There I sat in a Whitman-Walker Clinic testing room in Washington, D.C., holding back tears of fear and regret. A counselor consoled me as I rocked back and forth, tapped my foot, and nervously counted down the 20-minute wait for the results of my first rapid HIV test.
I was only 20 years old and just getting my first taste of the gay nightlife. To my best friends, I was a late bloomer to all the clubs, parties, and “sexing.” They’d lost their virginity and were sneaking into bars by the time they were 14.
I, on the other hand, was sheltered by a strict Southern upbringing and had a 7:30 p.m. curfew. I remember being out with them early Saturday evenings, constantly checking my watch for 6:30 p.m., which is when I’d scramble off to make it back home on time. Part of me wanted to buck my mother’s — and “the Lord’s,” for that matter — authority, but the guilt of possibly disappointing my mother and the anxiety brought on by hearing our pastors speak of God’s punishment (which they said included AIDS for those who indulged in “the homosexual lifestyle”) kept me in check.
It was my best friend who, one night, tired of me running off and being afraid to experience life on my own terms, demanded an explanation. When I finally explained it to him, he laughed in my face.
“Indulge. Really? What, is being gay high in calories or something?” he said.
He took my cell phone and turned it off, and then snatched the watch off my wrist so I couldn’t constantly check the time. The sounds of some mega-diva dance mix came blasting out of the bar.
“You hear that? That’s God telling you to get a life!” he exclaimed.
That night, we stayed out until 5 a.m., and I experienced everything I’d been missing. It was fabulous. My mother, realizing that I was grown, decided to, at the church’s advice, “Turn me over to God,” and let me stay out. However, it still wasn’t that simple. Before I’d go out, I’d get prayed over and have anointed oil slapped on my head, and each Sunday I’d be warned that God was going to deal with me: “Woe unto those who buck his almighty rule.” While the back of my mind was conscious of the warning, I was happy to finally have freedom.
This freedom allowed me to dance without inhibitions till the wee hours of the morning and finally see and flirt with the boys. I remember being approached by a dude on the dance floor of the Edge, a very fondly remembered dance club that once stood in D.C. Men, all kinds, shirtless, gyrating, grinding on each other, filled the place with exciting and highly sexual energy. I was by the front stage, where he joined me in my dance. Once I turned around, our bodies moved in a joint rhythm. This eventually led to a light yet tantalizing conversation and him inviting me to his house the next day.
I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. My first “date,” and I’d finally get to share my own scandalous story with my friends. Afterward, I floated on a cloud for about a week, feeling sexy and looking forward to more opportunities to play catch-up.
That is, until I woke up one morning with a horrible cold. The ultimate hypochondriac, I did the worst thing that anyone could do to evaluate a health concern: I Googled my symptoms. I eventually stumbled across what the symptoms could be pointing to: an HIV infection.
In my head I immediately heard every sermon that I had been preached to about God punishing gays. I battled guilt and nervousness and went to find testing sites in my area. The nearest one was three miles away and accepted walk-ins. Afraid, I took the trip, and there I was, being greeted by the receptionist, who handed me a clipboard with two forms to fill out. Nervously, I completed and returned them.
After a few minutes, my testing counselor, a tall, relaxed-looking woman, walked toward me with a smile that immediately put me at ease. We walked into her office, where she introduced herself. Her name was Saadika, and she explained to me that I should be proud for coming to take the test. Then she asked me a few questions about what brought me into her office. I told her about everything, from my recent hookup to my paranoia, which she listened to, all without judgment. I guess she sensed a deeper reason for my paranoia, which she finally got me to explain.
“This was how God punished gay people,” I told her, sadly. Her eyes were empathic, and she took my hand.
“I can assure you, it’s not,” she said. “I could give you plenty of examples, but I prefer to keep loving energy flowing through my office. Let’s just say HIV isn’t a punishment and neither are cancer, diabetes, sickle cell, or anything else. I’ll start your test, and we will talk.”
After she went through all the steps, she set the timer to the longest 20-minute wait of my life. My fear began to reduce me to tears. Saadika began to console me, and she said something so outrageous that I couldn’t help but abandon my emotions and look at her like she was crazy.
“God made sex for people to have, gay, straight, and otherwise, and sex is good,” she said.
I thought, This bitch has lost her mind. She continued, “You’re almost 21, and you’re so uptight. Getting laid more might be good for you. Do you know why I’m so calm, so happy right now? Because I had an orgasm last night. Am I encouraging you to be reckless? No. Use condoms, get tested regularly, have fun, don’t be afraid to explore your sexuality. It’s perfectly OK, and I promise God won’t punish you for it. Once you get out and live, you’ll understand how sex and divinity can go hand in hand.”
I asked how. She shrugged. “God works in mysterious ways, and no matter what your result is today, you’ll do what you need to do to keep moving forward,” she said. “You’re gonna be fine.”
At this point, her phone rang. She excused herself from the office to walk into the waiting room to prepare her next client. She walked back in just as the timer went off. She silenced it, sat in her chair, and reassured me again. After that, she gave me my result, smirking at me for a second.
“Will you make sure you penetrate somebody or get penetrated next time, and then come back to see me? All these nerves are unnecessary for just a session where you spent an afternoon kissing, jerking off, and dry humping,” she said.
I looked at her, laughed, and asked, “Well, when you were asking me earlier and that’s what I told you I’ve been doing, why didn’t you say so?”
She smiled that warm smile again. “It’s my job to test you, no matter what you come in here and tell me, silly. But I figured you needed this moment.”
With that, she gave me a business card and a hug, and walked me to the door, where I came face to face with her next client, one of the pastors from my church. This was a man who’d spent so many Sundays rebuking “sex demons” from around me and beseeching me to repent of my homosexuality, reminding me what the repercussions would be if I didn’t. He was there to get tested himself.
We exchanged a long glance, one that made Saadika raise an inquisitive eyebrow as she escorted him into her office. I couldn’t believe it. All of those Sundays I had spent in guilt because he had led me to believe that sex was bad, that I’d be punished simply for being a human with desires. He let me believe I’d get punished for just being me, as I prayed for clarity, for answers, and for the belief that I wasn’t doing anything wrong and that nothing was wrong with me. Saadika was right — I needed that moment to learn that sex is good, and God doesn’t punish people with HIV or any other ailment. And sometimes, to quell your fears, he works in mysterious ways.
Sampson McCormick is a stand-up comedian, writer, and activist. Watch his “pray away the gay” routine online, and catch him live as he tours nationally. Learn more at SampsonComedy.com.