The first image I associated with HIV was Judith Light in the ABC television movie The Ryan White Story, which aired in 1989. Light played the mother of the young boy in Indiana (Ryan White) who became the face of the AIDS crisis after contracting it through a blood transfusion and being kicked out of school. I was seven in 1989 and also a boy in Indiana. For me those early years didn’t have the face of a gay man (like the stereotype that can still persist today), instead it had the face of a kid who had a background similar to mine.
For many of us who grew up in the 1980s and early 90s, HIV/AIDS had a profound effect on how we came of age (especially sexually). We grew up with talk of HIV all around us from misinformation and fear to prevention discussions. Many of us didn’t directly witness friends dying (as we were too young), but we saw the stories on the news, we saw the movies, and we witnessed the fear of our parents and friends when we came out as gay men.
Because of this, many gay men in this age group have a large amount of anxiety and paranoia around sex. We’ve been hounded about condom use our whole lives and taught to associate sex with fear. This has led to sex shaming and negative thoughts regarding one’s sexuality. This has long been a concern of mine and one I’ve touched on in my own creative work as a poet.
Last fall I turned that concern and interest into a career choice. In November of 2015, I began working for a program called Men’s Sexual Health Project that provides HIV and STI testing in sex venues that cater to men who have sex with men in New York City. I now spend many hours a week at sex parties or in bathhouses testing men of all races, ages, and sexual orientations (sexual orientation does not always dictate sexual behavior).
My job is funded through a grant that focuses on priority population testing, which means groups that are at higher risk for contracting HIV. I had never worked in this field before, but I had experience on the other side (getting tested myself). I’ve often been amazed at the lack of skill, information, and professionalism from testers. This is partly what drove me to take on this role that is outside of my educational and professional background.
I wanted to provide people with a sex positive experience where they could truly ask the questions they wanted to ask and not worry about judgment. Shouldn’t this be the norm for testing? Sadly, it’s not. The job is solo, so I’m responsible for a lot, and it is important that I fit into the environment (this is partly what got me the job). The majority of people I test are attending a sex party or bathhouse. Many test with little to no clothing on. I often test people with the sounds of fucking in the nearby rooms or spaces. If you aren’t comfortable, your patients won’t be either.
The service my job provides is unique even in New York. In fact my program is one of the only programs that provides free testing on a regular basis (3 to four times a week) in sex venues. The program is also one of the few that provides free testing after 5 PM on a consistent basis (which is kind of mind-boggling for a city like New York). It is also difficult to find free STI testing. While many places provide free HIV tests, tests for more common infections like syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia are harder to find, which means fewer people get tested for them. My program is also run out of a Mount Sinai clinic, so I have a direct link to getting people care and treatment should they test positive for anything.
I test a wide range of men, from those married to women in the suburbs who use this service because they don’t want to test with their regular doctors, to young men who regularly attend group sex events, to men without insurance, to men who work regular hours and can’t always get tested during business hours, to 70 year old men who have never been tested before. The men I test range in risk factors and education.
A lot of barriers are already broken down for me by testing in sex venues. It isn’t a clinic setting. I wear very causal clothing, I’m easygoing in my approach and almost immediately people feel comfortable and start asking questions. I’m able to address sexual practices, risk factors, PrEP (which is becoming vital to our fight against new HIV infections). I also have personal knowledge of gay sex practices and PrEP, so patients don’t have to worry about my not understanding. I come to them as a peer.
One thing a lot of testers are bad at is thinking they can tell people what to do. You can’t. All I can do is provide education and be open to the people sitting in front of me. You are often put in difficult positions. But I’m not there to tell someone they have to use condoms or have to get on PrEP or have to inform their partners. I’m there to meet people where they are and provide the information they need to make their own educated decisions. In the end, it may or may not be the decision I would personally make, but it is theirs.
While programs like this one are rare, they are vital to our ongoing fight to end HIV. Providing sexual education and testing in sex venues helps create positive connections between sex and sexual health (something many people don’t have). It helps break down years of paranoia and fear. At least once a week, I have someone sitting in front of me truly riddled with anxiety over sex to the point that they aren’t enjoying sex at all for fear of HIV (they typically fall into the age group I mentioned earlier). By being there with information and not fear, I am sometimes able to move them in a better direction. In other situations, I am able to give people real information about PrEP (about which there are frequent misconceptions) and how it can be a great tool for prevention.
In a short amount of time, I’ve been able to see the profound effect of my program. Many men count on our testing and become regulars. I’ve had the opportunity to help a lot of men deal with new diagnoses and get more educated. There are many pieces to helping end HIV and I’m honored to be one of those pieces.
Stephen S. Mills is the author of A History of the Unmarried (Sibling Rivalry, 2014) and He Do the Gay Man in Different Voices (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2012), a finalist for the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry from the Publishing Triangle and winner of the 2012 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have appeared in The Antioch Review, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, PANK, The New York Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, Knockout, Assaracus, The Rumpus, and others. Stephen won the 2008 Gival Press Oscar Wilde Poetry Award for his poem entitled “Iranian Boys Hanged for Sodomy, July 2005,” which appeared in the anthology Poetic Voices Without Borders 2 (Gival Press, 2009), edited by Robert L Giron. He lives in New York City. Learn more at stephensmills.com.