My HIV status has been on my mind lately, because I recently rejoined the dating pool, and invariably that means having “the talk” with a potential suitor. “The talk” has many variations, but for me it goes like this: “I have HIV and I am undetectable.” I’m super chill about it, because it’s the least interesting thing about me, and I write that as someone who discovered that he was HIV positive the day before his birthday. After that shit-show discovery, very little can rock my world.
I know that isn’t the case for everyone. If you type in “HIV disclosure” in an internet search engine, you’ll come across a rabid mix of literature about HIV criminalization and dodgy advice on “how to” reveal your status. Some of the material out there reeks of self-loathing, as if a positive diagnosis means that you’ve committed a heinous act. People living with leukemia, diabetes, emphysema, or herpes are not generally subjected to this level of humiliation, so why are we? We are still sexual beings and deserve to lead jubilant lives, though you wouldn’t know it based upon some of the advice out there, such as Healthline.com’s article on the issue. They offer:
- Be sensitive and patient when sharing your HIV-positive status. You never know for sure how the other person will react.
- When disclosing to family and friends, be prepared for their questions. They may be personal and even intimidating, but you could be their only form of education about HIV.
- Allow them to be there for you however and whenever they can.
When my dad died, many of the people who “comforted” me did so by talking about their own loss. It was selfish and unhelpful, and I told them so. There is no one way to divulge your status, but forcing yourself to educate others in order to make the world feel better about your suffering ain’t it. And allowing someone to be there “however and whenever they can” is a load of BS. It has to be on your terms.
Try this as advice:
- Be patient with yourself when sharing your HIV-positive status. Regardless of how others react, your well-being is of utmost importance.
- When disclosing to family and friends, decide which questions, if any, you’ll answer. You are not anyone’s tutorial on HIV. Indeed, you may have unanswered questions yourself.
- Communicate clear boundaries for what you will and will not accept. Don’t accept any “help” unless you feel that it is serving you in your time of need.
Communicating need is not always easy, but we have to learn how to do so if we are to manage our health effectively. Anything that is a detriment to that management needs to go. Disclosing your status can be a tricky thing. Finding “the one” is already complicated enough without adding an incurable disease, like lupus, to the ordeal. On the dating piece, I frequently come across Tinder profiles written by men who openly share their HIV status, usually accompanied by notes asking for open-mindedness or invective against feeling judged. I understand that some people want to get “the talk” off the table as soon as possible and can see how doing so might attract a more enlightened crowd, and while I applaud the choice to put it all out there, it’s not how I go about doing things. I believe that certain information has to be earned.
I live my life openly and without shame, but I don’t casually reveal that I separated from my family at 16 or that one of my best friends died in a hiking accident when I was 29. For me, that belongs to date number 10 or maybe even after a few months of getting to know each other. Similarly, revealing every nuance about my health with someone who doesn’t know my favorite color feels rash. I know that social media and shortened attention spans have pushed our society to act with constant urgency, but I have no desire to invite that anxiety into my romantic life. If I’m looking to arrange sex with someone right away, I will certainly provide instant disclosure, but since immediate gratification is not my speed, talking about how my father slammed my face into a wall when I was 15 or about my seroconversion can wait.
It’s Really None of Your Business
As Toraje Heyward brilliantly wrote for TheBody this past July, “How I Contracted HIV Is None of Your Damn Business”. That said, I’m going to tell you my story, anyway. My partner at the time asked if we could stop using condoms. After we both tested negative, I gleefully jumped into the rubberless life. Unfortunately, he was also seeing other people and brought something neither of us wanted into our relationship. It took me a while to deal with that pain. Part of how I got over it was by attacking anyone who mocked HIV or AIDS. It happens a lot more frequently than one would expect. The first time I encountered it, post diagnosis, was while pulling an overnighter at my office in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Two women and a man from the bar next door were smoking cigarettes underneath my company’s awning. One of the women asked, “Where’s Dan?” to which their guy pal chortled, “He’s at home dying from AIDS!” At that, they erupted into laughter as if they’d just heard the funniest joke in history. Within seconds, I burst outside, hissing, “You are the worst friends ever. I have fucking HIV, and if you want to laugh at someone, laugh at me! Now get the fuck from under our awning!”
They dropped their cigarettes and scuttled away, leaving me with a new passion for life: disclosing my status to anyone that I could, while silently daring them to judge me. I even outed myself with a self-righteous Facebook note: “If you want to know what HIV looks like, this is it! So feel free to judge, because I am still better than most of you!” I had begun using my status to push people into fights with me because I was exhausted from grappling alone with my own pent-up rage. That’s what I see when I read “how-to guides” about disclosure or HIV revelations in Tinder profiles: unprocessed grief and an invitation for others to take charge of how you feel about yourself.
I finally stopped telling people about my status unprompted after a date responded, “Hi. I’m Paul. My twin brother Pete died while I was being delivered and I still feel guilty about it.” After I spilled my condolences all over the table, he said, “Yeah, it’s really heavy, and I don’t like to talk about it unless I’m trying to feel like shit, so maybe you should consider a different way of talking about your stuff or whatever. Cause I really didn’t need to hear that. I barely know you. Can we like, maybe start over?” Our date didn’t go anywhere, because we were totally incompatible, but Paul left me with an appreciation for the power of my grief. It’s mine, and I’ve earned it, and I don’t have to share it unless I feel ready to do so.
I was plenty ready to speak about my status during a recent Tinder exchange with a beautiful Black Frenchman. We were having a great conversation about our upbringing when he asked if we could progress to video-chatting on WhatsApp. On video, his naked handsomeness rendered me giddy. Happily, he felt the same way about me. Even more than his dimples, I was completely disarmed by his charming accent. He asked if we could get together in a couple of hours, but I had a party to attend, so he requested a face-to-face over drinks the next day. After finishing our video chat, he continued to text me.
“What’s your status?” he asked. “I’m HIV negative. I’ve never been on PrEP, because I don’t sleep around.”
It was a laughably stupid thing to write; as if practicing safer sex meant you were the whore of Babylon, especially for same-gender-loving Black men who face diagnosis rates of one in two becoming HIV positive during their lifetime. Because I am a retired dancer and don’t “look like I have HIV”—whatever that means—some dates feel emboldened to casually vomit goblets of inhumane commentary all over themselves. Despite the mountains of readily available scientific evidence out there confirming that undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U), many people remain ignorant about or refuse to believe these facts. I’ve had dates on numerous occasions rationalize that people living with HIV deserved it or cluelessly equate an undetectable status with recklessness. These same judgmental people have sex the way other people shake hands, not that there is anything wrong with that. I think the world would smile a lot more if people fucked as freely as some of my would-be wooers do, though preferably without the judgement.
Usually when I encounter a person who utters anti-sex drivel like my aforementioned French-fry, I roast them by explaining in the most Mary Poppinish voice possible that, “Being on PrEP doesn’t mean you’re a slut; it’s a form of precaution. And by the way, you just tried to fuck me on our first date, so who are you to diss sluttin’ it up? I gotta go wash my hair.” This time around, I decided to make things uncomfortable.
“I have HIV and am undetectable, actually. If I’d been given PrEP, I would not have this virus,” I typed with a Cheshire Cat grin curling across my face. Far from delivering a public-service announcement, this exchange had transformed into trolling Frenchy, whose response was so on-brand MAGA that for a second, I thought I was texting with Jeff Sessions.
“Ouch!” he typed, “I’ll have to speak to a medical professional to see what that means.” What’s laughable is that he thought there was still a chance that we might meet up. I demolished that notion with, “What it means is that even if we had sex, I’d be unable to give you HIV. We should call this off.” Fascinatingly, he responded, “I’ll get back to you if it’s OK.” It hadn’t occurred to him that I’d already dismissed him. “You’re really honest,” he continued. I replied, “Honesty is the one thing I owe myself. Bye.”
Disclosure Can Be Healing. And It Belongs to You.
Rather than looking at HIV disclosure as a risk of rejection, consider it an opportunity to turn down bad sex with a mindless troglodyte. Because who wants to sleep with someone who lacks a basic understanding of safe sex, science, and HIV? I’m not here to slam uneducated people, but anyone who tries to weaponize my circumstances against me is trash—and regardless of how hot he may have initially looked, he is now about as attractive as an acrid ashtray.
Speaking to honesty, I have been having safe sex with people who shared their HIV status with me, since 2001. As I wrote before, my own seroconversion occurred during a relationship with someone who originally tested negative but who passed other risk factors on to me. When it came to my sexual well-being, my experience was that people living with HIV cared more about me than those who were negative. I think there is a twisted view out there that living with the virus makes one morally degenerate. Of the many ways to determine whether someone is worthy or not, HIV is not a qualifying factor. Don’t allow anyone to pass that pathology on to you; it is deadlier than any chronic illness.
When it comes to dating, share any information that you think will attract the man or woman you want to be with. But remember that nine times out of 10, what leads to a successful date is confidence, respect, patience, and building rapport. Though I’m currently single, my last relationship blossomed out of an epic four-hour phone call that seemed too perfect to be true. In the final 20 minutes of that conversation, I actively tried to ruin it by revealing my HIV status. He put the kibosh on my sabotage efforts by revealing that he was a health activist, on PrEP, and knowledgeable about all of the related science. But even if he’d said, “Sorry, it’s not for me,” I would still have come away from the situation feeling good about myself. Because having a great conversation is one of the best things in life. That relationship has ended, but the good times that I enjoyed with my activist ex are still with me, just as the flutter of joy I felt with that idiotic French-fry warms my loins even as I mock him in this article.
Disclosure can be healing. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, until it is the least interesting thing about you. However you go about sharing your status, make sure that you do so in a way that leaves you feeling respected and as awesome as you already are. Anyone who attempts to diminish you because of your health is unworthy of your time, and time is the most precious commodity that any of us has.
If you would like to speak further about revealing your status, please feel free to engage with me at @juanmichaelii or with @thebodydotcom on Twitter.