HBO’s Looking just aired an episode focusing in part on one character’s journey with HIV testing. The scene, filmed at one of AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Out of the Closet thrift stores and HIV testing sites in the Bay Area, serves as a timely reminder why HIV testing is an important act for people individually and for the gay community in particular. Indeed, HIV testing is important for all Americans, as over 50,000 people of all stripes acquire HIV annually — a number we have had difficulty bringing down.
On an individual basis, folks fall into a wide spectrum of motivation in seeking HIV testing services. Some seek HIV testing because they have had an unprotected moment, some have been told by someone they were with, or perhaps another, that they may be at risk … or had something happen that caused them concern. Others use testing services as an element of their sexual health routine. I would suggest that wherever folks fall in the spectrum of risk or motivation in testing, every time someone seeks knowledge about their health status, it has a beneficial effect for them and for our community.
Why? Because gay men in particular and the LGBT community in general are working to emerge from two fog banks. One is the fog of the bitter war against a disease the community has been fighting for over 30 years to arrest its ravages on our friends, family, and community. The other, the haze of prejudice and ignorance, clouds our ability to truly value ourselves and form real, trusting bonds with each other irrespective of our HIV status.
Every time we test, every time we find out our status and share that with those with whom we share our bodies (whatever the result), we remove a teaspoon of that fog. Each step taken to know and disclose our status is another action that will slow the spread of HIV in our community and affirm that there is nothing to hide from. Our decisions with whom to be intimate in whatever way we choose in 2015, need not be apologized for, nor the subject of shame.
In 2014 AIDS Healthcare Foundation conducted 155,842 HIV tests in the United States in nine states. The encouraging news is that 98.8 percent of those we tested were HIV negative. Our testing programs also identified 1,871 individuals living with HIV, who, because of their decision to get tested, will now be connected to quality medical care and drug treatment options that will literally save their lives. But every time an individual was tested, no matter their orientation or gender — or the ultimate outcome of his or her test — a conversation was had, information was imparted to inform and empower that individual and, hopefully, a positive outcome was achieved. Whether that may have been a referral to HIV care or a discussion of how not to be so scared or reduce risk, we took a step forward.
Teaspoons become cups, cups become pints, and those become gallons.
There is another way in which HIV testing can and needs to be more important. We, as a community, need continue to break down barriers to HIV testing and create the conditions in which knowledge of one’s HIV status becomes a common element of health care delivered in the United States. As one example, if HIV testing were administered in an opt-out manner routinely for those people aged 13-64 in emergency rooms, doctors’ offices, and clinics, we could identify more people living with HIV and get them into care. As a result, with their virus suppressed thanks to being on treatment, we will reduce the presence of the virus in the community and those individuals who are HIV-positive can continue their lives with their HIV infections kept at bay.
Removing stigma and barriers to HIV testing with a fuller integration of rapid testing technology as well as falling costs for testing services will further normalize the discussion of HIV (and other sexually transmitted infections) in our expanding health care system.
So as LBGT stories find increased visibility in the entertainment world and as the fog lifts on our community, we should all be Looking a little more closely at HIV testing in 2015.
WHITNEY ENGERAN-CORDOVA is the senior director of the Public Health Division of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which is the largest global AIDS organization. To learn more about AHF, visit AIDSHealth.org or follow the group on Facebook and Twitter @aidshealthcare.