Practicing What Your Preach by Taking Your Own Medicine
Have you ever looked at your life and realized that you are, in one way or another, just a statistic? Growing up as a Black gay man in America, you are inundated with statistics about who you are. Not just the number of accolades that your favorite athlete has earned or Oscars that your favorite actor received. You learn early on the Facts of Life. You are more likely than your White peers to have gone to bed hungry, been reliant on public assistance, been raised in a single-parent household, experienced unjustified police contact, gone to jail, participated in commercial sex work, been discriminated in hiring and retention practices, been the victim of anti-LGBT violence, attempted suicide, and have contracted HIV.
Life can justifiably be seen as a set-up. You must beware of homophobic neighbors and family, of the criminal justice system, of your lovers, and even of yourself. Faced with these odds, it is hard to be resilient each and every day when facing these realities (statistics). Often the Serenity Prayer comes to mind as a way to cope. This invocation encourages people to accept the things that they cannot change; utilize courage to change the things they can; and possess the wisdom to know the difference.
The majority of the statistics that are/were reality for Black gay men are out of their direct control. We have minimal impact on the environment in which we are raised and the types of prejudice we face during an interview or in the Board Room. But today, one of those predicted hurdles that must be continually overcome can be crossed off the list: HIV.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is now fully preventable with the help of a handy little blue pill. This pill is called PrEP. PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. It is a drug called Truvada that originally received approved to fight HIV in people already infected over a decade ago. If you are not living with HIV, this little pill--when taken daily--prevents infection from occurring even when an exposure occurs. A pill, a day, keeps the HIV away.
It was proven to prevent HIV for those who are not living with the virus over three years ago. In some circles, predominately White gay men, PrEP has been widely known to be effective for a few years and even taken off-label before it was FDA-approved to prevent infection. However, Black gay men often had never even heard of it--let alone use it. That is changing now. Agencies like the Black AIDS Institute and the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS are making a concerted effort to make sure Black gay men are fully informed about PrEP.
Why? When it comes to HIV, Black gay men are currently the most impacted demographic in the United States by scope and scale. Here's a stat that you should know: it is predicted that by age 40, a Black gay man has a 50/50 chance of becoming infected with HIV. Simply put, it is imperative that Black gay men are fully educated and have access to every HIV prevention tool available.
Full disclaimer: I work in the field of HIV Prevention and Care. I became aware of PrEP over six years ago and began preaching its benefits after seeing the first set of data on how effective it is. But it is important to note that I do not now nor have I ever worked for the manufacturer of this medication or any other pharmaceutical company.
Another full disclaimer: I have dedicated my life to fighting to end AIDS by any means available. That means educating people about how HIV transmission does and DOES NOT occur. It means ensuring that everyone has access to all prevention tools that includes PrEP, needle exchange, health insurance to access care and treatment if necessary, and lobbying our elected officials to create an environment free of stigma and full of love.
I have encouraged countless friends, former boyfriends, colleagues, and random people on the street to learn more about PrEP and then decide if it was a good option for them. A few months ago, my friend Derric was considering taking the prevention meds because he was in a sero-discordant relationship with a man living with HIV. He had heard a lot about the medication, but wanted to get feedback from a trusted friend.
During our chat he asked, "Ace, are you on PrEP? And if not, why?" The answer was no. And I did not have a good reason why not. Just like so many others, I felt that I had an air of invincibility. Immediately after that conversation, I took my own advice and followed the Serenity Prayer. I found the wisdom--thanks in part to my friend's question--to change the things that I could. Utilizing this HIV prevention tool in my own life. Armed with knowledge of the actual pros and cons about starting PrEP, I made an appointment to go see my doctor.
At the doctor's office, I had a conversation similar to others discussing a new medication with healthcare providers. He had never heard of it. He knew about POST-exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) that people living without HIV can take after an exposure to avert infection. But he did not know anything about PrEP. It should also be noted that I was in Seattle that has one of the most involved physician-education programs regarding PrEP. Luckily while I detailed all I knew about Truvada, he began searching the Internet while I spoke. He quickly found the information on baseline blood tests that were necessary to ensure my health would not be negatively impacted by the drug.
And that was almost three months ago. I am happy to report that I am in the vast majority (98 percent) of people with absolutely no side effects! Even for those of us who work in Infectious Disease prevention, it takes a while to practice what you preach and to finally take some of your own medicine. Although I have experienced or been directly impacted by those other statistics associated with Black gay men, HIV infection will not be one of them.