My HIV Story (Exclusive content for positivelite.com)

This post was initially published on PositiveLite.com. Thank you, PL, for allowing me space on your site to share my story. — Josh Robbins

I Didn’t Know Anyone HIV-positive: My HIV Story (written exclusively for PositiveLite.Com)  

Less than two months ago, Josh Robbins, a safer-sex poster boy, filmed himself getting the news that he’d tested HIV-positive. Here’s his story.

I didn’t know one person who was HIV-positive before I walked down that long hallway to get the results of my recent-exposure HIV test. I didn’t know one person who was HIV-positive before I made a decision, on December 18, 2011, to have unprotected sex, based on my assumptions about someone’s character instead of my knowledge of their status. But everything changed for me on January 24, 2012. On that day, the answer I have given for my entire life – that I’m negative – changed.

Hello, I’m Josh Robbins. I’m 29-years-old, I live in Nashville, Tennessee, and I just found out that I’m HIV-positive.

Growing up in a small town in western Tennessee, I had big dreams. I was very active in my non-denominational church—a leader in the youth group. I loved playing basketball and found tremendous comfort performing community theatre on a massive stage. Both socially active and educationally grounded, I felt invincible, that the world was my stage.

Yet I knew at a relatively early age that something was a bit different for me — that I was attracted to men. But if this was the worst thing about me, I could keep it quiet from my friends and family. Actually I was quite great about leading a double-life, even when I moved to New York City a month after graduating high school. I was free, I thought.

NEW YORK CITY
It was in New York that I was first openly introduced to safer sex. I was in a group discussion about sex and I was asked to participate in a game where I had to name a condom. It was uncomfortable but amazing to be able to have a dialogue about something that was never really discussed earlier in my life—sex. I named my condom “Camouflage” because “nobody would see me coming.” Of course, I realized I was a natural at comedy. Or so I thought.

But after living in the Big Apple during September 11, 2001 and its aftermath, I decided to move back home to Tennessee. It was at that time that I realized how extremely close I was to my family. My sister became my best friend.

TENNESSEE
Because of my closeness to my family, and because of my ability to allow the world to be my playground, I made the decision at age 25 to come out as gay to my family and every one of my friends. But I revealed the news in a very matter-of-fact way. I never asked for their approval, because I felt I didn’t need it. I took the power of the conversation and said to every one of them that if they couldn’t or wouldn’t still love me, then I would choose for them to not be in my life. It was sharp, I must admit. But it was how I felt.

Almost every important person to whom I came out to as gay remains close to me to this day. Little did I realize at that time that the power that I’d mustered during those conversations would again be tested when I decided to reveal my HIV status.

The words that I heard when I got my test results – “It is a positive viral load” – still remain ingrained in my memory. It’s very ironic how six simple words could literally take the breath out of me, even though I’d prepared for the possibility of this news for over three-and-a-half weeks, while waiting for my test result. You see, I’d been very active in local HIV awareness campaigns. I’d become the poster boy (literally) for an HIV vaccine study, with my face being on club-goers’ bathroom walls, beaming awareness and activism, in a very visible campaign, educating others about safer sex.

But the message didn’t seem to affect me personally. I thought I was invincible. And now I’m infected.

LONELY
I felt alone—not knowing even one person who was HIV-positive. I felt scared and I didn’t want to die. So I made a decision. I would not allow myself to go back “in the closet” because of my status.

With this determination and personal decision not to remain silent about my status, I wondered what it would be like for others to actually hear the words from the hospital staff that I was either negative or positive. So, I armed myself with my phone camera and documented the long walk from my car to the actual clinic, keeping the recording going in my pocket. This was really important to me—documenting and recording the experience that so many fear or refuse to really consider. If I heard the news that I was HIV-positive, I wanted to both educate and make real the process others have, will or, hopefully, won’t go through. [You can view Josh’s video made on the day he got his test result on YouTube.com/imstilljosh]

Then, two weeks after I got my HIV-positive test result, I bought the domain imstilljosh.com. The decision to start my blog at this site was simply that I wanted a place to put the video online, as well as be in control of the message that others may or may not hear about me in my hometown. I wanted to control the release of information and lead my personal narrative. Within three hours of the purchase, I wrote a very simple blog—“I’m Josh. I’m HIV Positive. So What? I’m Still Josh. You still be YOU!” And I posted on my blog the video of me going to the clinic to get my test results.

BIRTH OF ACTIVISM
Simple enough, right? Well… not really. I had to get the word out that I had a blog, so I made a very simple status update on my personal facebook – just the link to the blog. I guess it went well—the blog had over 1,800 views within 24 hours. I don’t even know 1.800 people, let alone have that many virtual facebook friends. Well, the cat was out of the bag—and it feels great!

My thinking is pretty simple—the world continues even though I’m HIV-positive. My cell phone bill is still due at the end of the month. And if I don’t work, I can’t pay my car loan. But, I’m changed. I’m changed not only because of my HIV status, I’m also changed because I now realize that, before I became infected, I was mistaken in not allowing the message about HIV prevention to impact me. I’m also changed because I have a love for the other gay men in my city who also believe that they’re as invincible as I once thought I was.

So the journey starts, the fight continues, and humor is how I’ll continue to make it through. When things get stressful or people start acting crazy around me, I simply say. “You’re raising my viral load!” They get shocked; I laugh.

Because I blogged openly and candidly about being HIV-positive, another positive guy here in town made a video announcing his status that I posted on my blog. And more are on the way—the emails are rolling in from other HIV-positive men in the area willing and ready to share their stories as well. It’s all quite inspiring.