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Masks stop coronavirus. Getting AIDS showed me the stupidity of not wearing them.

I see people who are making the same error I made 34 years ago when I ignored all the warnings, all the news and all the numbers.
Image: A frustrated man wearing a mask watches a jovial couple, with no masks, walk together.
Those who scorn the idea of wearing a mask don’t understand the personal and communal responsibility that free choice carries with it.Anke Gladnick / for NBC News

In 1985, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo urged the public to have safe sex by using condoms to help stop the spread of AIDS. Condoms were the face masks of the 1980s.

Some people wanted to use them during sex, some did not; many who chose the latter, including myself, suffered the consequences. In 1986, I decided to ignore Cuomo and every medical expert — and became infected with HIV.

Today we are once again in the middle of a war being waged between these two camps, personal freedom and staying alive. Too many people still don’t seem to accept that if they are fighting for the right to not wear a mask, it will very likely come at the price of their life or that of someone they love. The power of free choice can kill you.

I also know the feelings of regret, anger and guilt that come with the decision to value free choice above all else.

But the allure of that power is, well, powerful. As clinical psychologist Steven Taylor, author of “The Psychology of Pandemics,” recently noted, people do not like to be told what to do even if the measures could protect them.

"People value their freedoms," Taylor told CNN. "They may become distressed or indignant or morally outraged when people are trying to encroach on their freedoms."

I know this to be true firsthand. But I also know the feelings of regret, anger and guilt that come with the decision to value free choice above all else. I hope that by sharing the story of the mistake I made in similar circumstances, some who scorn the idea of wearing a mask — whether it’s because they don’t want to look “silly” with it on or because they are “a real American” — can see that these desires are in no way worth killing yourself or others over.

My life-altering error in judgment happened the first night I was with my then-boyfriend, Jason, who’d told me he’d “been tested and was fine.” So I disregarded the warnings and the facts, along with that little voice in my head telling me to reach for the condom that was in my pocket. I had unprotected sex with Jason that night and for the next two months that we dated, even though it was 1986 and the height of the AIDS crisis. The euphoric feeling of having someone desire me was powerful and gave me a naive feeling of invincibility.

After the relationship ended, I refused to have unprotected sex with anyone else. I will not become a victim of this disease, I told myself. But it was too late. Two years after we’d broken up, when I went to visit him in the AIDS ward of St. Luke’s Hospital, Jason told me he had been tested for the first time eight months ago, when he started getting sick.

Timothy Hedden.Courtesy Timothy Hedden

I wanted to scream at him or strike him, but he looked so frail; virtually unrecognizable as the man I had dated, he was withered and shriveled, his skin covered in purple sores. So I said nothing to him, though I knew his deceit was going to cost me my life.

But I spent years after that telling myself that Jason and his lie were the sole reason for my getting infected. It wasn’t until this April, when the mask debate began, that I realized I, too, was responsible for my infection. As I questioned how people could brazenly refuse to take accountability for their own health and not wear a mask in public, I realized I had done the same thing and put my own life in danger.

Within a decade of my diagnosis, my immune system was so compromised that my doctor told me to let my family know I was going to die. But luckily, at the end of that year I was put in a drug trial for a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors, which allowed me to survive.

The decision I made to not use a condom has led to irrevocable damage to my immune system and my life. For 32 years, I’ve lived in fear of germs and catching the flu or even a cold. Every cough that lingers too long sends my thoughts spiraling: Is this the beginning of the end? When the coronavirus was first being discussed seriously in this country, the most vulnerable were people over 50 with pre-existing conditions. I’m a 56-year-old HIV-positive man. It paralyzed me.

It also felt very familiar. Both of these epidemics are rampant viruses that have no cure, both have stumped global scientists and, just as at the height of the AIDS crisis, countless people are dying every day.

A glaring difference is that AIDS was labeled a “gay disease,” even though it afflicted heterosexuals as well. That misnomer allowed the Republican government and most of society in the ’80s to look away and pretend it wasn’t happening. Yet there is a parallel in this, as well: Once again, the Republican government is denying the severity of this pandemic, distorting statistics and the effectiveness of face coverings and otherwise not showing leadership or seriousness in tackling this deadly disease.

What I see now when I come across people not wearing masks is familiar, too — a familiar stupidity. Witnessing the actions of these arbiters of freedom, I do not see patriots. I see people cloaking themselves in the rhetoric of “civil rights” and the idea of a “free country“ who don’t understand the awesome personal and communal responsibility that free choice carries with it. I see people who are making the same error I made 34 years ago when I ignored all of the warnings, all of the news and all of the numbers.

As with having HIV, once you become a carrier of this virus, it is not only your own life you’re playing with. Both illnesses have periods of latency where someone can spread the virus before knowing they have it. So even if you feel that you have the right not to wear a mask, since you’ll be paying the consequences of that choice personally, do you feel you also have the right to kill someone else because you don’t want to cover up?

Too many people still don’t seem to accept that if they are fighting for the right to not wear a mask, it will very likely come at the price of their life or that of someone they love.

The fact that so many people who get the coronavirus recover helps feed the denial of danger to those not wearing masks. But we don’t know the long-term effects of this disease. Doctors are already starting to see abnormal clotting in the lungs and legs of COVID-19 patients, as well as myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. There are also reports of central nervous system issues and impaired kidney function.

This country has a blueprint for how to fight a virus, and we know what we can do to save ourselves: wear protection. I’d give anything to go back to that one night in 1986, reach into my pocket and pull out that condom, but I can’t. So many of those who don’t wear masks will soon feel the same way if they don’t learn from my mistake.