He ordered the spicy tuna roll and a beer; then told me he was HIV positive.
I was so surprised by his frankness I let out a nervous laugh. I didn't know how to react; no one had ever come out to me before. Is this how my family and friends felt when I told them I was gay? No, they weren't all that surprised. For the next couple of hours, I asked questions and learned what it was like to come out for a second time, from a different kind of closet. Now I'm making a film inspired by that conversation called Pick Up, a coming of age love story about a gay man telling a potential partner that he's HIV positive for the first time.
Before that night, I had friends I knew to be HIV positive, but not because they told me, because I'd heard it from someone else. I knew it, and often they knew that I knew, but we never discussed it. I hadn’t thought of it as a coming out story before.
What is it about HIV that still makes people feel like it's a secret, or something to be rumored or gossiped about? What's so shameful about being HIV positive?
That night at sushi, we talked about finding love when you're HIV positive, and the right way to tell someone. What if they freak out? What if they act cool with it then vanish? What if they reject you on the spot? It's a heavy burden for a lot of people. These are things that when I was a single gay man on the dating scene, I never thought about (which is a problem in of itself). It's a topic most gay men aren't talking about. Are they assuming everyone is negative? Was I?
Like most writers, I'm an observer and often use my life experiences to inspire what I write. Hearing about this struggle to come out as positive motivated me to write a screenplay about a character taking a first step towards accepting his new status. I wanted to give a voice to the experience because I knew he wasn't alone. Since I had come out of the closet as gay in college, I was able to relate in some ways. It's obviously not the same, but there are parallels. I knew more people would relate to this story as I did, whether they're gay, straight, positive, or negative, the theme of acceptance is a universal one.
Pick Up is not about sickness, death, angels, or politics. It's a simple but poignant story about one man's journey to find acceptance and love, and I don't think that makes it any less important. This is something most people haven't seen before. They know the horror of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and '90s (and those stories should continue to be told), but what does it mean to live with HIV today? A positive person may not look sick anymore, but there are those who will still see them differently.
With PrEP meds like Truvada and recent studies stating that if someone is undetectable, the virus can't be transmitted, negative people have less to worry about today. There's less risk involved in dating a positive person. So why isn't the stigma going away? A positive status is still a relationship deal breaker for a lot of HIV-negative men.
There are so many brave people out there sharing their stories and statuses with the world and inspiring people everywhere. But in Hollywood, we're still stuck in the '80s. It's time for a film that really explores what it's like to be a modern gay man living with HIV today. It's time Hollywood catches up and starts to portray HIV differently. We need a positive love story. We need more accurate, diverse representations of positive people in Hollywood to change the narrative, move the culture, and continue the conversation.
We're trying to raise the money to produce Pick Up through Kickstarter. This way the film can be made without compromise and told in the most honest and authentic way possible. The 30 days of a Kickstarter campaign are not easy, and we only have a few days left. So far we've raised almost $10,000 but we still have a long way to go. If we don't reach our goal, we get nothing. So please share this story and donate if you can.
I'll never fully understand what it's like to be HIV positive. No negative person can. But with stories like this, we can become more empathetic, less fearful, and hopefully end the stigma.