May 28, 2013
For HIV-positive gay men, the dating world can be a difficult forest to navigate. In a community that can be heavy on the positive stigma, having to divulge your status and wait for the other guy to "be OK" with it can get old really fast. Enter Jack Mackenroth -- fashion designer, swimmer, model, HIV advocate, 23-year HIV survivor, past Project Runway contestant, and mastermind behind Volttage, a dating site for HIV-positive gay men.
Now, Jack is looking to expand Volttage's scope past being a mere dating site, and to create an artistic and cultural hub for positive gay men to be themselves -- a true social network. Joining him in the effort is writer David Duran, who curates for Volttage's new blog, Volttage Buzz. David writes on a host of topics, from sexuality to global travel, and is well known for his popular and thought-provoking articles on HIV-related topics. Jack and David sat down with TheBody.com's Mathew Rodriguez to discuss Volttage, Volttage Buzz, the stigma of dating as positive gay men, and how they hope to create a community for positive men to thrive and express their opinions.
Mathew Rodriguez: Jack, tell us about the origins of Volttage. What made you want to start the site, and what was the process of its founding?
Jack Mackenroth: After disclosing my HIV status on Project Runway, I became somewhat of a role model and resource for a lot of people in the HIV community. Because of the massive stigma associated with HIV, unfortunately there are very few public figures who will openly disclose their status. The onslaught of emails and Facebook messages was immediate. People were sending me a ton of supportive messages, but there were also a lot of questions about living with HIV, coping with a new diagnosis, and endless questions about dating and disclosure.
HIV-positive guys are often discriminated against on other sites where phrases like "clean only" and "HIV neg UB2" are common. Online dating is particularly attractive to poz guys, because it's easier to disclose status online rather than risk rejection face to face. So I decided to start a site (and soon to be app) that is marketed specifically to HIV-positive guys.
The Volttage tag line is "positively sexy guys," but we don't actually ask HIV status. We believe that everyone should always assume that their partner is positive and proceed accordingly. As a result, it's created this amazing, stigma-free community where everyone feels welcome.
The process of founding the site took a lot of work. I have two partners who built the site and it will always be a work in progress. We are currently working on the mobile app and we are also developing a blog in tandem with Volttage called Volttage Buzz. Eventually, we will also have a huge resource list of HIV organizations and groups, as well.
Mathew Rodriguez: David, can you tell us when you came on board to Volttage?
David Duran: I've been contributing to what was the original blog since inception, and I came on board several months ago to create the new Volttage Buzz blog. I'm going to be curating the site, and taking on submissions, and editing and doing my own contributions, as well.
Jack Mackenroth: I knew I wanted Volttage to be more than just a dating/hookup app. So the blog and news feed are very important. Since we already have a membership of more than 7,000 guys without any promotion as of this interview, I think it is a great way to dispense information and educate this portion of the HIV community. We are growing daily and Volttage has the potential to be a game changer.
I knew David Duran from his great articles and he had mentioned Volttage in a couple of articles he wrote about HIV and dating. I reached out to him last month about "curating" Volttage Buzz. He's got the talent and the connections to take it to the next level.
Eventually, I want Volttage to be a community hub for lots of HIV-related issues. And we are always looking for people who would like to contribute.
Mathew Rodriguez: When did it go from being a dating site to being a hub for positive men, with a blog involved? How did that evolve?
David Duran: It always had a small blog on it. It had a blog feed. There were always articles and submissions on the dating site. What we're doing now is taking it to a different level. We're going to have it be its own standalone site with a lot more resources on there. We're going to have lots of contributions from activists, from members, from doctors, from experts, Jack, myself, different opinions; and we're going to have some fun stuff on there, too, so it's not just a dry site. It's going to be a combination of everything.
Mathew Rodriguez: What had you been doing before you came on to Volttage?
Jack Mackenroth: I had been a fashion designer for 20 years and, more recently, I decided to really concentrate my efforts on HIV activism and education. I was also the spokesperson for a national HIV education campaign called "Living Positive by Design" for four years where I toured the country at big events and spoke about HIV issues. I still travel extensively and speak at events and universities.
David Duran: I'm actually a freelance writer. I've been writing professionally for about three years now, full time. I write on different topics from business to entertainment, HIV, anything LGBT related. I write about travel, as well. I'm well-rounded in journalism, and I've always liked writing about HIV-related topics. I'm HIV positive; that's important to me, to be able to reach out to the community to discuss certain things, even personal things.
Jack approached me -- I had written for him before -- and he asked me to take over the blog. It was a good fit and a good combination; I was excited to do it.
Mathew Rodriguez: David, in your writing career, when did being positive become a topic you felt comfortable writing about?
David Duran: I'd say less than a year ago is when I started writing about my personal story, and I had a published piece that came out called "Coming Out for the Second Time." That's when I came out to the world that I was HIV positive. My friends and family had already known, but this was being published and it was a big deal. Everybody read it, everybody knew, and that was my introduction to being comfortable and being OK with discussing my personal life and my being HIV positive.
Mathew Rodriguez: David, you are a pretty consistent contributor to Huffington Post, and we have been talking about your pieces, "Truvada Whores" and "I'm Sorry My HIV Offends You." Obviously, it's a very mainstream audience when you write for Huffington Post. What do you think about writing for a mainstream audience and the reactions you get, versus if you had written those pieces for a more HIV-focused audience?
David Duran: You have to have a thick skin when you write about topics like that. And the reason I wrote, for example, "Truvada Whores," was to start a dialogue and start a conversation. There was a lot of negative feedback from that particular article, and even the one that just came out, "I'm Sorry My HIV Offends You." It's shocking, the backlash I get, even within the LGBT community. Yeah, it's tough, but I have a thick skin, and if people are talking negatively about it, at least they are talking about it, and it's starting a conversation. Those posts on Huffington, those particular ones, they do very well, and they get circulated. This latest one has been read on the air in Australia on live radio; it's been sent out to a client list of an HIV center in Canada; and, recently, it was translated into German, and sent out to clients who are part of a German organization. It has a wide spread, which is great. Yeah, it's a little controversial, but I'm OK with that.
Mathew Rodriguez: In your piece, "I'm Sorry My HIV Offends You," you spoke about dating while being positive, and that related back to Volttage. Volttage is reacting against the positive-phobia that permeates a lot of dating apps and sites for gay men. For those who haven't read the piece, can you talk about that stigma?
David Duran: The stigma that my piece was about was mainly about using these online dating apps. On the Web, there is a lot of backlash when I do disclose my status. When it gets to that sexual nature, within the conversation, I'm very open about it. I don't have it on my profile, but I usually bring it up pretty quickly. And the piece was just talking about how people have a really negative reaction to it, or they automatically block me, and they don't even give me the opportunity. They don't even say, "Hey I'm not interested," they just delete me or tell me, "Don't want to deal with it." It was dealing with that, or dealing with the tag lines that say, "Hey, I'm clean, you be too," which is one of the most offensive things on dating websites, because that's insinuating that I'm dirty. It was just about what it's like to be dating on those websites, and being HIV positive and dealing with disclosure on those sites.
Mathew Rodriguez: Has anyone ever accused Volttage of promoting a certain stigma itself, or promoting serosorting?
Jack Mackenroth: Not to my knowledge. I think Volttage can be an amazing tool for combating stigma and changing the way people perceive what living with HIV means. Visibility is one of the most powerful tools for changing public opinion. As the Volttage community grows, I hope its influence grows within the gay community and we can influence the stigma.
I think serosorting, or only dating guys with the same HIV status, is more a practice of HIV-negative guys. I guess I would prefer to date a poz guy, because it's slightly easier, but I don't discriminate. Rarely do you ever see "poz only" in online dating profiles. And Volttage welcomes HIV-negative guys.
David Duran: No, it hasn't come up yet. Those are things that, once the site gets bigger and bigger, I'm sure it's going to be something that's going to come up. And we can discuss it in the blog, and write about it. We welcome different opinions. It's just another resource. We're not saying it's the only resource. For people who might want to talk to or date or hook up with other HIV-positive men, that's what Volttage is for.
Mathew Rodriguez: Being at the helm of Volttage Buzz, what do you envision for the blog down the road in a year or two years? Jack, what do you envision for Volttage overall?
Jack Mackenroth: Once we perfect the mobile app and the blog is amazing, I just want the influence of Volttage to continue to grow. With thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of members worldwide, we can change the cultural thinking about HIV. We can change the image of HIV. And as an online community, we can also weigh in on medical advancements and government policies. The possibilities are really endless. Once we generate revenue, I also want to give back to the community and the charities that need it most.
David Duran: I just want it to be another good resource for HIV-positive men to be able to go to. There are awesome places already; there are lots of good health websites. Ours is going to be a mix of everything. It's going to have health; it's going to have advocacy; it's going to have personal stories; it's going to have featured members, and have hot guys, as well. It's going to be a combination of everything, so it's not just, "Here are the drugs that are out." We want it to be fun, as well, for the members.
It's going to be a place where, whoever wants to contribute, can. We've put some buzz out there about contributors and we have so many already that are dying to contribute: prominent people, doctors, activists from all over the world, and even members. It's kind of cool that there's this space where people can go and read other people's stories. I'm more excited about the personal stories from the members, because those are the inspiring ones, those are the ones that can touch other people's hearts. They can read it and say, "Hey, this is how I feel. That's what happened to me. I'm not the only one who's feeling that way." It's an outlet for expression.
Mathew Rodriguez: Is Volttage working on any partnerships with organizations?
Jack Mackenroth: We are currently working with The Stigma Project on a new joint photo campaign. And as you know, we are talking to TheBody.com about some cross-pollination. Eventually, we hope to support multiple projects and organizations through the Volttage Buzz blog.
We are always looking for ways to empower the HIV community, draw attention to the issue and fight the stigma.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.
Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.
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