By Rick Cervantes
A pre-Pride ‘PrEP’ talk
I recently celebrated 100 days of taking PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), the once-daily pill that prevents transmission of HIV, and what a learning experience it has been.
Just a few of the things I’ve learned include the importance of taking care of myself, how to have sex without shame, and the deep-rooted fears and stigma that so many of us have surrounding gay sex — and sex in general.
Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, education and messaging about the virus has mostly been focused on fear: scaring people into being safe or not having sex in order to prevent transmission of HIV. Because HIV and AIDS had such a devastating and fatal impact in its early years, most of us are literally scared to death of it. So much has changed today — with advances in both prevention and treatment — but it’s hard to kick that deep-rooted fear.
When I talk to people about PrEP — also known by its brand name Truvada — I typically get one of three reactions: those who are proud of me and want to learn more so they can possibly start taking it; those who have never heard of it, but are amazed that there is now a pill that can prevent HIV transmission; and those who feel they need to remind me that I should use still condoms along with PrEP and say that we’re likely going to see a resurgence of STDs because of the drug.
Those who fall into that last category are the ones who are, understandably, harboring the most fear. They’ve grown up in or lived through a time of hopelessness, when condoms seemed to be the only hope for saving one’s life, and now the shift of that dialogue to other options is scary.
Let me make one thing clear: Neither I, nor anyone I am involved with, is saying not to use condoms. In fact, using condoms and PrEP together is a great thing. What I am saying is that each person needs to take their health into their own hands. If, along with their doctor, they decide PrEP is the right choice for them, that choice should be available without anyone else dictating to them what the “right way” of protecting themselves should be.
Sex should be something that is fun, not feared or shamed.
The gay community has been especially shamed about sex for decades – from those who think what we do in bed is immoral, to those who think our personal sexual lives make us “sluts,” to those who fear us because of the HIV risk factor.
It doesn’t need to be this way.
I’ll never forget a great column my good friend (and Gay San Diego contributor) Benny Cartwright wrote nearly five years ago about the fear and stigma that he lived with for most of his early adult life.
Growing up in the 1990s, Benny was made to believe that his fate as a gay man would be to eventually contract HIV and one day die of AIDS. He wrote about having his first sexual experience at 15 but not getting his first HIV test until he was 25. Every time he had sex, he felt as if he had contracted something and would just live through this fear cycle.
Benny, who leads The Center’s #BeTheGeneration (to end HIV) campaign, which I’ll discuss further in a moment, is very open about the fact that even today, HIV testing continues to scare him each time. As much as he knows about the virus, the treatment options and prevention measures — he’s even a certified HIV test counselor — the deep-seated fear is hard to kick.
And that is one of the main reasons I’m writing this.
I get private messages, texts and calls from friends and others who have seen me post about PrEP on Facebook, asking for more information. They are too afraid to ask their doctors or don’t know how to ask, and are full of fear and misinformation about the drug — often perpetuated by people’s own internal sex-shaming, fear and homophobia.
I love sharing with the people who ask me about PrEP about all the great benefits it has had for me, especially — which I think is the best one — re-learning to have sex.
I used to fear sex. Every. Single. Time.
Sure, it was hot most of the time and I had fun with it, but it was always followed by fear, “what ifs,” and some shame. Now, I’m equipped with the tools to protect me — even if there is a slip up — and I just don’t have to worry anymore. Because I’ve taken the time to educate myself and speak regularly to my doctor, I also have a much greater understanding of how HIV is transmitted and can use harm reduction techniques to protect myself.
PrEP has really given me power — power over the fear that had been instilled in me for so long.
I thought a lot about this article and whether to spend time giving facts and figures about PrEP; Instead I encourage everyone to visit the San Diego LGBT Community Center’s #BeTheGeneration page, which talks a lot about the resources available and the work we do. There’s even a list of PrEP-friendly doctors and other HIV resources. Visit events.thecentersd.org/btg for more information.
It can be incredibly helpful to hear from someone who’s been through an experience, so I’m going to tell you exactly how it was for me.
In February, I thought long and hard about whether or not I wanted to go on PrEP. Do I really want to take a pill every day? Do I want to see a doctor every three months? And my own fears kicked in — what if it doesn’t work? I made an appointment with a doctor at Sharp, we talked about it honestly and I was sold.
I had to get some initial bloodwork done, of course an HIV test, and some other general health tests. My test came back negative that same day and the doctor wrote a prescription for Truvada. My prescription was ready later that day, and the next morning I was taking my first pill. I’ve taken one pill every day since then — now over 100 days — and I’m so glad I made that choice.
Sure, it was a little hard at first. After the first couple of days, when the medicine started to settle into my body, I didn’t feel so good. I had some mild nausea and decided to take a couple of days off work to let the symptoms subside — which they did after three days. I’ve never had another side effect since then and I’ve taken other medications in my life that were a lot more common than Truvada and had much worse side effects.
I’ve proudly posted about taking PrEP on my personal social media and many other online groups related to PrEP and HIV, and, as I mentioned earlier, it’s really caught people’s attention.
Working with the #BeTheGeneration campaign, we’ve really made an impact, and I hope more and more people continue to reach out to me, Benny and others at The Center to ask questions. We want people to know about the options available to them, and we want to help people stop being so fearful and put an end to the stigma and shaming.
I know that being on PrEP has made feel more confident and healthier and has given me a better outlook on sex and I want you to be able feel this freedom too. Please don’t hesitate to contact me or anyone else at The Center’s #BeTheGeneration campaign, for more information or just to talk.
Together, we can end new transmissions of HIV!
—Rick Cervantes is the social media coordinator at The San Diego LGBT Community Center and active in its #BeTheGeneration campaign. Reach him at 619-692-2077 ext. 220 or follow his journey on Twitter @mistercervantes.