More and more people are choosing to reveal their HIV status to the world. People like Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis, boxing titleholder Tommy Morrison, basketball superstar Magic Johnson, former New Republic magazine editor Andrew Sullivan, author and perennial angryman Larry Kramer, MTV Real World housemate Pedro Zamora, Broadway actors David Sabella and Ron Dennis, Hollywood's Michael Jeter and Karen Dior (a.k.a. Geoff Gann), gay country singer Doug Stevens, Playboy centerfold Rebekka Armstrong, porn stars Scott O'Hara, Aiden Shaw and Tony Valenzuela, Mr. International Leather Joe Gallagher, New York City councilman Phil Reed, poet Vimal Jairath, and distinguished, all-American, GOP AIDS poster woman and single mom Mary Fisher.
That's quite a cross section of America. White, people of color, gay, straight, male, female, and a transvestite. Famous or infamous, these people faced HIV disclosure in a very public way. At each Operation: Survive! workshop dozens of participants, facilitators and volunteers disclose, too. I am one of those people. There have been times when I scanned a crowd of unfamiliar faces and wondered if they knew how fast my heart was racing and how close I came to throwing up on the front row. Even after having revealed myself to be a man living with HIV dozens of times, I still experience moments of anxiety. I occasionally fear the consequences of such a revelation.
There's no book of rules for disclosure, perhaps because it is such a multifaceted issue. Telling an employer is very different from telling a parent. Disclosing to a child is unlike disclosing to a friend. Talking to a potential sexual partner is nothing like any of the above. Some HIV counselors advise people living with HIV to tell sexual partners prior to any intimate contact. Others may recommend that you operate on the assumption that everyone is HIV+. And if you are a resident of Georgia, the law states that an individual who knows he or she is infected with HIV and knowingly engages in intercourse without telling his/her HIV status is guilty of a felony.
Regardless of what state laws may compel us to do or counselors recommend, this remains an agonizing, dreaded process for many HIV+ people. Disclosure is the only subject that gets a bigger rise (pardon the pun) out of my safer sex workshop participants than oral sex. "Should an HIV+ person always disclose his/her status to a potential sex partner?" I ask. For every vehement NO there's an emphatic YES.
Personally, I advocate disclosing prior to any sexual activity; it can save you a lot of heartache and headaches later. In discussing this issue with a wide variety of people, infected and affected, I have discovered that the moment of truth is much easier after you come to terms emotionally with your own HIV status. If you are ashamed to be HIV+, it will be obvious. If you present yourself as damaged, that's exactly how you'll be perceived. This is a human condition. Accept it. When you come to terms with being positive you can convey that confidence to others.
Besides presentation, timing is important. Let's say you meet most of your sexual partners in a bar. Is it really comfortable to disclose this sort of thing over a disco beat in the middle of a dark, smoky bar? Why not excuse yourself for a breath of fresh air and ask him or her to accompany you outside. Or (unless you're in Tonight's the Night mode) exchange phone numbers and meet for coffee in a quieter, more accommodating location at a later time. Disclosing HIV status in a neutral location is a good idea. Disclosing in the bedroom, naked and randy, is not. Be casual and confident, but do it before sex. And come at it from a position of strength.
Don't expect disclosure to necessarily get easier. Reactions can vary and people can surprise you. Rejection is always a possibility. One way to handle rejection is to depersonalize it. Remind yourself that the other person is actually rejecting the virus. If someone is not mentally prepared to deal with your HIV status, acknowledge it and move on. Who knows what their issues are?
Frankly, I used to be one of those people who said we're all better off just assuming everyone else is HIV+. Then one day not long ago an old friend gave me a new perspective. He said, "I'm still negative after all these years. Not because I'm lucky, but because I work at it consistently. I've put a lot of energy into being safe and protecting myself, so I kind of resent it when someone wants to pretend I'm positive for their own peace of mind or just so they can avoid having a real conversation about it." I was glad my friend shared his feelings with me because it prompted me to rethink my own position about disclosure. I think he gently reminded me that honesty is still a virtue.
Disclosure can be scary, embarrassing or painful. I know; I've been there. But candid conversation usually leads to informed decisions and better sexual relationships. There can be something genuinely liberating about telling the truth and letting people know who you really are.