How I Learned to Let Go of My Shame and Embrace Being HIV-Positive (Column)

I knew better. At least I was supposed to know better.

I was just coming out of the closet in the late ’80s when both of my mother’s brothers died of AIDS. It was the darkest days of the epidemic. Uncle David wasn’t even 40 when he passed away in my grandmother’s arms in 1989. Two years later, Uncle Arthur was also gone.

My first job out of journalism school was as a reporter at an LGBTQ newspaper in Boston. I covered the AIDS epidemic on a daily basis. I will never forget the sight of dozens of activists dropping onto their backs and closing their eyes for a die-in outside a George H.W. Bush presidential campaign rally in 1992 in New Hampshire, or when members of ACT UP chained themselves to drug company delivery trucks, demanding that the prices of AIDS treatments be lowered.

I remember the obituaries we published in the newspaper. Most weeks, we didn’t have the space to run all of them.

Fast-forward to 2009. I was 39 years old, and during a routine physical, my doctor told me I had tested positive for HIV.

It would be easy for me to lie and say I was shocked and surprised. But I wasn’t. Why? Because I was a crystal meth addict. I contracted the virus when I was using because when I used I did things my sober self would never do.

I immediately started treatment for my HIV. Unlike my uncles, I was given another chance because HIV is now a manageable condition. I take one pill a day. I am also undetectable, meaning that the HIV virus in my blood is so low that tests can’t detect it. It also means that I can no longer transmit the virus through sex.

I also began to take my recovery more seriously. It wasn’t easy, but on July 7, I will mark six years of continuous sobriety.

But few people knew any of this about me because I kept my HIV status and my recovery a secret.

At times I felt like a fraud. How could I care so much about LGBTQ issues but remain silent? I seemingly lived a charmed life in Hollywood, covering red carpets and talking to the world’s most famous stars, but I was really an HIV-positive drug addict. I reduced my entire identity to the shame I felt about my HIV status and drug use.

That all changed last year when my husband, Fabian, and I returned home after completing the AIDS/LifeCycle, the 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles that benefits the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

I had just spent a week on the ride living my complete truth, talking openly about being positive. And I was full of pride when I told someone I was sober.
So on June 10, 2018, I posted a photo of Fabian and myself on Instagram.

“I have something to say for the first time in such a public forum — I am HIV-positive,” I wrote. “In short, I lived much of my 30s in confusion, depression and a search to find myself. I partied too much. I struggled with crystal meth. I was diagnosed with HIV about nine years ago. Today, I am sober and living with HIV.”

I knew my family and friends would be supportive, but then came the media attention. Suddenly headlines like “Prominent Red Carpet Reporter Marc Malkin Comes Out as HIV-Positive” began filling my Twitter feed. It felt strange — I was used to reporting the story, not being the story.

But then I received a direct message on Instagram from a young man in South Africa. He told me he had recently been diagnosed with HIV.

“I was scared I was going to die, but I read your post,” he wrote. “I was always a fan of yours and now I’m a bigger fan. You’ve given me hope.”

Similar messages followed.

One guy I knew casually in L.A. emailed me asking how I felt since coming out as HIV-positive. I told him I had no regrets. A couple of days later, he let me know he told his mother he had HIV. “I was terrified, but it was easy,” he wrote.

A few weeks later at a gala I was covering in Hollywood, a man walked up to me and said, “Thank you for everything you’re doing. I’m also positive.”

When I began my recovery, I promised myself that once I had some solid sobriety under my belt I would do what I could to educate and inform my LGBTQ brothers and sisters about addiction and HIV. But I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what I’d do.

But now I knew. I just had to live my truth.

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