Preston Mitchum told people he was HIV negative, when the truth was he’d never been tested. Here, he explains why.
Hello. My name is Preston, and I am HIV Negative.
Typically you would hear this statement from someone elated to discover they are not HIV positive. But since I think there is an inherent danger with congratulating and privileging an HIV negative status, I do not ask for a warm welcome.
Instead, I ask for your indulgence of something rather difficult to write: I am a liar. Admitting this is not only extremely frustrating because I value honesty, but also because I value myself. So in the most forthright way I know how, I want to explain my story and hopefully people in similar situations will know that they are not alone in this journey of life and decision-making.
My first time meeting Sharon Lettman-Hicks, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Black Justice Coalition, was during the Out on the Hill Black LGBT Leadership Summit last fall. During our first encounter, she said three simple yet powerful words that continue to reverberate in my mind: “Own Your Power.” This is exactly what I intend to do while writing this post. And though divulging my truth may cause some disarray, it is my hope that this story will resonate with at least one person who understands that they should be neither embarrassed nor fearful of the known. In fact, the true fear, especially with HIV, is deeply-entrenched in the unknown—an unknown that can be changed in a matter of minutes.
Like other awkward ways to begin stories, I will start by saying that I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that my last time being tested for HIV was for National HIV Testing Day on June 27, 2013. But the bad news is that despite being sexually active since I was 18 years old, my last time was also my first time.
During my second year at North Carolina Central University School of Law, I dated “William” for a few months. William and I had beautiful chemistry, one that I had not discovered in a while. He knew exactly what to say to illustrate he was a listener. I have yet to forget the first time I overheard him talking to his friend about the importance of intersectionality; that moment, a smile immediately lit across my face.
But the smile suddenly disappeared when he said three words to me while we were eating dinner: “I have HIV.”
The. World. Instantly. Stood. Still.
Selfishly wondering what I should do in this situation—instead of picking up my wide-open mouth after what felt like a bomb being dropped—we continued to eat dinner until the silence became unbearable. At that point, we got into his car and he drove back to my apartment. As he walked me to my doorstep, I invited him in to talk, hoping I would be mature enough to have this conversation despite the potential outcome. I soon recognized that I was not.
William made his way to my couch and I offered him a glass of wine. No matter how slowly he sipped, I knew our relationship was quickly fading away. When he began to speak, I rushed to the bathroom. It was then that I had no idea what to do. What should I say? What should he say? How should I respond? Can I date someone with HIV? What is wrong with me? I took one hard look in the mirror and knew that, even if I did not want to, I had to have this conversation because he deserved it.
Slowly making my way out of the bathroom, William asked me to sit beside him on the couch so we could attempt to have the conversation that started at dinner. He inhaled and said, “Preston, what does this mean for us?” After pausing for what felt like an eternity, I stumbled as I attempted to explain that I was a good person who did not want to hurt him. William then explained “This is not the first time I have gone through this. As someone with HIV, I expect this to be the norm unfortunately.” Then with a soft and gentle kiss on my forehead, he wished me a good night and drove home.
How could I blame him? Here I was, this self-righteous social justice advocate afraid that I would become diseased by something I had yet to understand. Only thinking of myself—and not even considering my lack of knowledge about HIV—all I could remember was my life before meeting William and though I loved him, I did not want anyone to ruin my “healthy” life.
William, in a perfect world, you will read this. If such utopia exists, please realize that you are more courageous than I could ever be. You owned your power, owned your truth, and were unapologetic about both.
Until June 27, I am embarrassed to admit that I used the “I’m HIV-Negative” status as a substitution for “haven’t been tested.” Whereas I did not know my HIV status and could have been positive, I rejected William, a person who did the responsible thing by getting tested and telling me about his status. In retrospect, I could not have been more privileged and arrogant for rejecting love because of my fear of the unknown.
When I walked into the health clinic a couple months ago, the doctor asked “so what brings in you in today?” Nervously I responded, “Honestly, I have been lying to other people and myself and I need to find out the truth.” After he allowed me to cry, vent, admit my fears, and divulge my regrets, he administered my HIV test.
No matter how many times protection was used during sex, nothing could prevent my anxiety of the inevitable. Fifteen minutes later, the doctor grabbed my hand and said “you are negative.” Though I was relieved, it did not change what occurred previously and it most certainly did not alter the way I felt about myself.
But why was I so afraid to be tested? I knew enough information to understand that death was not my immediate thought. Quite frankly though, my biggest fear was not knowing love but more importantly, I was afraid that love would never know me. So instead of being courageous and facing those fears, I hid and wanted to believe that not knowing would be better than finding out my status. Even worse, I hurt someone in the process who had similar fears but decided the known would be better than the unknown.
In 2009, I found myself engrossed in LGBT policy and racial justice. In that moment, I fundamentally believed that I needed to work as a social justice advocate and be a change-agent. But the first person I needed to change was myself and the way I viewed sex, sexuality, and dehumanization. And though I find myself on that journey continuously, I welcome it.
The way I treated William was unacceptable, the way I perceived sexual expression was unacceptable, and me using a negative status as a substitution for never being tested was beyond reproach.
As I write this with tears in my eyes, I thank my friends, colleagues, and mentors who have constantly challenged my thinking and caused me to be the advocate I am today. To the readers, if you do not know your HIV status, please get tested. It is not easy, but you will be better for knowing.
I will not pretend to know everything about HIV, but I do know that I will listen to the lived experiences of HIV-positive individuals to make sure that my personal and professional philosophies are blending.
But the first thing I had to do was admit my wrongs and forgive myself.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Guy Anthony, author of “(POS)+itively Beautiful,” for our wonderful conversation that inspired me to finally be honest with myself and hoping to help at least one person with my personal testimony.
Preston Mitchum is a Policy Analyst for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. He’s a law graduate with an interest in racial-justice initiatives, LGBT rights, intersectional frameworks, health, and workplace discrimination. Preston has published articles in multiple law journals on various policy issues. Find him on Twitter: @PrestonMitchum