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.
This summer, I was working for the U.S. Department of State in Mexico, and LGBT rights and HIV/AIDS were two of my portfolios. I met with numerous advocacy groups dedicated to both issues and talked endlessly about testing campaigns, treatment options, and HIV/AIDS patient discrimination, even visiting clinics and centers where I met HIV-positive patients. Each meeting and visit brought a new wave of guilt and anxiety over my own unknown status, leaving me feeling hypocritical discussing these issues and programs when I myself was willfully ignorant. I was given a tour of one facility where they proudly showed off their waiting room for people who were waiting to hear their results. I looked at it with a mixture of fear, anxiety, and desire to be in there. I saw it as a preview of the end of a tunnel that I wasn’t willing to go through yet.
A few months later, back in Washington, D.C., I got an email from my graduate school, with the subject line: “Free HIV tests!” Like clockwork, the guilt began and the horror score that chimed the ignorance of my status played.
But I’d had enough. It was time to confront my guilt, fear, and my mother’s prediction. I frantically Googled rapid HIV testing centers and went the next day.
With the 20 minutes ticking away in the waiting room, I remembered all those seminary girls I used to jostle over Egged buses in Israel—oblivious to the world around them while they furiously recited Tehilim—and I decided that I needed to do something. Like on Yom Kippur, I needed to show a commitment to the Power so as to warrant inscription in the Book of Life. I couldn’t find Tehilim for my iPhone, so I settled instead on daf yomi—something I never even did when I was studying in Israel.
So, there I was, in an LGBT HIV/AIDS clinic, surrounded by condoms, rainbow flags, and reassuring pamphlets about life with HIV/AIDS, reading a section of the Talmud about candlewicks in Aramaic. Within minutes, the anxiety was banished and the horror score that chimed a death sentence slowed. I felt like I was again performing my end of the bargain with God. I was making a sacrifice. It was by no means a religious reawakening, but it was definitely a salve. And then, just like that, the candlewick discussion was over and the gates were closed. The results were in.
“Baruch Hashem,” I said to myself. Scientific reasoning for my negative results aside, my status reaffirmed my belief in a higher power when your life stands a chance of being significantly altered. I might go to Starbucks on Shabbat, and I might ignore the lard in my tortillas. I might lie with men like other men do with women. But when it all comes to the end and I can’t change anything: He is still all that I’ve got.
Matt Goodman is a graduate student in Latin American Studies at George Washington University. Follow him on Twitter at @mgoodman213