AIDS

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By John-Manuel Andriote
Sunday, May 14, 2006

I'm a reporter.

For two decades I've written newspaper and magazine stories -- and a book -- about HIV-AIDS as it has robbed the health and lives of millions of people worldwide. Many were my friends. I decided this would be my beat back in 1986, when I was still in journalism school. By then I had already lost two friends, men in their twenties. It was the year that Bill, the man I loved, found out he was positive. I was afraid I might be infected myself. All around me, I saw a terrifying event unfolding. My role would be to tell the stories of the people the pandemic touched.

I started informing myself on every aspect of HIV-AIDS, reading the literature and interviewing activists, scientists and people living with the virus. And I reported the terrible physical and emotional suffering, the extraordinary acts of bravery and charity, and the amazing spiritual transformations I witnessed.

But despite all I knew, I never truly knew what I was writing about.

As a gay man, I wasn't a completely detached observer, because HIV-AIDS affected so many people close to me and in my community. Yet the stories I told were always "their" stories. I could watch and listen and share with readers what I saw and heard. Being HIV-negative myself, though, I had only a limited understanding of even my closest friends' experiences.

Until now.

Because now I'm not just a reporter.

Now I'm a reporter with HIV-AIDS.

I never expected to mark the 25th year of the HIV-AIDS pandemic by describing how my perspective has shifted, from observer to participant. The shift took place last Oct. 27, three weeks after my 47th birthday. My doctor called with the results of the blood work from my annual checkup. "I have bad news on the HIV test," he said.

I felt the ground fall out from under me. I'd probably written about this in other people's lives hundreds of times -- people talking about a time before and a time after their HIV diagnosis. But now I knew that words -- the words I'd wielded like a shield against the reality of what I was seeing and hearing -- truly can't describe this moment of sickening self-awareness.

I didn't know what to think. It was when I thought of Glenn, the man I was beginning to love -- and the thought "now he won't want me" hit me -- that I started to cry. I flashed back to the night I had reported on the protest at President Ronald Reagan's first AIDS speech, in 1987, when he stressed teaching "values" rather than methods of preventing the spread of HIV. That was the night my friend Gregg told me he was positive, the night he called himself "damaged goods" that no one would want. All these years later, I felt the real weight of his words descend upon me.

When I went to my doctor's office later that afternoon for more blood work, he advised me that it was pointless to try to pinpoint exactly how "it" had happened; better to focus on dealing with this new reality, he told me. But that reality seemed surreal because I felt so well.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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