Editor’s note: The names of individuals performing the HIV testing described in this story have been changed to protect their identities because the reporter did not identify themselves as such, as denoted by an asterisk.
Spectrum Center, Michigan Union
I walk into the Spectrum Center and immediately grab a fun-sized bag of Skittles from a box on the floor. I rip them open carelessly, stick five in my mouth and chew them aggressively. Spotting me, a man in his mid-twenties, Alex*, asks me, cheerfully, if I’m here for HIV testing.
“Yes,” I say.
It’s the only word I’ll speak for 20 minutes.
I don’t tell him that I’m a reporter because I want to experience the process as any patient would, a practice I would repeat for every subsequent testing.
The Spectrum Center is the short name for the University’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Its mission, it seems, is to end stigmatization around non-heterosexuality on campus. It offers a space where students can go to learn more about different gender identities and hopes to create a campus that is discrimination-free.
I suppose it makes sense, then, that Spectrum, a place that welcomes non-heterosexuality, is also a site for human immunodeficiency virus testing. In the United States, HIV is still seen by many as a disease that afflicts mostly homosexual males. This is not totally unfair — of the 29, 800 new HIV cases in the U.S. in 2010, roughly 78 percent were MSM, or men who have sex with men.
At Spectrum, the HIV/AIDS Resource Center, or HARC, hosts HIV testing once a week, on Mondays from 6 to 8 p.m.
On a table above the box of Skittles sits a cup filled with condoms, paired with a helpful flyer that promises to teach me “How To Use a Condom.” The entryway has a rainbow-colored mat. Ah, that’s why they chose Skittles. Taste the Rainbow.
In some ways, the room is full — it is filled with books written about or by members of the LGBT community, fliers and boxes of grab-able items.
What the room lacks, however, are other humans. I am the only person here for testing.
I eat another pack of Skittles, then Alex hands me a questionnaire. I begin answering questions that attempt to outline my sex habits and drug and alcohol use.
Have you ever had sex without a condom?
Have you ever had sex while intoxicated?
I finish the questionnaire and hand it to Alex, who tells me to wait.
Last year, HIV cases reached a 15-year high in Washtenaw County. In a press release, Cathy Wilcznyksi, adult health program supervisor for Washtenaw County Public Health, urged everyone to get tested — and to use condoms.
“Testing is important,” Wilczynski wrote. “Know your status. If you have sex, use a condom. It’s that simple.”
HIV is transmitted primarily through sex, specifically unprotected sex. I know from friends and classmates that a lot of people on the University’s campus have unprotected sex. Statistics also back this up: A 2011 survey by Bayer Healthcare showed that 53 percent of people between ages 15 and 24 have had unprotected sex with a new partner at least once.
With this tendency toward risk in mind, it seems important that we, as young people, feel comfortable with the idea of getting tested for HIV.
Testing options are limited for University students, available at only two places on campus. There’s Spectrum, then there’s the Wolverine Wellness department at University Health Services.
There used to be a third place right near campus where students could get tested — the Safe Sex Store. The store closed last October due to lack of sales. Located on South University Avenue, it sold condoms and other sex paraphernalia. The owner, Beth Karmeisool, offered free HIV testing every Thursday.
Karmeisool still has an online store that offers a lot of the same products that the physical location used to sell. Even so, she no longer offers the free services that were available at S3, including HIV testing, pregnancy testing and sexual health counseling.
Karmeisool had a specific complaint about testing sites like UHS and Spectrum: lack of a friendly environment. She said she believes S3 was more accessible to students due to the retail environment of her store. The products for sale offered an easy excuse for students who might be embarrassed to get tested for fear of running into someone they knew — students getting tested could say they were buying condoms, etc. if they ran into friends.
“I do think that some students found it easier to come in to S3,” she said. “It’s a little bit nerve wracking to go to UHS or the Spectrum Center or any other community health center.”
In my experience Karmeisool was right: S3 was definitely not intimidating. The store was reminiscent of a candy shop, except its buckets held condoms and other sex toys instead of Sour Patch Kids and gummy worms. Always present was a golden retriever, Jake — a trained therapy dog who the store’s visitors could play with.
At full capacity, Karmeisool would test about five people a week for HIV, sometimes more. Without her store, she said the Ann Arbor community is missing an important resource.
“There’s now a void there, and that does make me sad,” she said.
Wolverine Wellness, UHS
It’s freezing cold and raining, so I throw on a black trench coat, pairing it with leggings and a charcoal sweater. I look like I’m in mourning.
I have an appointment for HIV testing at Wolverine Wellness, which is on the second floor of UHS. Wolverine Wellness’ mission is to “promote wellness” for students, and help them make “informed decisions.” In practice, this seems to mean helping curb excessive alcohol and marijuana use, in addition to offering services like HIV testing.
When I called, the receptionist told me I was not to put anything in my mouth — including food, drink and gum — for 30 minutes before the test.
I walk in chewing a piece of fluorescent green gum, which I meant to spit out earlier but didn’t.
When I check in, I am handed a clipboard and told to sit on a couch in a small waiting room. There is a sound soother blaring white noise to my right, as if I’m about to get a massage. Still chewing my gum, I begin to fill out a questionnaire similar to the one I was given at Spectrum.
I am once again the only person getting tested. I think of the image Karmeisool described of packed testing dates at S3, picturing some sort of rambunctious get-together, and feel strangely lonely.
Leon Golson is the director of Prevention Programs at HARC — the nonprofit that hosts the testing at Spectrum. HARC does a lot of outreach for HIV and AIDS around Washtenaw County.
Golson said that a failure to test exists not just on the University’s campus, but also throughout Washtenaw County. Spectrum’s testing site is a satellite location of HARC.
HARC tested only six people positive for HIV in 2014. Golson said the number is representative not of the actual people who contracted HIV in Washtenaw County last year, but of the failure of at-risk individuals to get tested.
“It continues to be a challenge, particularly in the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area, to really get those individuals who are at risk to come in and get tested,” Golson said. “We try and make ourselves available as much as we possibly can to our targeted populations.”
Golson did not agree with Karmeisool that people in Washtenaw County fail to get tested because they do not feel there is a friendly environment available. Instead, he said people are scared of dealing with the consequences that would come with testing positive.
“Having to commit to taking a pill every day,” Golson said. “Then there’s the issue around disclosing your status. So that can really make it hard for folks to feel comfortable about going through an HIV test.”
Though there is still a stigma around being HIV-positive, the open discrimination against the afflicted seen in the early days of the virus no longer seems to be a serious issue. Golson has been living with HIV for 30 years. He said he has never faced any obvious discrimination due to his HIV status.
“I probably wouldn’t even recognize it if it was happening,” he said. “From my experience, my perception has all been very positive with regards to my HIV status.”
In administering tests, Golson has had to deliver a positive test result. He said HARC tries to make patients in this situation feel as though the power is in their hands.
“If I’m giving positive results, I will share my status, let them know how I’ve been living with it,” Golson said. “We usually try to leave them with a sense of hope, and some concrete next steps that they can act on.”
I eat a third pack of Skittles before Alex tells me to come with him. We go into a small, fluorescently lit room where extra cardboard boxes of Skittles are stored. This is good news, as there will probably be none left in the main room by the time I leave.
Along a circular table, a napkin is laid out with a tab of paper that looks like the pH paper I’ve used in countless chemistry labs and a small, box-like object that resembles a pencil sharpener.
Alex tells me about the test: The pencil sharpener is actually a needle that will prick my finger. The paper tracks antibodies — basically, it’s tracking whether or not your immune system is responding to the HIV virus. If a dark line appears that means I have the antibody, which means I have HIV. The test will take 20 minutes.
“How are you doing?” Alex asks, probably concerned about my seeming inability to speak.
“I’m fine,” I say, listlessly. The first time I’ve spoken since, “Yes.”
At this, Alex takes the pencil sharpener and presses it down on my fingertip, causing a needle to prick me, hard. It feels like my finger has just been stapled. Blood gushes out.
Alex realizes he didn’t take out a pipette — which he needs to suck blood from my finger and put it on the testing paper. My finger bleeds all over the napkin while Alex takes way too long to remove a pipette from the box.
Once he finally gets my blood onto the paper, he covers the strip up so I won’t stare at it, and starts a 20-minute timer. Then he talks to me. I stare down at my blood, which is spattered all over the table.
Alex does not seem to think I have HIV. He does not ask me what I will do if I have it. Instead, he wants me to make a plan for what I will do in the future to keep myself HIV-free.
With 12 minutes gone, Alex decides to uncover the strip. The test for the antibody is negative: I do not have HIV. Alex says he has never had a positive.
LSA sophomore Isaiah Zeavin-Moss, a student in my AIDS class, also went to Spectrum for HIV testing. Like me, Isaiah was not actually concerned about having HIV.
“In general, it was a pretty disenchanting, disappointing experience,” Isaiah said.
I met Isaiah at the Starbucks on South University Avenue, right across from where the Safe Sex Store used to be. I sat down next to him at a two-person table.
I’m not sure whether or not Alex tested Isaiah, but Alex did say he had tested other people from my class, and I’m going to assume he did.
When checking Isaiah’s result, Alex found he had administered the test wrong. He said this was the second time he had done this in two weeks.
Isaiah said he could not imagine how terribly someone would feel if they were truly worried they had HIV and their test was botched.
“If I had felt that I was in legitimate danger of having HIV, if I came in there with a real fear of that … I would only be made to feel way more fearful,” he said.
Isaiah did say that Alex was a really cool person. They had a long talk about communication in relationships, discussing the reasons for the popularity of the Tinder app.
“We came up with the idea that Tinder is so popular because communication is almost discouraged,” Isaiah said. “Anything beyond the encounter itself isn’t part of the equation anymore. It was super interesting.”
Unlike me, Alex did ask Isaiah what he would do if he had HIV. They talked about who he would turn to for support if his test was positive.
I don’t know why Alex didn’t ask me the same question. Maybe he didn’t take me seriously, or maybe I just wasn’t giving him much to work with.
After a couple of minutes, a woman comes quietly out of a door directly to my right. I don’t notice her come in, and I jump visibly as she says hello to me in a quiet purr. This tester, Laurel*, is much older than Alex, and reminds me of a mother, though not mine.
I realize I still haven’t spit out my illicit gum, and try and surreptitiously throw it in Laurel’s trash. I am totally obvious about it, but she doesn’t notice. When she asks me, “So you haven’t put anything in your mouth, right?” I almost crack a smile. I tell her no, I haven’t.
Unlike the test at Spectrum, this will one will be oral. I sigh with relief: no finger prick.
Laurel shows me a small tube of what she calls “developer fluid.” She then gives me directions on how to swab my mouth. I tune out immediately, like when my tennis coach explains a complicated volley drill and I’m left scrambling to follow the other players.
Laurel hands me a little stick that looks like an extra thick Q-tip and looks at me expectantly. When I blurt out that I don’t know what to do, she smiles kindly.
“I’ll guide you,” she tells me.
On her command, I move the swab all along my inside top lip, then my bottom lip, then stick it into the open tube of developer fluid. Like the prick test, my results will take 20 minutes.
On the swab stick, there are two lines: a C-line and a T-line. Also similar to the prick test, the swab is looking for HIV antibodies, or response proteins in my body. If only a C-line appears, the test is negative. If a C- and a T-line appear, the test is positive.
Though Laurel is much more soothing than Alex was, she does not invite my confidence. Throughout the 20 minutes, she drills me with personal questions about my sex life, protection use and alcohol use that I do not want to answer. Whenever I do answer, she jumps on the opportunity to pick my words apart for additional meaning.
Like Alex, Laurel fails to address the question of what I will do if I’m positive.
When time is up, Laurel shows me the test, which is, expectedly, negative.
On my wet walk back to my apartment, I once again pass the old location of the Safe Sex Store. I think about how HIV is real. How people do get it, even in college, even in places like Ann Arbor. And students who are sexually active, or just interested, should have places to go on campus where they feel comfortable talking about it.
Maybe that’s what the Safe Sex Store was. And if that’s true, then this campus needs another place like it. Hopefully, that place will come soon.