What HIV testing is like when you’re queer, black & undocumented
August 8, 2014
Last fall, I received a call from an old partner I had not spoken to in six-months. In the middle of debating whether to answer or not, I accidentally accepted the call and heard his voice. I went to get tested and I’m HIV positive, you need to get tested, he quietly explained. He sounded tired, filled with the kind of panic that comes after days of shock and denial. It was the same tone I remembered carrying in my voice one day in Boston as a glass bottle flew towards me—then shattering as it hit me—followed by an older White male calling me “illegal.” I heard his voice and I could not breathe. I was scared for him, for me, for life.
After the phone call, all I could think was: Can I even get tested?Growing up undocumented and queer on the East Coast meant only seeing a doctor when my temperature was over 104º or there were free clinic drives at local non-profits.
I could not sleep for more than two hours. I could not eat. I could not concentrate. During the week after the phone call, I kept running through scenarios in my head about how to go to the doctor and not disclose my immigration status. I was afraid that if I had HIV, the government would think I was a threat and deport me. I could see the headlines blaming undocumented immigrants for the HIV virus. I was afraid of the attacks on my community, my family, and myself. But above all, I was afraid that if my mother found out, her body would be too weak to endure the shock. My mother’s shoulders, limbs, and spirit carried the trauma of not seeing her mother in about twenty years, of having a deceased daughter, and of surviving years of domestic violence. If I was diagnosed with anything, I could not tell her. I could not burden her with another worry when she is still healing from the open bruises that hide underneath her clothing, her vulnerabilities only exposed in 30-minute phone calls to Abuelita Belen. I could not disclose negative news with the face of my younger sister still blurring in her mind, the remnants of a grave abandoned almost two decades ago when the cemetery did not receive the seventh-year payment.
The phone call scared me. It was about more than just papers and sexuality. I had just moved to Connecticut and didn’t know the area. I had to come out to a new friend as undocumented, queer, and potentially living with HIV. She dropped everything, not knowing exactly what to say, and took me to get tested. Stop one was Planned Parenthood. Approaching the glass window felt like I was about to enter an immigration check point. I had to act American: make sure my accent did not slip off my tongue; make sure I wore colors that didn’t make my skin look too Black; make sure I rubbed the nail polish completely off of my fingernails; remember to wear the button-up I would never have been able to afford if it weren’t for the $1/pound section at the thrift store. I was finally going to get tested.
Planned Parenthood turned me away from getting an HIV test. I did not have a U.S. ID. I had a Mexican matrícula. We’re sorry, but you need a state or federal ID. If you can’t provide that, you must pay full price for any check-up, test result, or anything of the matter. I walked out, something I was used to after living undocumented for sixteen years. As I pushed through the door, the thought hit me that maybe I experienced this not just because of just my immigration status, but because the lives of poor, queer, people of color do not matter to society.
Stop two was a free clinic a few miles away. Denied.
Local college clinic next, wait list. Maybe in two months.
Crying in a borrowed car outside a Rite Aid parking lot at 3:47 p.m. on a Tuesday appeared to be the only type of healthcare I would receive.
Hours later, many miles away, I finally found a clinic that would test me. No questions asked. Negative.
I moved to Los Angeles three-weeks ago, where, for the first time, I have seen organizations that work to gain healthcare for undocumented immigrants. It’s unbelievable to me that we even have to fight for such a basic human right. I am done feeling that I don’t deserve my health. This country has systematically conditioned me to think that I’m not good enough because I’m too Latino, too Black, too Gay, too easy to Mispronounce, too Savage—Illegal Alien. Healthcare is a human right, but in the US healthcare is only for those who can pay. I cannot live a healthy life when I can’t remember my last eye doctor visit or experience the security of a bi-yearly checkup.
My blackness does not make me invisible. My queerness does not make me illegitimate. My immigration status does not make me alien. I am in these positions because of a complex colonial history that has enslaved people that look like me; burned people who painted their nails like mine; shot people whose coffee tasted like the coffee in my backyard in Mexico; trafficked people that would do low to no-wage work like those in my family.
I am afraid I can’t even afford to die. Healthcare is the least this country could do for its people, our people.
Alan Pelaez Lopez is an AfroLatin@ that grew up in Boston via La Ciudad de Mexico, documenting his existence as an undocuqueer poet, jewelry designer, and bubble tea addict. Alan currently works at the Dream Resource Center in Los Angeles, which is a project of the UCLA Labor Center. He is a member of Familia: Trans*, Queer Liberation Movement.