A Young Man Struggles Through Fear and Sex
"Are you sure it's safe for you to suck my dick?" queried Gay Republican.
Choking on the impulse to roll my eyes, I turned my gaze upward and curtly replied: "Well, am I bleeding from my mouth? No? Well, then, it's probably safe."
As I turned back to the job set before me, I realized that I could have answered the question in a more sex positive and supportive manner. Since my diagnosis, similar inquiries abounded from every HIV-negative guy with whom I had sex, but this trick asked with such judgment and disdain dripping from his mouth that it caught me a little off guard.
Reflecting on the evening since I disclosed my HIV status, I recognized a certain level of apprehension during tonight's "cock-tail" hour. Every time he and I changed activities, the same question arose in one form or another.
Despite any uncomfortable feelings, the sheets did not settle until sunrise. As I walked to the corner for a cab, an all-too-familiar feeling came over me. I knew no phone call would ever come, as no phone call had come from an HIV-negative boy in quite some time. HIV caught me with my pants down, and now, I feel destined to spend my life alone.
I am 26 years old, and I have been living with HIV for nearly three years. The anecdote written above happened to me this past December. As I sit and write this article with the Ides of March approaching, I have still not had sex or been on a date again. One may wonder why a single event affected me so profoundly, but this one boy did not crush me. I am not that weak.
Instead, the aggregate toxicity of failed relationships with positive partners and missed opportunities with negative partners has left me feeling a little beaten down. Well, that is a bit of an understatement; I feel deeply mired in a jaded and bitter headspace.
Boys cruise me on the street, and I ignore them. Friends tell me to put myself out there, and I sit at home alone. A guy succeeds in catching my attention, and I remind myself that he is most likely negative and I stand no chance.
Should I pursue only positive partners?
This question brought me to write this article. Currently, my chosen work is HIV prevention. Among some HIV prevention leaders, conversations have turned to the concept of encouraging sero-sorting -- dating people from your HIV status.
Whatever happened to the well-diffused message that the best way to protect yourself is expecting your partner's status to be positive, and taking the proper precautions? Whatever happened to safer sex is (or can be) hot sex? Whatever happened to encouraging frank discussion about sex between partners, whether they are both negative, both positive, or one of each? Moving too far away from these basic messages is a mistake.
Granted, these messages never completely disappeared, but it seems that their significance within HIV prevention dwindled over the past several years. These simple concepts not only served to prevent new infections, but they helped normalize sero-status and reduce stigma while fostering more open dialogue. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the dialogue is closing, and an ever-widening riff within the gay community is forming.
Recent news reports about an unconfirmed "super-strain" of HIV spawned conversations about effective prevention interventions among gay men. The discussion moved in a direction I never expected. HIV-negative gay men began attacking HIV-positive gay men. On an Internet listserv to which I subscribe, emails bounced back and forth arguing the gambit of issues associated with failed prevention. A couple of the men -- gay and HIV-negative -- suggested that we vigorously punish offenders who transmit the virus.
They depicted people who become infected as unwitting participants in the unprotected sex act, and they characterized the infected as fiendish enablers in HIV-transmissible activities. They forgot to outline what steps exist between a newly-infected victim and a prowling, infectious assailant.
Pejorative speech is not limited to abstract conversations about prevention. Over the past decade, the Internet became a relatively safe, private way for men to meet one another. On occasion, I peruse on-line personal ads, not for hook-ups, but because I find many of them amusing.
Recently, I noticed an increase in the number of Internet ads that request that all respondents be HIV-negative. Most guys write this in a very respectful manner, such as "HIV-Negative Only, Please," but many of them skip the niceties altogether. On a nationwide man hunting website, I saw an ad the other day that said, "No Diseased People," and several others stated, "Clean Only."
The "Clean Only" and "No Diseased People" paradigms conjure Biblical and medieval images for me. Imagine scores of people lying prostrate on the ground, dead or dying from a plague sent by God.
The individuals who wrote these statements most likely never intended my theocratic interpretation; however, their choice of rudeness still provokes thought. All of the disparaging ads that I read were from men were under the age of 30. Many of them barely remember the 1980s and early 1990s well enough to appreciate the full scope of the American epidemic, and many believe that they hold no stake in investigating the state of the epidemic today.
Failure in HIV prevention stems from many sources, but a lack of effective, focused education and information geared towards younger gay men continues to fuel the epidemic. The effects of changes in HIV prevention can already be seen. Professionals call it prevention burnout; however, I do not remember seeing a single HIV prevention message between high school (1997) and my infection (2003).
Resources for young, HIV-negative gay men are dwindling. Often, trusting the statement of their sexual partners' status becomes the most common method of prevention, leading to decreased condom use. Distrust of HIV-positive men is increasing, partially generating the riff within the gay community.
Fear and loathing have taken a foothold in the gay community, under the guise of sero-sorting. The rights to self-determination and setting personal boundaries should be upheld at all times; however, the decision to disqualify all HIV-positive men should be based on education and discussion, rather than stigma. The absolute rule of sero-sorting seems illogical to me.
My refusal to accept a positive only lifestyle stems not from some deep-seated self-hatred for my HIV status. I simply believe that limiting myself to a minority of a minority too severely curtails the possibility of finding someone with whom I want to spend an extended amount of time. I would be elated if I found an HIV-positive partner.
In the meantime, I know several sero-discordant couples in their thirties and forties between whom no transmission has occurred, and some of the couples have been together for over 10, 15, or 20 years. Sero-discordant couples are almost unheard of in the under-30 crowd.
Why do we insist on fighting and segregating away from one another? Outside social forces attempt to ostracize us already. After more than 20 years of HIV, do we not owe it to ourselves to declare solidarity in the face of cultural adversity?
Without dialogue, the riff remains, it deepens daily, and never shall it be mended. By continuing the conversation, a new day of hope dawns, and the unity of our community seems plausible.
Through all the trials I will undoubtedly face over the coming days, months, and years, I shall remain guarded -- guarded against assholes who say things like "no diseased people," guarded against people who try to hurt me, and guarded against my own past that keeps me from moving to my future.
Shortly after receiving his B.S. Speech in Interdepartmental Studies from Northwestern University in June 2002, Justin Jones found out he is HIV-positive. Desiring to give back to the community, he volunteered with the AIDS Legal Council of Chicago, and then Howard Brown Health Center as an HIV testing counselor. He became an outreach coordinator at TPAN, providing prevention services to local bars, commercial sex venues, youth organizations, and the community at large. Justin now works as an HIV Prevention Specialist for Access Community Health Network, housed at TPAN. In the fall, he begins his M.A. work in Human Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University.
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