Adam and Laila Chang, 23 years old
San Francisco, CA
I was diagnosed with HIV in 2009 when I was 23 years old.
Growing up in a progressive city like San Francisco, I knew how to have ‘the talk,’ how to ask men when they were last tested and about their test results (and I did this consistently!). But after the end of a two-year relationship, there was a single encounter with a guy where he unfortunately lied about his HIV status.
I found out about the lie during my routine six-month test. I didn’t expect the results to turn out positive, and when they did, it was a surreal moment; my spirit broke. I felt like I had disappointed and shamed my family.
This was only eight months after adopting Laila from a local animal shelter.
After learning that I was positive, I felt that I should come out all over again. I was out to friends and family about my sexuality, but it was very different this time. I was proud to come out as gay, but I was ashamed to come out as ‘positive.’ When I told my parents, their irrational fears took over.
“I knew that this was going to happen the day you told me you were gay,” my mom said to me.
My dad had members of the family dis-invite me from dinners and parties. My brothers and sisters couldn’t come to my house anymore, because the elders in the family were afraid that I would spread the virus. My siblings were told they couldn’t share a cup of water with me. My dad even thought that if a mosquito bit me and then bit someone else then they would get the virus. These misunderstandings left me completely isolated for months.
My family emigrated from Asia. They didn’t understand what HIV was, and how I couldn’t give it to them through bug bites or from sharing household items. Cultural and language barriers were the hurdles I needed to overcome to be on speaking terms with my family again. But I was too angry and frustrated to teach them at that time.
My family had been my biggest and deepest social bond, and I tried to find a substitute in my friends, but I quickly realized I was not ready to be out in the world with the stigma associated with HIV.
I was home alone a lot with Laila, and she offered companionship beyond the typical dog-owner relationship. She gave me her warmth, her soft touch, and a shoulder to lean on. Most importantly, she listened to me attentively and acknowledged my words with simple nods of understanding.
There were days I would wake up with tears filling my eyes, and it meant a lot to have Laila already there next to me. She was someone who wasn’t afraid to lie next to me.
It would have been much harder to make it through those first months without Laila. She supported me in finding my voice to talk about my HIV, and she showed me the patience that I needed to be able to teach my own family about the virus.