the tattoo on the back of my neck. I realized I’ve never explained any of my ink before on this blog, and this one is particularly important to me.
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 after class with some friends. None of them knew my reason for getting it. Today, it’s a sign that I was once very sad — suicidal, in fact — and still survived. The tattoo is not easy to see, but every now and then I see it in a photograph someone takes from behind, and it makes me feel proud.
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 Thanksgiving after I got it. She surely saw it as childish but otherwise harmless addition to my self-expression. She did not know what was in my body. My parents could not have known that the tattoo marked a crisis in my life — the closest I’ve ever come to giving up completely.
My parents have plenty of 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 on my parents. I called them the morning it published, and it’s a good thing I did. 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 others. Publishing it without giving them a warning was, perhaps, a cruel move, and I regret it. But the article was the truth. It was my truth, 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 as a secret was no longer a secret. I am publicly HIV-positive.
Is the black star enough? This strain on my family, these pill bottles, these medical stresses — does a tattoo do all of it justice? Have I learned from HIV? 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 passenger, an identity, a community, a history — a painful, devastating one. Radiation and biohazard tattoos are common HIV tattoos, and aesthetically they make more sense. They are 90’s-era relics from the time when HIV-positive people were seen as toxic and dangerous, and these symbols were reappropriated as a power signals by HIV-positive men, as a way to strip stigma of its power. Am I ready for a biohazard tattoo?
I have had to claim my HIV and celebrate the identity it brings to me. What is my other option? You can only fear something that will never change for so long. I could cower and apologize and hope people will accept me or I can stand up and ask for more life, and I believe that’s what I have 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 all the joy and pleasure one deserves are my blood-brothers in a history of a disease that should have never happened, and that we are still punished and persecuted for.
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 it meant, nothing more than that. It was a mark to measure life. Maybe that’s what every tattoo is, in its way.
I will survive.
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