When I first seroconverted, I tried to serosort -- to have sex exclusively with men who were also HIV positive. Then, I realized how much it limited my relationships.
Like life in general, the longer you live with HIV, the more receptive you become to change. Or, rather, the more receptive to change you realize you must be in order to be happy. Fighting the universe isn't just a full-time job: It's a miserable way to wake up every morning.
When I first seroconverted, I didn't think life was over: I did, however, look at the world with a bit more hostility. Newly HIV positive, I was no longer in the "Clean U B 2" club, and everything about me felt other. HIV-negative men were on one side, and I had accidentally switched teams.
Despite the sincere appraisals of folks telling me I was going to be OK, my internalized HIV stigma ran riot. I thought people who said I would be fine were disingenuous, patronizing.
That kind of insecure self-obsession was hard to deal with -- and it was particularly present whenever I got together with HIV-negative guys. A few HIV-negative guys I hooked up with meant well, saying they knew the risks involved and that we could play "safe," either with condoms or by avoiding the anal sex question altogether. But once we got naked and began to touch each other, I swear I could feel them stiffen up in the wrong way: awkward, hesitant, fearful.
Whether they were actually uncomfortable, or whether I was simply perceiving that because of my own insecurities, is irrelevant: I thought they were anxious, so I was anxious.
That was enough to make me swear off HIV-negative guys altogether. And I did, for quite some time. Besides, I don't usually like having sex with condoms (one might say that has something to do with my status in the first place and why PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] is such a good idea for HIV-negative men today).
Interestingly enough, I sort of viewed "guilt-free" condomless sex as the consolation prize that came with my HIV-positive diagnosis. "Well, this sucks, but hey, at least I can bareback with other HIV-positive guys now and not be afraid of anything!"
That last bit was partly true: The first time I had sex with another HIV-positive guy after my diagnosis was amazing -- fireworks, space shuttle launching a-ma-zing. For the first time in my sexual life, I did not have that terror of getting HIV. That fear is paired with being gay, like it or not.
The fear was gone. I already had it! I remember thinking after we fucked, "Gosh, is this what it was like before the age of HIV for all gay men?" Presumably, it was.
The notion that I shouldn't be afraid of anything was whimsical at best, however.
For instance, gonorrhea is incredibly easy to acquire. In fact, I acquired it thrice after I seroconverted. (Thanks for the memories, hot menz, but I'm quite glad I've toned down my exploits to schoolmarm levels. I simply don't have the inclination to deal with drips while in my Andrew Christians or deal with prescriptions for broad-spectrum antibiotics.)
Still, if I'm being honest, I have to say that my status allowed me to change my default behavior -- using a condom -- to one that I had always wanted to do regularly without anxiety -- barebacking. It was done with one big caveat, though: I sought out fellow HIV-positive men for whom this practice was more commonplace and less ethically -- and in half the U.S. legally -- murky.
My orientation toward fellow HIV-positive men strengthened when I read men like Andrew Sullivan and Dan Savage talk about the value of serosorting, too.
Serosorting does have a positive impact on HIV-acquisition rates, after all. But it's just one of many tools in our overall prevention toolbox -- along with condoms for those who prefer them, PrEP, TasP (treatment as prevention) and, above all else, access to adequate health care and education -- that we as a society can use to prevent HIV. It's right for some, not right for others (just like condoms or PrEP).
The real impact of serosorting only comes by way of HIV-positive men doing it, too, because they're the only ones who know -- without a doubt -- their HIV status. The same cannot be said generally of HIV-negative men. After all, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us one in five HIV-positive Americans don't know they're HIV positive.
(With that in mind, Neg 4 Neg or Clean U B 2 is a quaint notion, and that's really all it is, Grindr-ers. Sorry to burst your bubble.)
So, I aggressively serosorted for a long while, just as research recently estimated two in five other gay men do today.
I started to get frustrated, though. I began dismissing possibilities from the get-go if men were HIV negative. "They'll recoil," I'd think. Or, I'd assume they wouldn't be truly cool with it. Really, what I was saying was that I was still insecure about my status, that I still expected automatic rejection. It took a lot of work, a lot of self-acceptance, and a lot of love for me to realize that -- speaking for myself here -- serosorting served me for a time almost as an emotionally protective measure, a guarantor of less anxious playmates, but it no longer serves me today.
I'm now also respectful of condom use, and I generally leave that up to my partners to decide. Absolutism in this regard is, if you ask me, stupid (yes, this means I'm calling my past self stupid): Condoms aren't great, but they're not terrible, either. And if it makes my partner feel more comfortable, so be it. We all have our ideal preferences, but we make concessions to those we care about, too. That's what healthy intimacy is all about.
It took realizing that, while some of it was truly there, a lot of the "rejection" I saw coming from HIV-negative guys was all in my head. So, I started to branch out, to give these guys living without HIV a chance. Besides, now that gay marriage is legal here in Philadelphia, I'd like to get married some day. But that takes, you know, meeting other men and not summarily rejecting possibilities because they're not HIV positive like I am.
The numbers bear out my emotional finding, too. See, 1.2 million people live with HIV in this country. That sounds like a big number, but it represents 0.3% of the U.S. population. If you break it down even further demographically to men who have sex with other men, the prospects of meeting another HIV-positive guy I jive with sexually and romantically become even less likely.
And, really, with odds like that, it's no wonder that a lot of HIV-positive men have expressed difficulty dating or finding mates. So, for me, I made the decision to open my mind to the possibility that HIV-negative guys aren't so bad, that many of them are educated about HIV transmission and prevention today, and they won't tremble at the sight of my penis -- except maybe in the good way.
Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His work often focuses on HIV/AIDS, cultural stigmas and social problems. You can follow him on Twitter @jawshkruger.