When I was a teenager in the closet, I thought that once I told my friends, family, and community that I was gay, everything would be perfect. I believed that my fear and anxiety would melt away, and I could finally begin to live my best gay life.
In many ways, this proved to be true: I came out the summer before my senior year of high school, which for me was a summer of Queer awakening (I swear I watched Call Me By Your Name weekly). I was very fortunate that my family and community were accepting and supportive, and I finally felt confident and free to be myself, empowered to live my full truth. But, not long after, new fears crept up inside of me that seemed to hold me back: What about sex?
I spent so many of my teenage years fretting over coming out that I never really stopped to consider the intricacies of what life would be like out of the closet, especially in regards to safe sex for gay men in the 21st century. My middle school Sex Ed class seemed designed to instill a deep fear of contracting HIV. We learned about the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and how it tore through the gay male community like a match meeting a pile of kindling, taking hundreds of thousands of lives.
Of course, I knew that with treatment HIV-positive individuals can now live long and healthy lives, but fear and stigma were still deeply ingrained in my thinking and the heavy weight of this history held strong. And, although my family was largely accepting, their memories and knowledge of the HIV/AIDS crisis still loomed large in their minds. I began to ruminate: was there anything I could possibly do to ease our shared anxiety?
How I Discovered PrEP
Then, in the summer before beginning my first year of college, I heard of a drug called PrEP. When I was having coffee with a slightly older friend and queer mentor, I was struck by his air of easy confidence. As he went on and on about the vibrancy of gay life in college, I wondered, “How does he feel so comfortable having experiences with so many different partners? Isn’t he even the slightest bit fearful?”
I voiced to him these concerns and was met with excitement and reassurance: “Dude, all you need to do is get on PrEP. It is such a game-changer.” I listened eagerly as he explained to me the effects of this seemingly magical pill, and how it would alleviate my worries of contracting HIV: by taking just one pill of PrEP each day, a person’s chance of contracting the disease is reduced by 99% (although, I need to point out that PrEP doesn’t protect against other STIs, and regular testing is still important). After consulting with him, I immediately called my doctor to find out more, and, after just a few appointments, got my very own prescription for PrEP. Having this prescription finally rid me of my fears and made me feel ready to safely begin my journey to college and live my fullest, gayest life.
Why I’m Speaking Out
Though I was at first hesitant to publicly share my journey to PrEP, I soon realized how important it is that I help spread the word about this life-saving, anxiety-relieving drug to our friends, families, and communities. 1.1 million people in the United States live with the virus, 23% of whom are women. One in seven of those infected with HIV do not even know of their positive status, and each year, 38,000 new HIV infections occur in the country. PrEP could prevent many of these infections, but it won’t if the people who need it don’t know about it.
I was lucky to have a peer I could talk openly with and learn about PrEP from, and to have a knowledgeable doctor willing to prescribe it, but many teens are not so fortunate. Educating people about PrEP can prevent new HIV infections both by increasing knowledge of the medication itself — and how effective and safe it is — and by encouraging conversations that reduce fear and stigma. I hope that in middle school Sex Ed classes today they talk about PrEP as an option for preventing HIV, along with condoms, similar to how they present a range of options for birth control. We are fortunate enough to live in a time when stopping all future HIV infections is possible, and it starts with PrEP.
About the Author
David Garnick is from the Philadelphia area and is a rising sophomore planning to double major in political science and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also a representative on the Undergraduate Assembly and a member of its task force to promote PrEP on campus.
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