From 2002 to 2008 I worked at a non profit that was known for being the "world's first peer based non profit serving HIV positive youth". Youth is really a misnomer because it basically referred to people between the ages of 18 and 27. Fyi, Public Health Departments, as well as the CDC, differ in what they technically refer to as "youth", with some agencies calling people youth up until age 30. Believe me, I know it's fucked up. By the age of 30, I had already been married 6 years, my husband had received his PhD in electrical engineering, and we hadn't lived at home since college.
Every year, I would prepare for PRIDE with equal feelings of jubilation, dread, and worry. San Francisco PRIDE is uber popular and by most accounts, can be a really amazingly fun experience for both the LGBTQIQ and ally community. What most people don't realize is that it is also a time for deep personal turbulence for many in the young LGBTQIQ community. This can be substantially clear if you work with youth who are HIV positive or have an AIDS diagnosis.
The LGBTQIQ community often finds it difficult to separate out celebrating without using substances, and this is something that both people within the community as well as outsiders have pointed out. Now, I'm in no way saying that all gays are drunk queens. That would be a ridiculous assertion. I want it to be abundantly clear that I am not trying to pigeonhole a whole community of people. What I am saying is that, after working in the HIV positive community for over 5 years, I observed what I refer to as the yearly PRIDE "phenomena".
Whether is it a pre-PRIDE event, post-PRIDE event, or the PRIDE event itself, there is often copious amounts of alcohol being drunk and drugs being taken. This isn't a judgment as much as it is a fact. PRIDE can be a wonderful way for young people to feel connected to and accepted by their community. It can also be a time where people tend to grapple with their personal demons.
What do I mean by that? Remember that my viewpoint is from working in a youth agency whose demographic was primarily gay and HIV positive. Being young, gay, and HIV positive is no picnic. It is a life threateining medical condition and often times a stigma that people have to deal with for the rest of their life. Many people I saw on a day to day basis had a hard time dealing with their HIV positive diagnosis and this presented itself in many different ways:
- People who had a history of regular employment now became very inconsistent in their job history and overall employment. It was very common to see a huge shift from stable work to little or no work shortly after their HIV poz diagnosis
- People acting out in hyper sexual ways shortly after their HIV poz diagnosis
- People abstaining from any sexual activity following a HIV poz diagnosis
- People using an increased amount of drugs and alcohol following a HIV poz diagnosis
- People becoming sober following a HIV poz diagnosis
- People dropping out of school following a HIV poz diagnosis
- People becoming isolated and withdrawn following a HIV poz diagnosis
- People avoiding medical treatment and hospitals following a HIV poz diagnosis
Of course, this wasn't the case with all of my "members" (how we referred to people who were actively engaged in our services), but the vast majority could pretty much fall into one or more of the categories I just listed.
But PRIDE is a celebration, and it shouldn't negatively affect someone who is young, gay, and HIV positive, right? Human behavior is infinitely interesting to me because people often do not act in a rational or expected manner. Yes PRIDE is a celebration! It can also threaten someones sobriety (now I sound like Dr. Drew) because of the level of debauchery involved.
Most people who are HIV positive know that staying up for days at a time and using drugs and alcohol can weaken their already compromised immune system. Many HIV positive people also know that some drugs can limit the effectiveness of what ever HIV drug therapy they may (or may not) be on. Meaning, some recreational drugs can actually inhibit absorption of a drug whose meaning is to control HIV. Not to complicate matters, but some recreational drugs are way more attractive than others because they have a side effect of making people feeling unstoppable, euphoric, and the sex they have much more enjoyable and sensational.
Year after year, I could see a pattern emerge around the time of PRIDE. People would often lose their self worth and begin engaging in high risk behavior patterns. First of all, it is difficult to find anyone who is HIV positive who doesn't or hasn't blamed them self for becoming positive. This is pretty universal. Whether they are newly diagnosed or have been living with HIV for 5, 10, or 15 or more years, people tend to put a disproportionate amount of time and energy into blaming them self. As someone who is HIV negative, this is one of the hardest things in the world to witness. The pattern I saw was people taking a "vacation" from their life and engaging in behaviors they were beginning to move away from. Some people would engage in lots of anonymous and group sex where drugs and alcohol may or may not have been involved, some people would become non-compliant with their HIV medications for a variety of reasons, and some would just act in a general reckless manner.
However, as with all vacations, you eventually have to come back to reality. Just like with any high (PRIDE) there is a low (post -PRIDE). I spent days helping people process, make sense of, take responsibility for their actions if they were so inclined, and basically helping them through the very common post-PRIDE depression.
It's funny that writing this blog post makes me realize how much my time at BAY Positives meant to me, and how there are some aspects of it that I really miss. I was a very unlikely person working in a very unlikely environment, but it fit me very, very well.
So my hope for all you PRIDE goers is that you map out some out of game plan as far as what actions you will allow yourself to engage in, try to avoid triggering environments (if possible), and remember to have lots and lots of fun and play safe!