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Testing My Faith

I’d left Orthodoxy. But as I waited for HIV test results, I looked to God and the Talmud for comfort.

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The clinic looked like many clinics I’d visited before as part of my work around HIV and AIDS: rainbow flags, earth-tone décor, and stacks of literature urging people to “Know Your Status!” and “Get Tested!” This time, though, I was in the clinic as a patient, getting tested for HIV, and that made my heart race.

My finger was pricked to draw blood for the test, and I was sent to the empty waiting room for 20 minutes to await the results. I’d come in feeling guilty, but now that guilt was replaced with a sharp sense of anxiety. Vulnerable before a power I could not change, I felt like it was neilah and the rabbi was urging me to make my final appeal. What does one do during those moments while your fate is being sealed?

I turned to God. At that moment in the waiting room, he was the only one who could help and comfort me.

***

Every Dec. 1, World AIDS Day gets a lot of people thinking about HIV, but I didn’t need a special day to think about it. It’s been on my mind for years, wrapped up in a whole complex of guilt and anxiety. Like any other Jew, I trace those feelings, which led to that moment in the waiting room, to my mother—specifically how she handled my coming out six years earlier. In fact, she had been the one who prompted me to come out in 2006 at age 17. My parents had been divorced for four years, and I was living in Atlanta with her.

One afternoon during my senior year of high school, she asked, “Are you gay?”

I had known since I was 12. I had always felt different from the other guys I grew up with—I never fit into the football-playing crowd that talked about girls more and more as they got older. Instead, as I reached middle school, I realized I was attracted to those guys. I spent a year struggling with it and pleading with myself to change, but by 14 I accepted it and a year later came out to my friends. The rest of the students in our southern, conservative prep school made assumptions, because of my natural flamboyance, and I didn’t correct them. By 17, I had a boyfriend, my first amorous dalliance. I wasn’t exactly in the closet. Still, I hadn’t planned to tell my mother yet, because I didn’t want to share my dating life with her; but then she asked. And so I answered her honestly: “Yes.”

She broke down, sobbing that I was “going to die of AIDS.” That was her first reaction.

Later that afternoon, she came back into my room and hurled a Costco-sized box of condoms at my head. “You’re not dying of AIDS on my watch!” she screamed.

My mother’s words would resound in my head for years to come. I didn’t want her to be right. From that moment on, my guilt and anxiety around getting tested and knowing my HIV status became fully operational.

The ironic part is that my mother-instilled guilt about sex and anxiety about my HIV status rarely led me to get tested myself. I was too scared. It wasn’t like I used intravenous drugs or had a sex life filled with anonymous one-night stands. I didn’t have many sexual partners and always used protection; my guilt and anxiety had conditioned me to be extremely cautious. I knew the risk of infection from what I was doing and knew it was pretty slim. Yet, I couldn’t let the anxiety go. I’d imagine finding out that I was HIV-positive, my dating life imploding, my desire for the perfect Jewish family shattered. My own dream of a husband, two kids, and a well-decorated house in Brookline, Mass., would go up in smoke. Then I’d think of my previous partners. What if I infected them? How would I tell them?

Maybe my mother, in that annoying way, was once again right. Maybe I was going to die of AIDS. I was worried that I was positive, yet too scared to find out for sure.

The first time I got tested was unexpected. I was a freshman at Boston University and went for a regular check-up at the student health clinic. The experience was uncomfortable due to the doctor’s awkward bedside manner. His questions about my sex life went beyond what I considered to be professional, inquiring about my coming out, whether I’d told my parents, and, most awkwardly, what sexual position I preferred. (I don’t think I even responded to that final question.) He concluded the exam by suggesting I get a full battery of STD tests. I couldn’t say no, even though what I most wanted to do was just leave. The results came back negative, but I didn’t share them with anyone and attempted to bury the memory of the whole experience in the back of my mind.

Around the same time, I started to engage more deeply with religion. I’d grown up in a secular family, but while I was in college, I got involved with Conservative Judaism, and later Orthodox Judaism. Ultimately, I was drawn to Orthodoxy for its theology, practice, and community. I spent the summer of 2009 in Israel, studying at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies. The summer of 2010, I returned to study more. As I got more involved in Orthodoxy, my worldview started to change. While I never questioned my sexuality or sexual activity, I did start to view life through whether other things, from friendships to career choices, were kosher or Jewish or in line with mitzvot. While I didn’t view this negatively at the time, my life got more restricted and insular.

In early 2011, when I was a senior in college, I experienced a near-lethal allergic reaction to antibiotics that depleted my white blood cell count to Bubble Boy levels. The doctors feared the worst: leukemia. But the minute the doctors mentioned that I might have a “compromised immune system,” my mind instantly shot instead to HIV. My fear of HIV far outweighed my fear of leukemia. My mother’s dire warning, playing on repeat in my head, matched the tempo of my pounding heart. The doctors decided to perform a full battery of tests for seemingly every hematological illness imaginable, which I assumed would include HIV/AIDS. I hadn’t been tested since that first bad experience in college.

While I waited for the results in the hospital, I called my father, himself a doctor, to ask him my most pressing question: “Could this be an immunodeficiency disease … like HIV?”

My father and I never had the relationship that facilitated the “I’m gay” conversation. In fact, I was still officially in the closet to him, so I felt the need to code my language in a poor attempt to disguise my urgent request. He still got the picture and responded with what sounded like a disinterested “No.” I felt the guilt and anxiety subside slightly. Four days later, when my white-blood-cell count returned to normal, the feelings resumed their dormancy. This second test pacified my raging guilt and anxiety for a while. Yet it also reinforced the fact that I didn’t actually know my status because I didn’t know if the “battery of tests” included an HIV/AIDS test specifically. I assumed it did but never wanted to check to make sure.

The day after that test, I moved abroad to Switzerland for my last semester. It was not easy living and traveling abroad and being Orthodox—between the food, Shabbat, and the chagim. Often times I found myself without a community and alone. It started to seem like Orthodoxy was keeping me from realizing what I wanted in terms of my career goals and personal interests. So, I stopped keeping Shabbat, watching what I ate so closely, and believing that mitzvot are check marks on a list that is required to consider myself a Jew. I realized that I didn’t need to be shomer mitzvot to reaffirm my commitment to God and the Jewish people. I chose my secular life over being Orthodox.

But I never lost my faith. I still believe in God, pray, and celebrate the chagim in my own way. I still believe that there is a lot of truth and resilience to be found in Jewish tradition.

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Thank you for sharing your story, Matt! I can’t even imagine what you must have been going through while waiting for the results each time. Hugs to you.

I went in for spinal surgery 2.5 years ago, a.k.a. “Spinal Fusion”.
Before I went into the O.R. I spoke to my Jewish surgeon and asked if I could say the “Shema”, in both Hebrew and in English.
I also asked “Hashem” to guide my surgeons hands during the operating time.
Now I am to go back in 6 weeks time for another session. I will do the same prayers! Hashem and I are good friends..:>) (gerrylewy18@gmail.com)

SharonM says:

Condoms, not prayer, are what is keeping you HIV negative. Keep using them.

Pip Power says:

If ever one had an example of how some Gays are “produced”, this is it! Matt’s life was messed up from the time of conception, by two messed up people. People say that the child in the womb is affected by all kinds of stress, emotions, chemicals etc. Is it any wonder that there is an explosion of Gay people in the world. If you Google

Hermaphrodite

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,

It will blow you away. If we say we believe God is the Creator of all things, then after reading this article, you will become more understanding about all the different forms of sexuality in nature.

But & there is always a BUT. I think Gays don’t do themselves any favors with their going on in places like Folsom Street Festival. If you Google http://www.zombietime.com & search for Up Your Alley 2008, you will see what I mean. Its getting to the stage now where “normal” people are being treated as “subnormal” by the very people who were once treated as b”subnormal”!

The VAGINA is especially built to receive the PENIS. The ANUS is not & any abuse in this area sexually causes abrasions & infections i.e. STDs etc.

50,000,000 babies slaughtered in Abortion Camps since 1973, in the USA.

What amazes me is the fact that women need counselling, if they have had a miscarriage, but think NOTHING of having an abortion.

Its a “funny” old world!

Pip Power is obviously out-of-touch with reality and pretty removed from rational thought. This is a wonderful, thought-provoking article about the convergence of religion, the individual, and sexuality. I think we, as a Jewish community, need to do a much better job about embracing all people from the LGBTQ community in a non-judgmental way. It’s also fantastic that you can help raise awareness about knowing one’s own HIV status! Excellent article.

Amen to Pip Power

I enjoyed this story. Forgive me if I digress, but I was hoping to also read another story regarding Orthodoxy and being gay.

This is a story that is not getting a lot of coverage in Jewish newspapers, none in the Jewish Press.

It is about Jonah the conversion therapy mill that promises to turn gay people straight.

It advertises every day in the Jewish Press. Last week it was taken to court by former patients some of whom were sexually abused by counselors.

This story was featured on CNN with Wolf Blitzer reporting.

The founder and president of JONAH , Arthur Goldberg was previously convicted for fraud and disbarred.

the Rabbinical Council of America, decided to announce it does not endorse either conversion therapy or JONAH anymore because it agrees with the scientific community that these are quack therapies.

bobschwalbaum says:

Can anyone name one other apparently incurable disease that is SOLELY the product of aberrant human behaviour

I know.. i know.. BIGOT!!!

BUT I’m right… ain’t I?

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Testing My Faith

I’d left Orthodoxy. But as I waited for HIV test results, I looked to God and the Talmud for comfort.