I Have an STI

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I have an STI. I was diagnosed ten years ago at the NY Gay and Lesbian Health Clinic. I was 20, a university graduate who had just moved to NY from Beirut and was living with her girlfriend in Brooklyn. One night, I felt a sharp pain in my genitals that increased with every step of my evening walk. When I got home, frustrated that my workout had been less than satisfactory, I went into the bathroom and noticed a sore on my vagina. I told my girlfriend, she took a look, and we made an appointment at the clinic for the next day.

At the clinic, a friendly female butch doctor examined me. She was the first gynecologist I had been too. She asked me about my sexual history. “Are your sexual partners men, women, or both?” Both, I answered. How many sexual partners have you had in the past 6 months?” “Around 10,” I answered, shivering a little at the touch of the cold metal beneath my feet as I positioned myself how she had instructed. I remember clearly the look my doctor gave me as I answered these questions. It was almost as if I had disappointed her personally. It made me want to explain myself, to apologize somehow, but shame, for the first time in my life, was silencing me.

She disappeared between my legs. When she looked up, she told me that I had Herpes, and that I was experiencing my first outbreak. I started to cry, and continued to cry silently as my doctor explained how I could have been a carrier for years, the ways to treat my STI, and the need to inform my previous and present future sexual partners. I walked outside to the waiting room to my girlfriend. We went to our favorite coffee shop (it no longer exists) in the village. After I told her the news, she hugged me for what seemed like forever, kissed me until our body temperature rose, and walked to a deli, bought a calling card, and I started making a list of names, phone numbers, and approximate dates. I was obsessed with figuring out who had given me Herpes. My girlfriend, who has taught me so much about love and honesty, was obsessed with making sure I actually called all the numbers and broke the news.

The responses I got to my phone call were diverse. One man was sweet and supportive, promising that he would get tested if any symptoms occurred and that he would continue the phone call chain I was initiating.  One woman got defensive, claiming that she could not have given me anything and that I must have gotten my STI from a man. Another woman, a close friend of mine, was very, very silent. When she finally began to speak, she urged me to stop calling people and telling them. She told me that I did not have to do this to myself, and that there were probably many people (herself included) who simply did not want to know unless, and until, symptoms arose. To this day, my friend, a (very) sexually active lesbian, has never gotten an STI test.

I have had three other outbreaks in the 10 years since that day. The last one was three years ago, after I had suffered sunstroke while visiting my girlfriend (same one) in Istanbul. I get tested regularly, and am, according to my doctors, a vigorously healthy 30 -year old woman whose herpes is dormant. I am healthier than most of the people that I know. I do not smoke, rarely drink, work out regularly, and eat healthily. I do yoga, I swim, I go to therapy. As general practice, I monitor my consumption. I have been lucky, not only is my body healthy but my long-term partner was always supportive of me and of my body. She has never been diagnosed with Herpes, and once we learned enough about it, our sex life pretty much carried on as usual.

I have a complicated relationship with my STI. I take care of her. I worry about her. I talk about her. She makes me nervous. Sometimes she comes between me and my sex life, like when I cannot have sex because a certain tingling sensation is overtaking my skin, telling me to start my antibiotics.  Sometimes, she is always on my mind, like a mosquito hovering over my thoughts. Sometimes I have to remember her. Sometimes, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen her, I forget about her.

But I try not to forget. My STI has taught me things; empathy, care of self, care of others, and responsibility. She has taught me that I am strong, and that I do not need to explain to others, or to myself, how this could have happened. She has taught me to trust myself, and my body. Her presence in my life has also taught me to be honest, and within that honestly, an ethical practice has emerged after a series of questions and experiences. For example, I always ask my partners the date of their last STI panoply test. I always tell my partners about my STI, and again, I have gotten responses ranging from anger that I had actually shared this information with them to a simple shrug and smile. I do not include one-night stands in the word “partners,” however. My herpes is dormant, and I know how to protect myself and the person I am having sex with. When I have a one-night stand, I know, to put it bluntly, what to do, how to do it, and what not to do.

This does not mean that I cover parts of my body or that of my partners with latex, plastic, or any other kind of barrier. Personally, I find this prophylactic approach to lesbian safer sex un-sexy and a bit confusing. After all, straight sex encompasses all of the acts that lesbian sex does, but there is very little discourse about gloves and dental dams in that context. I would much rather someone not be inside me rather than feel like I am being examined, and I would much rather not receive oral sex than have someone cover my vagina with a sheathe. What safer sex means to me is that I do not have sex when I get that nagging, tingly feeling. This knowledge was not easy to learn, but after seeking the advice of several medical experts and investing in being attuned to my body physically, psychologically, and spiritually, I feel confident in, and under, my skin.

I do not have sex when I have sicknesses that compromise my immune system and thus increase the risk of herpes viral shedding. What safer sex means to me is that my partner and I know the risks involved in particular sexual positions, and we both take responsibility for the choices that we make. If my partner knowingly wants to engage in a position or a practice that may be higher risk than others, it is her choice and I respect that, and yes, I enjoy it. I have found that there is always a negotiation between pleasure and risk that unfolds within each physical coupling. As long as this negotiation is healthy, honest, and transparent, it can be sexy and empowering.

It is hard to come out as someone with an STI. There is much stigma surrounding the issue, and much ignorance. This stigma is what keeps people from tested, and it also keeps people with STIs silent. Stigma is a main cause of STI transmission, as is ignorance. Unfortunately, in Lebanon, when I have asked my partners when they were last tested for STIs, the answer has most often been never. This is particularly true of women, the gender that I have been sleeping with exclusively for the past three years. Recently, a person I had been sleeping with told me that she had “felt so disgusted that she threw up” when she saw pictures of female genitals with a herpes outbreak.  Despite the fact that I care for this woman very much, I felt that I could not continue dating her because I could not bear to tell her about my STI. Her disgust silenced me.

Whenever I feel vulnerable, and whenever I am made to feel vulnerable by a person or by a situation, I think of all that my STI has taught me. When somebody makes jokes about STIs, or judges people who have them, I think of how my STI has been a formative force in my relationship to the body that I am and that I love. Whenever I hear STI carriers being blamed solely, and personally, for both their physical health and that of their partners,  I think of the support from friends, family, and lovers that I have been enveloped in over the years. Whenever I hear people talk as if all STIs are the same, I think of my friends, men and women who cover the spectrum of sexual practice and preference, who are HIV positive, have high-risk HPV, or even those that have to contend with a herpes outbreak every month. I think of how our bodies and our stories are different, and I think of what the term “healthy body” means. When I hear people feel sorry for me, or pity me, I think about the bottle of Valtrex I took with me to Iraq as a herpes prophylactic because I knew I would be tired, worn down, and would most likely get sick as I ran around Baghdad making a movie in July 2003. I think of how I did not get sick that time, because I had learned the rules of my body. I think of how my friends laughed at the thought that I would be worried about an outbreak of herpes rather than the other risks of being in Baghdad at that time. When people speak of my body as unhealthy, I think of challenging them to a swim-off or any other intense cardiovascular workout. Whenever people speak of my body as diseased, I think of sex, and how I still have it, want it, and pursue it without shame or a lack of confidence.

I think of how she and I were formally introduced on a cold doctor’s table in NY when I was 20. I think of my tears, and how I have never, to this day, cried because I am queer. I think of how our relationship has changed, evolved, and grown. I think of how I take care of her, how I take care of myself. And now, as I type these thoughts, I am smiling.

Contributed by Guest X

Guest Contributor

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