Regan Hofmann, the editor-in-chief of POZ magazine, discusses Sex and Secrets at TEDxAmRing. Below is the full transcript.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Sex and secrets by Regan Hofmann at TEDxAmRing
Seventeen years ago, I went to Florida, to swim with the dolphins, with my mum and my little sister. And we were standing on the dark, watching the dolphins do their things, and I looked down, and I noticed this bump on my leg where it met my body. And I showed it to my sister and my mum and didn’t think it was anything too serious, and I went home, and I showed it to my doctor. And he gave me some regular blood test things, and said “Come back in a week and we will see what this is and get it cured up.”
I got a phone call a couple days later and he said, “Your blood work is inconclusive and shows something. We want you to come back in.”
So I sat in an exam room for a while, and he finally brought me into his private quarters which I thought a bit strange. But they said we’re just overstretched with people today, and we need you to be in his room. And then, the door bang opened, and five people in lab clothes walked in.
The first thing I thought was, “Oh my God, this is so serious that my doctor brought in back up”. And the second thing I thought was: “What, in God’s name, did the dolphins give me? I mean, you can see having kissing them, but I was to get some weird tropical disease from the dolphins.
And he said, “I don’t really know how to say this. I’m just going to tell you that you’re living with HIV”. And my mind just exploded and I’ve been so careful. I really thought I had known what I was doing with my body over the years. I’ve been careful, but obviously not careful enough. I’ve had unprotected sex and contracted HIV.
So I asked him, “How long I had to live?” It was 17 years ago.
He said, “About a year, maybe two”.
I said, “May I have a baby?”
He said, “Probably not a good idea. We now know that you can have a baby as a woman with HIV, and not pass the virus onto the baby”.
And then I said, “Can I have sex? Because anyway I’m going to die and not having a baby, and leave everything behind, I can at least, maybe have some sex and enjoy myself before I died”.
But he said also probably not a good idea. Fortunately, it was okay and I got a second opinion on that. But I didn’t know what to do. And neither did he. He was a GP and actually, this happens still today where people get diagnosed by someone who is not aware of HIV and doesn’t really know how to talk to their patients about that. Luckily, he gave me a prescription for Xanax and the number of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and I pilled the prescription which was just disappointing me, but wisely, only a couple of pills and called the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. And I said, “I’m not gay. I’m not a man but I’m totally in crisis”.
And this young man on the phone talked to me for about an hour and a half and over the days since my diagnosis throughout the week, really helped me to gather and so I made it through the first week. Didn’t tell anyone for a long time, told the person I had recently been with. He was tested on positive. And then I went back to my history. And you can imagine those some unpleasant phone calls but luckily no one else was positive. So, we isolated the person and he was cared for.
But, I survived the first week with the idea that I’ll be medically okay but even from those first days I thought this is not a disease emotionally but anyone is well prepared to take on. And I didn’t tell anyone for three months. I just could not do it. I could not bring myself to say the words to my parents.
But eventually, the secret was eating me alive and so I told my mother, who was wonderful and gracious. And I told my father who was awesome. And then my mother told my little sister and my little sister — is on the right and I met her at the train station. We’re best friends and I could see, she came off the train all the way down the platform that she had already been told. I could see it in her face.
And she said to me, as soon as we were close, “We’re going to kick this thing’s ass. You’re going to survive this”. And we went into Burger King and as we were in a train station and we made this, our lake of ketchup, we used to mix ketchup and barbecue sauce, and share that together between us. And she didn’t not share my ketchup, she double-dipped her fries in my ketchup. And that was the first moment that I felt like I was going to maybe be okay because she was not treating me like a leper. And to do-not be treated like a leper and to have the three of the most important people in my life said that it was okay that I had this disease, not great but they would stand by me was critical.
So I was medically okay, and the drugs really do work. It was — at the time when new drugs were just being released, we weren’t really sure what the long-term side effects would be. We didn’t really know whether they would work long term. We now know that treatment doubles its prevention, and people who adhere to the drugs properly, and your viral load can be completely suppressed, so that actually, you’re not infectious. I mean you are technically still living with HIV, you do need to take precautions. But it’s like being on antibiotics when you have a flu. People around you feel a little bit safer and in fact, you have reduced the risk of the spread of HIV.
So, I was medically okay but not emotionally. And the stigma was crushing. And I thought, well, how can I? I don’t want to put this level of shame on myself. And I don’t want wear the shame that some in society would have me wear. So, how can I change my mind? How can I see this differently?
So I started with the fact that “What have I done?” So I’ve had unprotected sex which is something literally that all of our mothers did, right ? So, I mean, somewhere along the line, I don’t know? — Oh! this is me. Hold on. There! Somewhere along the line everyone’s mother had unprotected sex. So if I did something truly terrible, then everyone’s mum was in the same boat.
The other thing I realized was that HIV, really is just a virus. It’s a beautiful, beautiful virus in terms of how it works. I went to my doctor and asked him to show it me. I said I want to know what this uninvited houseguest looks like in my home. And I came to appreciate its beauty and understanding. It was just trying to live like I am. I mean it was just doing what all living creatures do.