|Richard J. Schieffer
It was a sunny day in early September 2011, and I woke up hungover. I was sad that my boyfriend just moved back to Australia. I decided that I should go for a routine checkup at the clinic at the Department of Health in North Chelsea. I had no idea what news would come later that afternoon.
When I was younger, in Junior High, we learned about HIV and many other viruses and diseases. I remember being nervous because I wasn’t completely out of the closet and HIV was called “Gay Cancer” in the things we were reading. That’s all that I gained from it so it was scary being the gay kid learning about this amongst homophobic kids in a small town in Upstate New York. Condoms and abstinence were the only thing that would protect you. And by eighth grade I had lost my virginity to the new gay kid in town without a condom, but I didn’t think anything of it because we started to use condoms after that experience. Little did I know that it would start my sexual drive for future encounters.
My freshman year at Norwich High School, we had a mandatory Health Class where we learned more about HIV, including watching a movie about Ryan White, the young boy that contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. We also learned how to put a condom on a banana, which I was already well-versed in and found particularly comical. I remember senior jocks talking about sex in study hall and the girls looking at them. Of course I spoke up, wanting to be the younger know-it-all and fit in, and I did somehow. It made me “cool” to know about sex. It helped that I watched Queer As Folk on the regular, too. I believed that it was cool to act the way these men did sexually. I was so young, but believed that was the way gays lived.
I was out in by my freshman year, and needed to know everything there was about being gay. My family was supportive and did everything there was to boost my confidence, acknowledging that I wasn’t the only one. When The Laramie Project came on a movie channel, my mom recorded it on our VCR and we watched it as a family. Matthew Shepard was a young man that went to school in Wyoming. He was brutally beaten and hospitalized to die a few days later. He too was HIV+. What was this trend?
For the rest of my time as the Purple Tornado Lane (nickname for my high school), I had boyfriends, sexual experiences and graduated single and tried discovering myself more through sex and drinking. I moved to Jersey, escaped and had sexual journeys after my nights out in NYC with friends. There was so much I can’t remember. I do remember how much fun it was.
Then I moved here, somewhere down the road and it opened my world up. I was a GoGo boy, and I was fresh meat. Who doesn’t like the kind of attention from hot guys? Needless to say, I had plenty of sex. I dated guys on and off, but the use of condoms only became a burden unless the other guy put one on. I tested negative regularly. I felt invincible. I was drinking and doing bumps in bathroom stalls, bent over in those same stalls. I was living some sort of fantasy that I had seen on Showtime. Black Party, sex parties, orgies, and so on. I felt unstoppable.
It quickly caught up to me that afternoon at the clinic. I was there, happy-go-lucky. I remember the nurse desperately needing to see me, to speak to me. I felt kind of like Samantha Jones when she went to get tested, but thought I’d have the same outcome. I was wrong. The nurse sat me down and the only things I remember her saying before my world shut down was, “the preliminary result came back reactive.” Was this it? Did my shenanigans, and irresponsibility get me here? I was only twenty-two years old. This can’t happen to me.
For months I tried not having sex, but there were those drunken nights that still led to a new man in my bed, or another bathroom stall, added anonymous scenes… Until I stopped completely. I remember getting rejected, shut down, ridiculed even. People used it against me. Some people were so cruel to say, “just go die of AIDS.” There was hate, but there were few that comforted me and told me it’d be okay. I couldn’t comprehend what had happened to my life. I tried to focus by going away to do a show out west. Even when I got back, I felt different still, but I worked hard and pushed myself. I landed a job at Therapy, pushed still harder, and met some people that would help change my life.
Something I learned earlier on is that you don’t have to be positive to be knowledgeable and help those living with HIV. My friend, Shane, was a perfect example of this. I remember walking with him and my friend Jason the day I started my meds. I remember being so scared of the horror stories I had heard from people in their first months on them, the side effects would be brutal. That wasn’t my experience. It was fine. I had no nightmares, I had no nausea, no dizziness. My friends were there for me. I spoke about my fears, and about dating. It was nice. Little did I know Shane had a drag pageant coming up that was benefiting AIDS LifeCycle. I had it made.
Even with all the support, being in Broadway Bares for my first time, eventually that self-pity crept back in. I felt like I didn’t belong. It was like I was terminally unique. Something was missing. I had this hole that couldn’t be filled. I started seeking more because I was unsatisfied. I started drinking heavier, I started using more blow. I smoked tons of weed. Now that I was on meds, I could continue having careless sex. Then I found my answer. Crystal Meth would solve all of these problems. It began in early fall of 2012. I fit in with these hot guys, getting together to have bareback sex, use drugs, and it opened up my world. I started to feel like a god. It started off as a once a month thing until I went away to do a show again.
Upon my return to New York, I pounded the pavement. I was dancing, working, hosting parties. I was on top of the world. I worked five weeks solid without a day off, and then started to give myself breaks. By the time April rolled around, I was craving that darkness that I had felt before. I wanted to fit in more, I wanted to feel god-like. What started off slow, became a rapid downward spiral. Once-a-month became every few weeks until it was every week, and by the summer of 2013, I was using Crystal Meth almost every single day. I used my status as an excuse to escape. That escape gave me a reason to slowly forget about my meds that I would only take when I would remember.
The scene I had gotten myself in led to unhealthy relationships, being awake for days and bragging about it, trying dangerous substances in gratuitous amounts, betraying friends that had been nothing short of loving, and my doctor almost dropping me from his practice. In this scene, I found many guys that were negative, some chasers and some on PrEP. I found people that weren’t on their meds regularly and some more functional. I finally said to myself that I should get some sleep after being awake for eight days, and I “took a break” from it to get a job and to do Broadway Bares which finally let to me being completely sober.
I never thought I’d contract HIV. I never thought I’d be drink and drug free. I never thought I’d be consciously working for charities. HIV has been something that has helped me grow up. I’ve had to learn to take care of myself, get insurance, help others. I think that it’s important to talk about HIV, to educate and end stigma, to prevent, to support each other.
Presently, I am open about my status. I am open about most of my life. I talk about PrEP openly. I think it’s our answer in preventing HIV along with the use of condoms, but I also know that there are other infections out there that only condoms can help against. It’s like birth control- you won’t get pregnant, but you can get the clap so many times that it sounds like applause. The most important way of protecting yourself and others is to know your status. Get tested. Why wonder? There are plenty of free clinics and Google helps find them, or just ask someone. I think it’s important to have all of the information and be responsible in your sexual appetite. Sex feels better without condoms, but responsibility is sexier.
Today I’m involved with many organizations that I may not have had the opportunity if I didn’t use my status for a better purpose. Every year I try to participate in the AIDS Walk New York and have even been the star walker in my time working at Therapy. I originally began as a server for the Miss Hell’s Kitchen Pageant created by Shane Terenzi. I was then made choreographer, and currently on the board and help run the pageant alongside Ariel Fleischman and Danny Logan. Then there is Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (aka BC/EFA) which I am fortunate to be a part of every year to some capacity. I’ve been a team captain, VIP cocktail server, performer, and VIP dancer. Broadway Bares has helped me progress and teach me that being positive means I’m human. I can be me, proud to be me, and use it to help others. Bares made me realize that the life I was leading before was stealing my dreams away, and it is one of the reasons I have an opportunity to reach out, speak out, and have a voice.
For anyone that is newly diagnosed, I wouldn’t suggest taking the drug-fueled route that I took. I wouldn’t suggest isolating. I would tell you that there are options of group therapy, and counselors. Join support groups, do charity work, get insurance. I remember having to switch doctors and found a doctor that I trust and knows his stuff. Stay informed of what’s going on in today’s world with advances in medicine. Start treatment after your genotype is determined, it’s better to be safe than sorry. There will always be a stigma with those that are fearful of HIV and that’s okay. I would rather be understanding than allow their negativity to stop me or others from being honest and prevent me from being of help. Protect yourself and those you are intimate with and if you ever have *THAT* day at the clinic, know that you are NOT alone. It’s normal to cry, it’s normal to feel ashamed at first. It’s normal to need someone to tell you to breathe.
I can’t believe I was diagnosed almost five years ago, and being 26 and getting my life together, I wouldn’t change my experience for the world. I am fortunate to live in “the city that never sleeps” and choreograph and dance all over the world for major drag names and some celebrities from time-to-time; not to mention my next move to be a big time group fitness instructor. I mean Richard Simmons of 2016? That’s pretty cool in my book.