Each year, on October 11, the LGBT community marks the anniversary of the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, by celebrating National Coming Out Day. As a black gay man, I know how difficult coming out can be. I also know how important it is to be open and honest about who you are and who you love. For much of our history, the LGBT community was relegated to the proverbial closet, unable or unwilling to live in the open. That all changed when a group of drag queens fought back against police brutality one summer night in New York City. Gays and lesbians across the country realized that no one was going to hand them equality, they’d have to demand it. And the best way to fight hate was to live and love openly.
I came out for the first time in 1997. But, like so many gay men, I’ve had to come out on twice. In 2003, I was diagnosed with HIV. Coming out to my friends and family about my HIV status was just as difficult, and no less important, as telling them that I am gay, especially after promising my parents that I would keep myself safe and healthy. I am lucky to have family and friends that continue to love me unconditionally. It is very difficult to manage this disease without the support of your loved ones. But I took that risk and came out both times, because just as living as an openly gay man is the best way to combat homophobia, being open about my HIV status is critical to combating the stigma that surrounds this disease.
The stigma surrounding homosexuality and HIV go hand in hand. Fear of being “outed” about either too often prevents individuals from being tested or seeking care and treatment. The irony is that much of the current gay rights movement owes its existence to HIV/AIDS. As the epidemic ravaged gay men in the 1980s, with little to no response from the government, the LGBT community stood up and demanded action. Gay men came out in droves, and the lesbian and transgender communities were by their sides. The government may not have been concerned with a disease that mainly affected gay men, but because these brave individuals came out, the public saw the face of AIDS, and it looked like their brothers and their sons.
While today is a day to celebrate who we are, we must also acknowledge the hard reality facing gay men in this nation, especially young gay men. Evidence suggests that those who come out and live openly as gay men are more likely to become HIV-positive. Young gay and bisexual men are the only group in which HIV infections are increasing, with young black gay men seeing an alarming 48% spike in new infections between 2006 and 2009. As we celebrate National Coming Out Day, our community must once again come together and support young gay and bisexual men and help them grow into adulthood HIV-free.
I am proud to be an openly gay man living with HIV and look forward to the day that HIV is a thing of the past. But until that day, I encourage anyone in a position to do so to come out. While the decision to live openly about one’s sexual orientation and HIV status is deeply personal and often scary, I am living proof that there is joy, fulfillment and love waiting for those that choose to.
KALI LINDSEY is the director of legislative & public affairs for the National Minority AIDS Council.