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Yuppies with HIV

by Shaun Knittel
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Aug 11, 2011

Andrew Nichols, now 33, was diagnosed with HIV just days after he turned 26. A couple of weeks later he was diagnosed with AIDS. In short, May of 2004 was a hard month for Andrew.

The "face" of AIDS has lifted. No longer do we hear of whole circles of friends passing away within weeks, months, or years of a diagnosis. It is uncommon to see emaciated men with lesions struggling to die with dignity as the government and, society in general for that matter, stand by and do nothing for fear of "catching it" themselves. Those days, thank God, are gone.

The new face of HIV/AIDS often looks like this: young, gay and for the most part, silent. In other words, Andrew Nichols is a part of that group of men: Yuppies with AIDS.

Andrew, a U.S. Army veteran, gets his health care at the VA. In 2004, he was living in Atlanta, Georgia at the time of his diagnosis. "When I walked into the VA the day I received my diagnosis I didn't expect to hear that I was HIV positive. I had thought that I wasn't the 'type' of person who contracted HIV," Andrew told EDGE. "I rarely had unprotected sex and I never used drugs of any kind, so I simply thought I wasn't at risk. I was just a proud gay man who went through a long process of battling family with conservative views and a military with a policy that said I was less than, who was ready for my next journey in life."

Andrew had planned a yearlong trip to study in Málaga, Spain, which he was going to leave for two days after we went to the VA, and needed to receive this final clean bill of health.

"I was sitting on the table, legs freely kicking back and forth, when the doctor came through the door. This was a doctor whom I built a relationship with while living in Atlanta and she typically had the childlike, carefree spirit people have said is typical with me. However, today was different," he said.

"As she stepped through the door, carefully securing it behind her, each step toward me was weighted with a heavy burden. Her eyes were saddened, the surrounding area moist with what appeared to be previous tears now wiped from view. Her motherly touch halted the movement in my legs. Her love was evident in the connection that she created just prior to saying, 'I'm so sorry, you tested positive for HIV.'"

Andrew was shocked. "I thought surely I heard her wrong. As her heart was reaching out with support, mine dropped. I suddenly felt like I had failed. I wasn't sure what or who I failed, but I was certain I failed," he recalled. "She wanted a response, but I didn't know what to say. I asked her for a moment alone and walked out the door. I made my way down a long hallway, competing with fellow veterans walking opposite of me.

"I felt empty inside. I felt like each veteran who made eye contact with me could detect the disgust, the dirtiness, the disease, that now lived in my body. My eyes couldn't maintain the grasp on the tears wanting to flow. I found a stairwell in the maze of the VA, made my way to the bottom, and curled up in the corner," said Andrew.

There, Andrew held himself and cried. He wasn't thinking about dying, or even getting sick, he was only thinking about what his family would think of him. "I realized that I failed them and the pride I had gained to that point," he said. "I failed proving their fundamentalist Christian beliefs wrong, that a gay man can have a healthy relationship and not contract HIV."

Life, as Andrew knew it, had changed forever.

Funds Slashed As HIV Among MSM Rises

According to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) report issued in September 2010, men who have sex with men (MSM) account for nearly half of the more than one million people living with HIV in the U.S. MSM also account for more than half of all new HIV infections in the U.S. each year (53% or an estimated 28,700 infections).

While the CDC estimates that MSM account for just 4% of the U.S. population aged 13 and older, the rate of new HIV diagnoses among MSM in the U.S. is more than 44 times that of other men. Within that group, young gay men are at the highest risk.

"Being young, gay, and a professional with HIV is mostly non-eventful. It's mostly not an issue. I feel like I'm one of the 'lucky' ones living with AIDS because I have a stable job, supportive family and friends, and most importantly, health care," said Andrew.

"A friend of mine and I were talking recently about how HIV has become a social justice issue today," he said. "People like myself have insurance and access to medications and health care. People who currently are without a job, or find themselves in a low-income situation, may have to fight daily for their medications and health care."

Andrew now lives in Seattle, where the current Washington state insurance program for people living with HIV (EIP) is debating where to cut services to save money.

"In a time that corporations have multiple tax loop holes, pharmaceutical companies (one of the top-earning industries in the U.S.) make record profits, and debt ceiling deals pass without reducing the tax cuts to the most wealthiest in our nation, I think we have our priorities out of whack," said Andrew. "Health care should be a basic right for every person, period! One day I hope our nation wakes up and realizes our moral obligation to care for and love those who need it the most."

"Being young, gay, and a professional with HIV is mostly non-eventful. I feel like I’m one of the ’lucky’ ones living with AIDS because I have a stable job, supportive family and friends, and most importantly, health care."

Still, with all of the safe-sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention programs available, according to the CDC, MSM are the only risk group in the U.S. in which new HIV infections are increasing. While new infections have declined among both heterosexuals and injection drug users, the annual number of new HIV infections among MSM has been steadily increasing since the early 1990s.

"I do know by whom and how I was infected," says Andrew. "I met a man online, chatted for a bit, and then met him in person. We talked for several hours, had a couple drinks, and by the evening we had sex."

At first Andrew says the man wanted to enter him without a condom. "I stopped him and said that we definitely needed to wear protection. He put it on and we proceeded," said Andrew. "We had sex a few times that evening and into the next morning. At some point I must not have noticed that he did not put on a condom with the anal intercourse."

"I didn't understand for a year following that event how I contracted HIV because I 'knew' this guy and I had protection," he said. "However, I met up with him about a year later and we dated briefly. About three weeks into our relationship he said something that felt really strange. Out of the blue he said, 'I could have had sex with you unprotected back when we had our one night stand, if I wanted to.' He said it with a laugh and jokingly, but it was very random and confused me. I ended up telling him that a relationship wouldn't work and we broke up."

A few days later the man called Andrew and asked if the two could still be friends. "I said, 'sure.' He asked me to go with him to get an HIV test, I did," recalled Andrew.

While they were sitting in the clinic hallway waiting the man said, "I know it's going to come back as positive." Andrew says he questioned the man why he felt that and he told Andrew about how he got really sick after a risky incident two years prior (one year before Andrew and the man had sex) and he knew that was where he contracted the virus from.

"I was angry. I said, You never told me this before,' and he shot back, 'I told you it was possible I had HIV.' He never told me that," said Andrew.

"I was angry for a short time. 'How could someone put others at risk like this?' I questioned over and over, but never could figure it out," he said. "The one thing I want others to say about me when I die is that I protected others from contracting this terrible virus."

"I saw this guy a couple years ago in San Francisco and he seemed like a different person," said Andrew. "He apologized for what he had put me through; we chatted for a bit, and then parted with a hug. My friends have asked me if I forgave him and I definitely have, even before this exchange. I forgave him for myself, because I couldn't live with the bottled up anger for too long. There is nothing I can do about changing the past, which is one of the many things I have no control over. What I do have power over is how I live the rest of my days and the attitude I approach life with."

Stigma Still Surrounds People Living with HIV

While Andrew and others who are infected in his age group might approach life with a positive outlook, they say the stigma surrounding people living with HIV/AIDS still exists. "One time, while working with MOMS Pharmacy, I was manning at a table for a health conference at the Seattle VA," said Andrew. "While I was there this woman, who was about 50 years old, approached and asked me about MOMS. I informed her that we work with people who are living with HIV/AIDS. She asked, 'Oh, are there veterans with HIV?' I replied, 'Yes, I'm a veteran with HIV.'"

Andrew said the woman paused for a moment, trying to understand what he'd told her. "I have become very open about my status about five years ago. I even speak to various groups with the local HIV Speaker's Bureau, because I think the best thing I can do is raise awareness and my communities' knowledge about HIV/AIDS," he said.

The woman at the table hadn't moved on to the next table. After thinking for several seconds she looked back to Andrew and again asked, "Are there veterans with AIDS?"

"I smiled and confidently replied, 'Yes there are, I'm living with an AIDS diagnosis.' I wish I had the following reaction recorded, as it was truly priceless," he said. "She gasped for air, and possibly a moment to understand how I could be living with AIDS and look so healthy. She clutched at her necklace as her widened eyes stared, like she had just witnessed Bigfoot appear right there in front of her. She didn't say another word. Perhaps that was enough for one day."

"Overall, I do not think that the majority of society understands that many people are now living much longer with either HIV or a full-blown AIDS diagnosis," Andrew told EDGE. "They don't understand that if I take my medications, take care of my health, and keep a good support network around, then I'll live many, many years. There are also people who are still afraid to be near people living with HIV/AIDS."

"When I first told my mom that I was diagnosed with AIDS she didn't understand what it meant. She cried, held me, and said repeatedly, 'You're not going to die!' However, when we went to dinner together that evening I offered my water glass when hers was empty and the waiter was nowhere in sight. She wouldn't drink from my glass because she said we should just 'be cautious.' It broke my heart," said Andrew.

Andrew says that it took some time and education to turn things around, and now his mom knows how HIV is spread.

"My future is wide open. I have so many options I feel a bit overwhelmed at times," he concludes. "I know my future will include continuing to fight for access to health care for everyone. As far as my health, I feel amazing. I feel so much better than I have ever felt. I do yoga once or twice a week, I life weights about 4 times a week, I bike, run, swim, hike -- I love being active."

"I will admit though, I still have moments of fear when I get sick," said Andrew. "I question if I would be as sick if I wasn't living with AIDS. However, I definitely feel like I can live as normal a life as my partner, who is not living with this virus, and never will be."

Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.


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