My only commandment for life is one shared by Aleister Crowley — do as thou wilt, gents — with one exception: HIV-positive guys, stop getting those radiation tattoos, the kind they put on hazardous chemicals. We’re not toxic waste.
I got a black star on the back of my neck three years ago, almost two months after one very bad day at the student health clinic. The days between the clinic and the tattoo parlor are blurry. I hardly slept or ate.
Here’s my HIV story. On the first day of school, I was fine. It was the start of my fourth year of what had been a tumultuous and rewarding undergrad. On the second day, I was not in class.
A friend who knew I had gone that morning to get my STD test results left forty panicked voicemails on my phone throughout the day. Late that evening, when I finally answered, I told him I had been shopping, which was true. I had been wandering through the city making absurd purchases until it got cold. I asked if I could come over.
I slept on his couch that night. I slept at somene’s place every night that week. Two months later, I went after class to get a tattoo.
I went with two classmates and neither one knew my reason for wanting a tattoo. As it healed, I invented bullshit meanings to satisfy friends. I posted a picture of it on Instagram on October 30, 2013. In the picture it’s still fresh.
For most of the three years since, my status was displayed on my Scruff and Grindr profiles but kept from Facebook. It was talked about in private messages with strangers but hidden in plain sight at Thanksgiving and Christmas. My mother frowned at my new ink — the next step, she reasoned, in my ongoing crusade to rebel from my conservative upbringing, buck the system, etc.
My parents and the rest of my family saw the tattoo 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 where I did little but sleep and fuck.
My parents know HIV. They’re doctors. They saw countless AIDS patients at clinics in Zambia where my family lived there. In 2014, 70% of all HIV-positive people in the world — about 25.8 million — lived in sub-Saharan Africa. As a family surgeon and gynecologist, respectively, my father and mother had seen the virus at its ugliest: emaciated babies, tiny skeletons wrapped in skin, washed by their mothers in tin buckets with filthy water.
Places like Africa make the white, Western gay embracement of radiation symbols ugly. The symbols sing of outbreak and contagion — words that have real meaning in a place where people don’t have penicillin.
Last December, I called my parents to tell them the secret I had kept from them for over three years. On a sunny sidewalk in L.A., I told them something no parent wants to hear.
Honestly, in the years since, I’ve hardly thought about my black star. It never comes up in conversation. Even now that I’m public about my status, I can’t think of one person that has asked me what it means. The idea of marking something like HIV with a visual symbol seems silly now that all my partners know.
I watched some hot bareback porn recently, and it got me thinking about my tattoo again. A group of guys were “pozzing” a sub, which means they were fucking him hard and bare with the intention of seroconverting him. I don’t know if the sub really was HIV-negative, or if the guys fucking him really were HIV-positive. The fantasy scenario was just that — a fantasy that, deep in that dark inner place where desire lives, was hot to watch.
The video was a studio production, not amateur, so the likelihood that anyone on camera was actually HIV-positive was pretty low, especially if the video was shot in California. I noticed that some of the men fucking the lucky cumdump had radiation tattoos on their arms.
The tattoos were so obvious that they might have been fake, pressed on minutes before shooting, but they did add a considerable touch of realism to the video. And then I realized the implication of that: Radiation symbols are synonymous with HIV. In modern gay symbology, the symbol is almost exclusively associated with poz guys and bareback sex.
After jacking off, I thought about the black star on my neck, which had been this close — this close — to being a radiation symbol.
I have met other poz guys that marked themselves with something different — a bear paw, a plus sign — after their diagnoses. Some of them knew the modern reality of HIV before they tested positive. Others, like me, didn’t know anything, and believed it was still a death sentence. Either way, we are all brothers. We’ve all been in some white, sterile clinic, faced with an impossible, lifechanging reality. We all walked home in a fog, recounting our lives, looping back on ourselves endlessly the way you do when you’re faced with brutal changes. Memories happens like a loop. You’re flashing there in your childhood underpants on a beach somewhere, laughing and holding a plastic shovel, and you flash there over and over, an echo of a previous life. You’ve crossed into a new one now. There’s no going back.
That was a blow unlike any I have experienced in my life. Like many of us, I marked it because it marked me. I survived the first two months of HIV. I don’t know how, but I wanted to remember that survival. I never want that survival to go away. I want it to stay there, dormant, ready for the next hurdle. No matter what happens, it was a time that I mustered the strength to keep living without anyone’s help.
When I talk to friends who are newly diagnosed, I see on their faces the same look I had, like a bus had suddenly run over my dog. A newly diagnosed friend told me recently that for the first few weeks he took multiple showers a day because he didn’t feel “clean.” Another friend said that he went to the gym like a maniac for a few months and over-scrubbed every weight machine with the sanitary spray. In the same way that I went shopping and refused to sleep alone — and started an unhealthy sex crusade — these guys are learning life again from the ground up.
In the tattoo parlor, the “radiation symbol” was trashed for something simpler. I wanted the tattoo to mean more than HIV, which does not define me and never will. I wanted it to prompt a story that I would tell later. Now I can.
Mortality is a complex idea with few visual representations beyond grave stones and skulls, both of which portray destruction as something that comes at the end of the line. Few images portray mortality as something you carry with you, a dark passenger on your shoulder, a black star on your neck.