We get to see many queer men's true colors when their identities are hidden behind an electronic wall, and they're not always the prettiest. Emboldened by anonymity, many gay and bi men on dating apps like Scruff and Grindr send unsolicited messages that include racism, body shaming, and HIV shaming. And though some don't go out of their way to attack a random person with HIV, they may respond poorly or ignorantly when a potential romantic partner on the other side of the phone discloses that they are HIV positive.
Rejection in any form is painful, but rejection for a component of your identity that you can't change is particularly rough, especially when, as an HIV-positive person, you've done everything in your power following your diagnosis to obtain and maintain an undetectable viral load.
We caught up with a few prominent, single HIV activists to learn how they respond to offensive or otherwise ignorant messages on dating apps in a manner that promotes self care.
Josh Robbins, 36, is a spokesperson for DatingPositives.com and a sexual health activist. On Dating Positives, he discloses his status -- as the premise of the entire site is to find others with positive HIV statuses with whom to connect -- but on the other apps, he doesn't disclose his status in his profile. His reasoning has less to do with fear of rejection and more because he believes, "It perpetuates a false sense of security and reiterates the line between positive and negative men, when really there shouldn't be a divide."
Still, he does like telling folks before meeting up in real life, because, "Rejection is easier for me on an app than in person." He's also noticed that it will become clear pretty quickly if the person doesn't want to meet up in real life after he discloses. The conversation tends to die right after.
When outright rejected because of his status, Robbins responds with a surprising amount of understanding. He notes that people typically aren't educated about HIV until it affects them personally, and it would be hypocritical for him to get mad at everyone who blocked him after disclosing his status, since that's what he did when he was negative.
"I'm ashamed I did that," he confesses.
While Robbins wants everyone to become more educated about HIV -- that's what he does for a living, after all -- he doesn't feel the need to educate on dating apps, and, he adds, "I refuse to let [hurtful comments] ruin my day."
His advice to those who do take status-based rejection personally is "stepping back from the apps and find something that makes you more personally satisfied, like building more friendships." He makes clear he's not giving the rude men a free pass, but he says, "You can't control someone else's reaction. You can only control how it impacts your day."
Richard Schieffer, on the other hand, does consistently engage with folks on dating apps when he receives ignorant or hateful messages. Schieffer is a New York City–based artist, writer, and HIV activist who, despite being only 30, has accomplished loads as an activist. He's the executive producer of Miss Hell's Kitchen, a drag pageant benefitting Cycle for the Cause, and has his own blog on POZ.
"I consider their ignorance and choose compassion with education and knowledge," Schieffer says. "I know my status, which is something not all guys can say."
He'll explain that he has an undetectable viral load; at those insignificant levels, it's impossible to pass on the virus. He'll counter any slut-shaming rhetoric he receives simply because he's positive. (I mean, wouldn't that be the pot calling the kettle beige? You're both on an app looking for quick and casual sex.)
Still, rejection seems to be less prominent than it used to be for the artist, and he thinks pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and an overall greater knowledge about HIV is the reason why.
Besides, Schieffer realizes that rejection is a part of life, and he chooses to see the silver lining. "Yeah, the guy might've been hot, but do you really want to date someone with little to no compassion or understanding?" he asks. "Rejection is 'God's protection.'"
"For those that worry about rejection, don't," he continued. "It's going to happen, whether for being positive or another reason. I choose to think the universe has something better in the future. I use rejection as a reason to grow and continue working to end stigma."
Daniel Driffin, M.P.H., 33, an HIV/AIDS activist and the chair emeritus of the Young Black Gay Men's Leadership Initiative, explains how seldom he's now hit with unsolicited HIV hatred on gay dating apps. "More times than not, people who hit me up also tell me they are living with HIV and to keep up the work of the good news. Anything negative, I don't engage. I don't even block them, because it's not worth it."
The few times he has been barraged with vitriol, he takes to Facebook and social media to vent and discuss the larger problem. "I think the last time, more than 75 comments were on the thread," he says.
While Driffin does note that rejection gets easier over time as one discloses more routinely, he still thinks that "other queer men have to decide when it's right for them." In fact, since there were no overall themes that emerged among the responses of the three HIV activists we interviewed, it may be necessary to try out a few different approaches of disclosure and self care when it comes to online dating.
If you've noticed it's easier to list your status, do so; otherwise, wait and tell them just before meeting up. Similarly, you absolutely don't have to engage if they say something ignorant or offensive -- that's what the block is for -- but you may notice you're more like Schieffer, who feels better about himself when he's able to educate and engage with ignorant folks.
Then, dare we say it, it might be worthwhile to invest a little less of your happiness and overall wellbeing in someone else.
"Living the best and happiest life possible doesn't require anyone else," Robbins concludes. "If I am going to be single forever and never find the love of my life, then I am going to still love myself. I had to come to terms with that in regards to my diagnosis. It was really powerful to me and literally got me off my own floor from crying. Taking care of me is really important to me. And that's okay."