I got a black star tattoo on the back of my neck three years ago, nearly two months after the day I learned I had HIV. The days between the clinic and the tattoo are blurry. I hardly slept.
I went to the tattoo parlor one day after class with some friends. None of them knew my real reason for getting it — no one did, not until years later. For most of the three years since my diagnosis, my HIV status was displayed on my Scruff and Grindr profiles, but I was not “out” about it. My family didn’t know. Most of my friends didn’t know. My mother frowned at the tattoo on Thanksgiving. She saw it as something childish but harmless. They did not know it marked a crisis in my life, the closest I had ever come to suicide — a span of several months in which I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep living.
My parents have experience with HIV and AIDS. As medical missionaries, they saw countless AIDS patients in Zambia when we lived there. I spent a good portion of my childhood in Africa. 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 to tell them the truth. I had written an op-ed in The Advocate about my HIV status and my reasons for keeping it a secret. It was harsh, to say the least, on my parents. I called them the morning it published, and it’s good that 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 having to field questions about me and our relationship. It was, all things considered, a cruel move on my part.
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 black star. It’s still there. It always will be — just like the disease it represents.
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 — why, then, do so many HIV-positive people get tattoos commemorating it? Radiation 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, owning that scaremongering and turning it into a give-no-fucks emblem of power and pride is a trick queer people have always managed to perform — the same way we reclaimed “fag” as a power word filled with anarchic fury, the same way we made “queer” a term that means “other” and “all of us,” a united front of everyone who doesn’t fit the oppressive hetero mold.
I, too, have had to claim my HIV and celebrate the identity it brings me. What is my other option? You can only fear and suffer and feel shame for 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 reached a point where I was tired of crouching in the shadows. I wanted more sex, more love, more passion, more fun, and I wanted it with my HIV in tow. I had no idea that the best sex of my life, as well as the best relationships, were coming.
I have met other poz guys who marked themselves with something different — a bear paw, a plus sign — after getting the news. Some of them 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 and faced a life-changing reality — a new fact about ourselves, one that affects all our relationships, all our sex, and all the people that care about us.
That was a blow unlike any I have experienced. Like many of us, I marked it because it marked me. On that day, I had survived two months with HIV, and I felt confident that I could survive two more. I still wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep living, but I wanted to remember that I had made it longer than I thought I would. No matter what happens now, I can think of my tattoo as a reminder that I’ve made it through at least one very dark time and found something better on the other side.
One day I will get a radiation tattoo — my homage to the gay men who came before me. It’ll be my power symbol, my pride.