“The guys on here might be interested in this,” read the post in an online Facebook group for people living with HIV (PLHIV). The post linked to a community event for HIV-positive gay men. I couldn’t help but smack my head, because this post and the assumption that all guys in the group are gay men was another reminder that homosexuality is the assumed sexuality of all men living with HIV.
The way we gather data contributes to this—we’ve all filled out those surveys and perused the results: It’s always you’re either heterosexual or you’re MSM (a man who has sex with men), which includes gay and bisexual men. It’s no stretch to say that MSM usually defaults in people’s minds to “gay.” I’ve been in meetings and conferences where the speaker discusses some HIV research and says “gay,” or “homosexual” then immediately corrects themselves—“oops, MSM” it always goes. Oops, we’re continuing to forget about bisexual men living with HIV and bisexual men needing to access pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
Though we’re often clumped together as “men who have sex with men” (MSM), bisexual men and gay men have very different lived experiences.
I grappled for a number of years with my sexuality. I came out as gay at a young age, and I still identify culturally as gay. I’ve had all the rites of passage for homosexuality: the bullying for being femme, the precarious and terrifying coming out, the awkward first sex. However, my sexuality became far more complicated as I got older. It became clear that I wasn’t homosexual, and I am probably better described as bisexual or pansexual.
While sexuality certainly can be fluid, that doesn’t mean that bisexuality doesn’t exist—the biphobic rationalizing of bisexuality as a means to a different end is just wrong. Do you really reckon I am on my way to turning straight, in these heels?
The experience of gay-turned-bi sexuality is actually more common than I had thought. When I came out in 2018, I was contacted by many men who have gone through the same experiences, and I have been very lucky to have been guided by them. I finally gained some—not much—confidence in where I sat in the world. I was somewhat camp, unashamedly gay, but also attracted to people of all genders.
Then just as I was gaining confidence with my sexuality, I was diagnosed with HIV. I threw myself back in the closet, right up the back, with the stray belts and lone socks. Being gay and living with HIV made much more sense to me than being bi and living with HIV. I gave up on trying to explain my sexuality to myself, let alone to anyone else, while I grappled with my diagnosis, but I saw no way forward.
How was I going to talk about it with people other than men, when even gay men can be terribly stigmatizing to PLHIV? I could approach conversations with gay men with some confidence that they would know something, maybe they’re even on PrEP, or they’ve dated someone with HIV before. I’ve luckily ended up with a loving boyfriend who accepts all these parts of me and supports me. But I had to assume when entering a conversation with women, for example, that they may not know as much, and what if I’m not in the mood for educating? What if I’m terrified of rejection and just cease trying?
HIV education outside of the gay community is abysmal in Australia. It is a massive failure of our public health sector, and this has real effects on people and our response to the epidemic. In parts of Australia, for the first time, we are starting to see more straight men being diagnosed with HIV than men who have sex with men—and this trend will only continue. Imagine if everyone was as informed about HIV as gay men were? How revolutionary would coherent national HIV campaigns be to help people who don’t fit that MSM mold?
I wish I had a societal model to grow my understanding of both of these experiences. Straight, cisgender people are lucky that their models exist in their family unit and permeate pop culture. Queer people have built their own models on what to be, usually freer of the constraints of mainstream society, and we have models on how you can live happily and healthily as a person living with HIV. On top of these, we need role models to step up and show us how it’s done. We need to discuss the intersections of these models better. We need to talk about our own experiences more, because they will help people. Right now, I am flying blind, trying to figure out how to be bisexual and HIV positive (but usually just giving up trying). Bi people are so forgotten in the LGBTIQ community, they rarely rear their heads, and the same goes for bi people within the HIV-positive community. Not to mention the lack of PLHIV representation in popular culture, outside of shows like Pose or high-profile individual cases like rugby player Gareth Thomas. This extends to other experiences of race, of religion, of gender, of politics, and of many other things that aren’t presented as HIV positive—this invariably causes harm.
I usually don’t like telling people I’m bisexual, because I can’t stand the taunts that usually come after—and besides, I’ve got a boyfriend who I love, and he’s all I need. However, a year after my diagnosis, I’m ready to start at least thinking about it again and working towards a place where I can speak to people about my sexuality and my HIV status without fear, because as most of us know from experience, repressing things just makes everything worse.
The HIV services for gay men are excellent, the narrative for gay men is well established, it’s “normal.” I’m lucky I am MSM, because I can access and benefit from all of this, unlike the rest of the HIV-positive cohort that don’t fit in that box. I see the women, straight men, non-binary people, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, trans people, and all the others who have to navigate the few services offered to them in an Anglo, gay-dominated HIV space here in Australia. This focus on MSM has been vital in combatting the epidemic; however, the time is now to expand our understanding of who is living with HIV.
I would ask a mentor, “How do I walk this world proudly as a bisexual or pansexual man living with HIV? Are my presumptions wrong, that people outside of the MSM sphere are more stigmatizing and less educated about HIV? Is it wrong of me to just assume that women will react poorly to my status? What can I do to help break down the stigma associated with bisexuality and HIV? I was diagnosed one year ago—does it get easier?”
Are there even enough of us for this to be a topic?
It’s no coincidence that the stigma I experienced for being bisexual and being HIV positive felt very similar. The notion of choice; that we flick a switch to change our sexuality, or that we are to blame for becoming HIV positive from a choice we made. The notion of silence; it might be OK that we exist, but, “Please don’t bring it up.” It’s also no coincidence that the vast majority of people showed nothing but love, compassion, and respect for these two parts of me.