In 1988, when I got diagnosed, there was not a lot of information on AIDS. At that time, AIDS was for gay men. That's just how I remember the media hyping it up. A gay man's disease. The plague for being gay. I tried to gather more information after my diagnosis. I was also in a chronic addiction, so the idea I had when I found out was that I was going to die.
I dove deeper into my drug addiction and remained in denial about my diagnosis. I started my first treatment regimen in 1994. I was taking like four different pills. I still, because of my addiction, didn't really believe that I was going to live through this. I thought that these pills were just going to sustain me a little bit longer. There wasn’t education about how to stay healthy living with HIV. All that stuff wasn’t available at the time. It was “take these pills and you'll be fine.” I remember too, that there was hope, you know, but I couldn't distinguish between hope and the desire to live.
My partner at that time was giving blood and I always had given blood before. I was in good health and good spirits. I thought nothing of it. That’s when I found out I had HIV. It was shocking. After my diagnosis, I fell into a dark place. I had contracted HIV through careless unprotected sex with someone I trusted. There was partying involved for sure. I will say when taking drugs your mind is not focused on precautions.
I let myself know that life isn't over. I realize this happens to many people. During that time of darkness, I still started treatment right away. I know the positive outcome treatment can have. With my health conditions and age, I didn't want to anything to happen. One month after my diagnosis, I was undetectable. I know I have this virus, but I know I cannot pass it on to anyone else if I stay in care.
As early as I can remember, I always felt like a female. I started to voice that to my family; anybody that would listen. When I would do that, I would get beaten. In Miami, when I started school, I remember telling the teacher that I was a female. People would ask my parents, is that your daughter or your son? Things that I wanted to do, like play with dolls and hang out with girls, the way that I spoke, walked, everything always came with humiliation, ridicule, and abuse. My parents sent me to Puerto Rico to live with family thinking that maybe it would help me be more manly. I had never been there, and the abuse was worse. One day I received a vicious beating from some teenagers. They started calling me a faggot. I started to mouth off; never in a million years thinking strangers would put their hands on me. They beat me unconscious and hid me behind bleachers exposed to the sun. I woke up with second degree sunburns. They left me for dead. I decided from that moment forward, I was no longer going to be feminine. I was so traumatized. It took away my everything.
I was living in a halfway house in Delray Beach, Florida, and I was sick, which I thought was the flu. It was persistent. I had a high fever, and it was lasting probably over a week, not being able to get off the couch and calling out at work. Finally, one of the roommates came home and said, bro, you haven't gotten off the couch, are you all, right? Someone who ran the halfway house ended up coming over and took me to the hospital. They did some tests and they suspected that it was PCP Pneumonia, which I knew nothing about. I said, well, wait a minute. I'm a 32-year-old male, with pneumonia, that's raising a red flag for me. The doctor asked me if I had ever been tested for HIV.
It was World Aids Day in 2006. A bunch of doctors came around my bed and I just knew. I had seen the commercials all week long for WAD and I felt like, oh God, this is God preparing me. At the time I had, I think, seven T-cells. When I was told seven, I knew that was drastic. I was numb at first and then I broke down.
August of 2018 was a very transformational year for me. I always did my regular checkup every three months. It was around that time I knew something was wrong with my body. I wasn't eating, and I felt out of tune with myself. I decided to get checked out and that's when I found out I had HIV.
When I was given the diagnosis, I was more worried about my mom’s reaction. I had a gut feeling I was going to be just fine. I have a strong feeling that I was exposed to HIV from one of my reoccurring sexual partners. We had unprotected sex. I trusted him and I got it from him because months later, he got tested and found out he had it. Since my diagnosis, things have changed. When I gained the strength to tell my mother, she thought I was going to die because she had that mindset from the stigma of the 1980’s. Back then, things were extremely hard for the LGBTQ+ community. Things are different now with advanced medicine that we have to take care of ourselves.
When I was younger, I would not go get tested because of the anxiety associated with a positive diagnosis or positive result. But as I have grown older, especially in my sobriety, I realized that whatever you may have, there are medical treatments for it. The way to keep from getting sick and getting other people sick is by managing your health. It's not a question of having anxiety anymore. It's a question of being responsible and knowing that there's a safety net of people who can help you and medication that can help you.
I lived in Fort Lauderdale two different times in my life. The second time around there was a fundraiser I donated to, and I found out exactly what Broward House does. Before that time, I was not aware of the organization or how much it did for the community. It's not just the LGBTQ community, but homeless individuals and so much more. When I was looking for a place for testing, I didn't have to do research. I thought “I might as well use this resource.”
It’s Med Time Papa!
By Zee Zalnasky
It all began when Luca was about age 3. At the time, his older brother Pierce, had just begun preschool. Luca suddenly felt all alone with his brother and playmate gone for the day. He had no one to play with. Luca would gather all of his toys, Legos, trucks, action figures and pile them next to my bed. I rested frequently as I was recovering from a 2014 AIDS diagnosis and required daily medications that needed to be taken on time, all the time throughout the day. As Luca played, he would nudge me asking, “Papa, will you play with me?”
I went in for testing because my boyfriend and I came across a post from my ex on one of the hookups sites. He mentioned that he was HIV positive. Imagine my surprise. I was just angry at my ex. I had recently broken up with him because he had been sleeping around with other people. He had HIV, found out about it, and instead of mentioning it to me, posted on a hookup site that he was HIV positive. He was letting people he wanted to hook up with know, but not the one key person that could have been affected by this to be aware.
My boyfriend and I went in and got tested at the Pride Center. He came back negative. I came back positive. I'm confident that I contracted HIV from my ex when he was cheating on me. My boyfriend was concerned because up until that point we had not been having safe sex.
My mom just hid it. I mean, I found out about her status from outsiders, my mom never sat me down and told me. I was just there to take care of her and that was that. I was young then, so I didn't know what was happening. I was in middle school at the time, sixth grade.
Then I had people asking questions like, “are you scared to live with your mom?”
I remember thinking, “are YOU scared to live with YOUR mom?”
Or they would ask, “are you scared to eat after her?”
I thought, “are YOU scared to eat after YOUR mom?”
I was in jail at the time. I kept getting sick and I was having all these symptoms. I didn't know what was going on. I kept on putting sick calls in to go to the clinic and they couldn't figure it out. Then, I saw a sign in the hall for free HIV testing. I asked to take the test. A few days later the doctor said, “you tested positive for HIV.” That's it. I wasn't really educated about HIV in any way. The doctor said, “you're going to take these two pills and you'll be good.” I didn’t even really know what the pills were for.
I didn't know anything. I was uneducated. I thought having HIV was nasty. If anything, I thought it was the end of the world, or at least my sex life and my love life. Nobody's going to want someone that has HIV. I just didn't want people to think I was dirty or think that they were going to get it from me.
Almost two years later, I can’t imagine a better place for Malina to have been born because Malina was born in Broward House.
As addicts, we get addicted to falling and getting back up. Not so much about a relapsing but falling in life. I did just that; I fell. As an addict, when you get clean, you don't remember where you came from. You don't remember the pain, the chaos, the lies, and the pain that you caused your family. You don't remember any of that because you just go right back to the same old pattern.
At the same time, I was trying to balance my volunteer work and college. Little aches, pains and issues popped up in the relationship because not only did I have undiagnosed ADHD, but he had no sympathy for that.
At around 18 years old, I was just starting to get into not only the gay community but also into the leather community. I was navigating trying to find my own place. During my first big relationship, I ignored some of the red flags and some initial mistreatments. The relationship I was in at the time was on the verge of, if not already, emotionally, and mentally abusive. It was a very toxic environment.
This person who was trying to be a “Dom” (the dominant role in a BDSM dynamic) and work his way into the Florida leather community, they very clearly didn't know what being a Dom t meant. From the start there was a lot of lot of lying, and lot of omitting of the truth All of that got not only disguised but pushed down because of the little things that you would hear and see like, ‘oh, he makes me laugh’ or, ‘he's a great person with X, Y, and Z in public.’
I had a lot of fear around acceptance. I felt like I wasn't, or wouldn’t, be loved; or people would treat me differently. I struggled with my sexuality later in life and had been suppressing my feelings. I didn’t know if they were real, and I didn't know how to get out of my marriage at the time without hurting everyone. I moved out of my home and started to experience my new world. A lot of individuals were using drugs. I didn’t want to accept or just be who I really was. The drugs were a way of escaping my own thoughts. That actually just made my situation worse.
I was working a part time job and there was a physical breakdown in my body to the point where I would go to work, come home, get in bed, and stay there without eating. I had lost an extreme amount of weight. My body was slowly shutting down.
Do you have any idea what it’s like to have no teeth?
The most impactful decision of my life happened in a split second the day I decided to shoot up meth for the first time. It led to my addiction and the reason why all my teeth fell out. I’m also HIV+ because of it.
Whenever I was getting high, I was having a lot of anonymous, unprotected sex with other men. Using condoms isn’t something that comes to mind when you’re high, and even after I found out I was HIV+, getting high was all I cared about. It allowed me to feel free being gay, and I wasn’t so stuck on my hang-ups. Meth may have temporarily relieved my discomfort with my self-acceptance, but in the long run, I paid a very high price of not only losing my teeth but having to live with HIV for the rest of my life.
I have always had my own fascination with this time period. As I was beginning my own journey of self, the book nerd I was, I read tons of fiction on the gay experience. Books like Tales of the City, Angels in America, And the Band Played On. Authors like Edmund White, Felice Picano, Alan Hollinghurst all stories about sexual awakening, coming out and many with an end result of an AIDS diagnosis. Even 20 years removed from the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS was at the forefront of my mind. I watched movies that depicted the treatment of AIDS patients, families taking partners from partners, people left to sit in their own filth because medical staff was too afraid to touch them. It did and still does give me goosebumps to watch or hear these stories discussed. I was never directly impacted by AIDS or HIV, but I always had a sympathy for and awareness of what it must have been like to be a gay man during an epidemic widely affecting gay men. The stigmas and hate this generation of men faced both shocks me and makes me super proud of their resilience and strength. They paved the way for me and many others to be able to come out comfortably. To wear platform sneakers, hold my boyfriends’ hand in public and get married to a man. Here is a piece of their story.
Misinformation, Mistreatment and Lots of Myths.
From all accounts it started out of nowhere and spread quickly. At the time, it seemed to have its sights set on a specific type of person and it was lethal. In the early 1980’s, men began checking into hospitals with uncommon medical conditions and failing immune systems. Gay related immunodeficiency disease (GRID) first used in a New York Times article, quickly became the diagnosis or “gay plague” because the main population initially affected by the disease were gay men. During this time of uncertainty, medical professionals were untrained and unaware of what was causing this new disease and how to keep it from spreading. There are stories, books and movies reflecting on the ways in which patients were mistreated during the earliest times of the epidemic. It took over a year for the disease to be renamed to AIDS.
It's been 26 years since my sister passed. My sister got it from a guy that came out of prison. She was 33 when she passed, I was 34. My sister was the first. My hero was the second, that's my dad. Then my dad’s brother, my uncle and then my stepmom. I guess what hurt me the most was for my father to get it. Being into the church and making us go to church 24 seven and you go out and do this to yourself and then you give it to someone else. Gosh, that's a hurtful thing to do you passing it on to someone else. My stepmother passed maybe about five or six years after he passed.
It became a passion for me. I used to, I questioned God, why me? Why me to do this fight for HIV/AIDS. Then I prayed about it and I said, why not me? That was the journey.
I was searching online for where I could get an HIV test. That's how I found out about Broward House. I called up and got some information to see if I needed an appointment and what the process was. Broward House was open for walk-ins, so I went there. I had not been tested for probably a year before this. I had been in a relationship, but at this point, I am not in a relationship with anyone. I have multiple partners and I want to protect myself from HIV.
During my testing appointment they asked me about PrEP. Before this, I heard that if you take a pill, it will basically create a protection in your body. If you're having unprotected sex or you're having multiple partners, it could prevent you from getting HIV. The process at Broward House was very simple to get signed up for PrEP.
I honestly cannot remember ever being tested prior to attending Broward College. I used to be a student there and Broward House came to campus to do free HIV and STI testing. I didn't know much about testing, except basic sexual education class information from high school and they didn't provide much information or, places to go. At Broward College it was easy because they used to have huge signs throughout campus saying testing will be available on these days at this time. I saw the signs a couple of times before, deciding to get tested. I thought, why not?
They were at campus on a regular rotation of every three months or so, doing testing. Between classes, when I had enough time, I would stop by and get tested. At the time I was consistently tested. When I left college, I found it difficult to find information on places to get free testing.
I just wanted a little bit more control over my own sexual health. At the same time, I also knew there are other people out there that deserve the same protection as well. I look at it as a kind of a double-edged sword in a way. I wasn’t sure how to go about getting this extra protection.
The process to get tested and prescribed PrEP was rather quick. I went in to get tested, only waited a little bit and after the wait, they brought me back. The person doing my testing was very friendly. I was in and out much faster than I thought it was going to be. During the testing process they asked me basic health questions. Essentially, what my sexual health had been like and they made sure I knew how to administer the STD testing and since I've taken the test before, I was easily able to navigate the test process.
I was driving down Andrews Avenue. I was leaving the Boardwalk Club and then, I saw a sign that said free HIV and STD testing. It included testing for everything. In that moment, I just decided to take advantage and that it was time to get my periodic check and make sure everything was fine.
When I walked into Broward House, they gave me some easy paperwork to fill out. I waited for about 10 or 15 minutes for someone to be available to do the testing. The entire process was very quick and painless to be honest with you.
During the testing process the tester took me through each step of the process and how long it would take for the results of each test.