Nick Desideri, columnist

 

When everyone told me that I would have some transformative experiences during my study abroad, I never thought that I’d have to confront one of my biggest fears. It wasn’t the narcos my parents warned me of or Mexico City crime. It was getting tested for HIV.

I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, which, as many people already know, has the most churches per square mile in the world.  Surprisingly, it did not offer the most stellar sexual education program. Ever since middle school, when I first realized I liked dudes, I presumed that gay sex in any capacity lead to HIV and eventually AIDS.

Considering our society’s obsession with connecting the two, it’s hard to blame the middle school me. America’s obsession with relegating HIV as a “gay disease” dates back to the days when the virus was first discovered in the 1980s, and it continues to manifest itself in the oddest of places.

When I was on my high school speech team, nearly every dramatic speaking piece involving a gay man invariably ended with him contracting HIV or dying of AIDS. The format was so common some people on my team called them “gAIDS pieces.”

Of course, it also says something that the only heterosexual character in recent memory to contract HIV, Precious, is a person of color.

Nor is the disease merely relegated to developing countries, as often portrayed. Washington, D.C. has a higher rate of HIV, at 3.2 percent in 2010, than a majority of African countries that seem to garner much more media attention.

Whether intentional or not, American culture seems to assume that straight white people are spared from HIV. In March, Reuters reported on a study of 8,500 heterosexual individuals living in cities. Of them, 2 percent had HIV, and of that group, 45 percent had never been tested.

While the Moral Majority celebrated the passing of a problematic demographic in the 1980s, Mexico City officials undertook serious efforts to fight the spread of HIV. Awareness campaigns were immediately implemented, and millions were granted free tests once they were developed.

The test is even administered free of charge to foreigners, completely subsidized. Aside from some confusion over what exactly a middle name is, as most Latin Americans have two last names instead of a middle name, and the fact that I was getting tested for a life-threatening illness across a language barrier, the process went smoothly. After a quick coffee break, I went back and picked up my results.

Once I had them, I felt oddly fulfilled. Finding out your HIV status of your own volition is one of the most powerful acts an individual can do, regardless of sexuality. It’s something uniquely yours, something that should be treated as only your own business and something no one can take away.

And while the point of this article is to urge everyone to get tested, I have some mother-daughter, Madonna to Gaga advice for all the recently out homosexuals that seem to pop up every time I leave Bloomington: getting tested for HIV is the most empowering thing you can do for the least amount of money.

In order for cultural discourse to change, individuals must make the first push. Only then can the stigma about testing, specifically for straight people, be lifted. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard my Mexican friends, gay or straight, say something like, “I haven’t gotten tested for HIV this year. I need to do that.” That’s a mindset I hope we can someday adopt in the United States.