A Code of Silence
Gay Men, Dating, and Disclosure
Photographs are by Tomás Gaspar, whose work was featured in the Electric Blanket (Visual AIDS Artistsâ Caucus). In 1998 his AIDS photography received recognition at the World AIDS Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. His work is currently represented by bridgesgallery.com
Timing and location are certainly important, but it isn't really the time or place that is the problem. It's the subject. Having that serostatus discussion is never easy, whether the man is HIV-positive or HIV-negative. Even after twenty years of the HIV epidemic, even with support groups, social service organizations, ACT UP, ADA, ADAP, and protease inhibitors, gay men still find it hard to disclose and discuss serostatus. Yeah, after twenty years of AIDS, it is still a big deal. Why? you ask. Why is discussing your health such a big deal? Why is it still a big deal?
More than Serostatus
Well, we could probably fill several issues of Body Positive with the various and sundry answers to that question. The problem is simply that we are talking about AIDS, never an easy or simple subject. That sounds a little facile, but it's true. We also have to remember that in speaking about HIV/AIDS, we must separate HIV/AIDS the medical condition from HIV/AIDS the social condition. Within that social condition, we encounter the myriad of problems related to HIV/AIDS, things like discrimination, racism, homophobia, economic disenfranchisement, erotophobia, and a host of other social ills. These social ills exacerbate an already serious medical situation. Sometimes I believe that some people use HIV/AIDS as an excuse to act upon their baser instincts. But in speaking specifically about disclosure, we have a different situation. I would venture to say that fear is the underlying problem. Whether it's fear of rejection, fear of stigmatization, fear of discrimination, or even fear of infection, it is the fear resulting from the social harms of HIV/AIDS that make disclosure so difficult.
Most of the guys I spoke with and the mental health professionals I consulted for this article agreed with me. Jay Pinkerton at Gay Men's Health Crisis said that disclosing was like "coming out of the closet all over again," with all its attendant stresses and drama. Sharing personal information that might drastically change how someone deals with you -- that's what happens when you come out of the closet. This is major stress. That's also what happens when you disclose your serostatus or even when you have that discussion with someone. It doesn't happen all the time, but for the men I spoke with, and in my own experience (let's just say I've been around the block both walking and riding), a lot of men feel that stress. Even though the consequences may vary based on your history and serostatus, the most obvious emotion associated with the act of coming out or the act of discussing and disclosing your serostatus is fear. Given the realities of AIDS in erotophobic and homophobic America, gay or straight, fear is a downright rational response to the situation.
As with everything in life, disclosure involves risks, real and/or perceived, for every individual. The positive and negative consequences of disclosure vary, and in the end they vary most fundamentally according to serostatus. Obviously, positive and negative men experience different consequences from disclosure, but they share similar emotions around it, emotions like fear and anxiety. Certain common emotional survival mechanisms kick in, mechanisms like anger and denial. For the purposes of this article, however, it's unnecessary to engage in the "Whose lot is worse?" discussion. In terms of disclosure, comparing the realities of HIV-negative men to those of HIV-positive men is like comparing the consequences of racism to the consequences of sexism. The problem is not which is worse; both are bad. The problem is that we waste our time arguing which is worse instead of actually trying to make it better for everyone. There is a Buddhist expression that says when you are wounded by an arrow, you don't stop to figure out who shot the arrow or what kind of arrow it is. You just take out the arrow.
As gay men, we are all wounded by this epidemic, whether we admit it or not. Several HIV-negative men that I spoke with for this article told me that in certain settings they don't ask about serostatus. Several also said that they don't bring up the subject because they really don't want to know their partner's status. It almost sounds like magical thinking to me: If we don't talk about AIDS, then we don't have to deal with it. Broaching the subject means we have to take some kind of responsibility. It makes an implicit knowledge explicit, the invisible all too visible. Who let that god-damned depressing epidemic in the room? The scary part to me is the denial of reality. Men still maintain a code of silence about HIV, our own queer omerta. Even though we don't have to run around obsessively proclaiming our serostatus constantly, it is a major part of our individual and collective reality. Whether we name it or not, for all gay men living in the United States at the turn of this century, HIV is already in the room.
So men keep quiet. Who said gay men can't keep a secret? And in that silence, we also develop particular, if not peculiar, behaviors and beliefs. Both positive and negative men told me something similar: In addition to the magical thinking about the unnamed and thus invisible virus, some men believe if they are tricking (meaning either a one-night stand or having anonymous sex), they will consciously decide that serostatus will not come up. Some make the distinction between the bar (face-to-face interaction means yes, I tell) and the baths (no chitchat necessary). Mark Reyes from the Minority Task Force on AIDS says, "Many men don't think it a necessary information investment." Brad Walrond, also from MTFA, says many men simply won't speak about it. After all, there are still many men out there, especially in gay men of color communities, who haven't been tested, men who either assume they're positive or really don't want to know. Now if something else is happening, like the potential for a relationship appears, you know, love at first sight and all that, then the serostatus discussion might happen a lot sooner. But then again, it might not. I knew a man who was with his boyfriend for at least two years before his boyfriend told him he was positive.
Let me say here that there are men, both positive and negative, who make the effort to have that disclosure talk with all their sex partners. There was a time (in my single days) when I would disclose my positive status automatically, almost compulsively. It was important for me, as an AIDS activist of color, to let other gay men know that not everybody was dying, not every man who was HIV-positive had wasting syndrome or was covered with KS lesions. Some of us were relatively healthy, and some of us were downright hot. But even in all my religious fervor, there were times I didn't disclose my positive status.
Whom Do You Tell?
What can we infer from this behavior, mine included? Well, a couple of things resonate for me. First, I am reminded of a gay version of the virgin/whore dichotomy that straight men inflict on women. A good boy, I'll respect and tell. A bad boy, I'll have a great time with and not tell. But that may just be my Catholic education talking. If so, my apologies. It seems the common social practice, however, is that if your sex partner is a stranger, then you don't tell him anything -- not your serostatus, not your marital status, not even your real name. Why? Because he is a stranger. After all, if there are different rules for disclosure in various situations with men, then certainly there might be related rules about disclosure specifically around sexual behaviors. I mean, if everybody were practicing safer sex, then serostatus really wouldn't make any difference, would it? The truth is, for whatever reason, not everybody is practicing safer sex, and many who do don't do it 100 percent of the time. That's the reality. One man I spoke with told me of an HIV-negative friend who frequently has unprotected oral sex, although he always feels intense guilt afterwards. Obviously boyfriend has some major conflicts about his behavior. But I don't think he's alone. Some men won't disclose and some won't ask because they might not be able to do the things they want. That's a reality as well.
So why would you not tell a stranger, besides the fact that it might kill the mood? Is it because the life of a stranger is less valuable than the life of someone you know? I really don't know if most folks think in those terms. Hey, I would run into a burning building to save my boyfriend before I would do it for some random baby! I think it's more like, "This is a stranger. This is not someone I know or have a relationship with (even though you may be more physically intimate with this person than with people you have known for years). I have no investment in this person. Hence I will not share important information about myself, nor will I bring up a subject that might potentially alter, if not damage, what might take place between us."
This behavior is not unique to gay men. People, all sorts of people, do it all the time in all sorts of situations. It's that need-to-know criterion for sharing information that people use all the time. Many gay men believe that if you are a trick, you don't need to know.
The Newly Diagnosed
For some of the men I spoke to, disclosure wasn't that big a deal. "I don't walk around thinking about it all the time," one man said to me. "It's not something I naturally think about." The fact that it is not exactly an easy conversation topic might have something to do with that. But I believe that also speaks to how different people integrate HIV/AIDS into their lives. These men, however, also experience a type and degree of shame different from what I and others knew from the early days of the epidemic. Becoming infected in the year 2000 is not the same as it was in 1985 or even 1995. In the beginning you were a slut for becoming infected. Now you're either stupid or have low self-esteem. Whichever one it is, people assume there's something wrong with you, and they just aren't as sympathetic as they were ten years ago.
According to Jay Pinkerton, newly diagnosed men come to some of the GMHC support groups for a brief period of time in order to deal with this new development in their lives. They may not know any other positive men in their social circles, and they need to connect with other positive men. These men attend the group for a while and then move on. HIV becomes just another part of their lives.
The fact that this is common reveals that disclosure continues to be a difficult subject for gay men to broach. Bill Wagner, another GMHC therapist, notes how things have changed for negative men. "A huge difference in time," he says, talking about life for negative men now. "With more information, negative men are now less afraid. Knowledge is power. Negative men feel they have more control." Certainly in the age of protease, HIV seems more manageable, even for HIV-positive men. It doesn't seem like such a huge risk. Or is it?
There is a generation of young gay men who have always lived with AIDS. Growing up, coming out in the later age of AIDS is what they know. Not having experienced the worst of times, they see AIDS in some ways as an abstraction. They see some positive men pumped up on steroids and protease and ask, "How bad can it be?" So they are willing to take more risks.
Speaking of strangers and risks, Michael Shernoff, the well-known therapist, notes that "People will take more risks [meaning sexual risks] with a perfect stranger than with someone whose status is known to them." The other men I spoke with concurred. Their reasoning: "You have less to lose," or "The element of danger is exciting to me," or "You just don't care as much." And the one that really baked my noodle, as the Oracle said in The Matrix, "I'm not risking anything."
I don't think these actions or beliefs are unique to AIDS. The romantic combination of strangers and danger is an ancient and potent one. There's a reason why Harlequin Romances and Anne Rice are so popular, and not just with straight women. What I wonder, based on those comments, is if those romantic notions have changed because of AIDS? It is apparent, based on the most recent statistics showing a decline in the number of newly diagnosed AIDS and HIV cases, that the sexual behavior of white gay men has changed. Is it because gay white men have somehow changed their romantic notions? Unfortunately, those numbers show an increase for gay men of color. Are we simply more romantic? Does one thing have anything to do with the other? That's another subject for another article.
Whatever the reasons behind these various justifications, it is obvious that they are not rational. But then sex isn't rational. Desire isn't rational. Fear sometimes isn't rational, and love is everything but rational. One of the greatest disservices we've done to ourselves in this epidemic is to assume that we can behave like rational beings when dealing with some of the most irrational aspects of human nature. Perhaps it's time to examine some of these irrationalities.
Let's look at the one about not disclosing to the trick, especially if you are HIV-positive. Well, what happens if you don't disclose and the trick develops the potential to move from trick to date. It can happen. All of my numerous husbands started as tricks. Another thing everybody I spoke with agreed on was that it gets harder to disclose after you fuck, especially if you are HIV-positive. Michael Shernoff called it a gold standard for behavior, a major trust issue. Many negative men also harbor an expectation that a positive man should disclose before he has sex just to let his partner know what he -- the partner -- is or is not getting into.
On the other hand, many positive men say "Caveat emptor." The negative man is responsible for his own behavior, so disclosure is unnecessary. It is the negative man's responsibility to remain negative. After all, most HIV prevention efforts are directed toward negative men, as if positive men have nothing to do with possible HIV infection. Call it yet another irrationality. For men who have to have sex before they date (and I know a lot of them, myself included), if you disclose before you have sex, you might not have sex, which means you'll never know if there was dating potential there. Some of us just gotta test the waters first. Nothing worse than making that investment and then learning that he's bad sex. Shallow, but true!
Michael Shernoff has a suggestion about negotiating that disclosure thing: Don't hop into the sack first thing. Use the first date to get to know something about him. In other words, find out if you want to see more of this person before you think about disclosing or having sex. This might make for a more humane situation, something that deals with the fears and expectations of both partners. It's a nice idea, but I don't know if it's necessarily better to be rejected by someone you are getting to know. Fifteen years ago, I went on a couple of dates with this great HIV-negative man. We didn't have sex, although we were both quite smitten. We each knew the other's serostatus. Then, one night, after a romantic evening of dinner, candlelight, and Ella, he dumped me. Although he said it was because I was positive, I think that rejection hurt me more than some random guy in a bar walking away from me.
Making Choices, Taking Risks
MFTA's Mark Reyes says you have two options: Either you disclose or you lie. Certainly there are men out there who lie about their serostatus -- both ways, negative and positive. For some reason, I am always surprised by that, despite my firm belief that all men are pigs. But I think we have more choices than that. Some men get around the disclosure thing by being publicly positive or negative and then dating only men who share their serostatus. Like with like. I have seen a lot of that, although I can't say if that's a trend. All the guys I spoke with who practice it say it makes life much easier. "Sex is less fraught with tension," is the way one man put it. Certainly all those personal ads asking for "healthy" or disease-free men speak to a desire not to deal with the whole serodiscordant situation. Like with like. It worked for Noah.
Unfortunately, attraction doesn't always follow the path of the Western blot. There may be other things at play here. Shernoff wonders how one teases out the differences between good old-fashioned American erotophobia and garden variety homophobia (both the internal and external kinds). Strange that twenty years into the epidemic, we as gay men can't seem to negotiate this with each other. It's sorta like being one of two people stranded in a life raft and not cooperating with the other person in the boat.
What is it that makes disclosure so difficult? At the beginning of this article, I mentioned fear as the major cause of disclosure anxieties. But I wonder. Has HIV made us so scared of each other? Maybe we've always been scared of each other. Someone once described gay men as an army of lovers. I like that image. Although I believe all men are pigs, I hope and pray that someday we can evolve. So perhaps I would modify the phrase (inelegantly I admit) so we can become an army of risk takers, not in self-destructive or nonsupportive behaviors, but in daring to trust and support each other. If anything, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has shown gay men how we can love and support one another as we live through our own Great War. I think that in some very significant ways the real work of AIDS is still ahead of us.
Back to the June 2000 issue of Body Positive magazine.
This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.