After being diagnosed with HIV in 2015, I made a point of pretending that everything in my life was golden. I told friends that I refused to ask, “Why me?” and that the better question is, “Why not me?” Despite that bravado, my mind was a toxic waste dump. I felt betrayed by my partner, angry, and unclean.
I was still feeling that way until a week ago, when I came across a video posted on Twitter by Justin James, aka the King of Reads. He is a Black gay maestro of quips who comments on all aspects of popular culture. Like me, he is also open about living with HIV, though unlike me, he has found peace with his status. Listening to his message gave me pause: “Nobody gave me HIV, child. Nobody gave me anything, sis. I contracted a virus that I am maintaining every day when I take my medicine.”
The conversational perfection of that message helped me to recognize that I was still stigmatizing and punishing myself for having the virus. I’m not alone when it comes to playing the HIV blame game.
Behind the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) statistics that one in two Black, same-gender-loving men will seroconvert during their lifetime if current infection rates continue is a wall of shame that faults our community for its higher transmission rates.
But the King of Reads rejects that narrative by pointing to a racist medical system that allows Black people to suffer and die from numerous diseases, even as myriad technologies exist to protect and enrich our lives. That’s why he sat down with TheBody to share the message that stigma has no place in any of our beautiful lives.
Juan Michael Porter II: You said a whole word with that video.
Justin James: I didn’t realize how powerful it was. I’ve been saying it for a minute; I just hadn’t put it in one video. People tell me that I never talk about HIV on my YouTube channel. I do; it’s not in a video with the title, “HIV and stigma,” but I add it into conversations about other things.
Porter II: Talk to me about disclosure, because I’ve always been of the opinion that my status is none of your business unless you’re about to dick me down.
James: I talked about this in one of my videos. I said, “Y’all always say the onus to disclose is on the person living with HIV, but you’re not engaging in that conversation with every one of your sexual partners. So it’s not that you’re worried about contracting HIV; it’s the stigma. Because if you were truly worried like you, quote, say you are, you’d be asking about it every single time.”
We can’t put this whole argument about disclosure only on people living with HIV because when you look at the data, it’s not people who know that they are HIV positive who are transmitting the virus. It’s people who do not know that they are. I’ve pushed back on that because of this illusion about safe sex; there is no such thing as safe sex. There is only safer sex. Sex is risky. Periodt.
Porter II: Yes! I’ve met so many men who were ready to raw-dog it with me without any conversation about status. This has been before I seroconverted and afterwards, and I’ve always been like, “Don’t you want to get to know each other first? To make sure that I’m not the murderer?”
And that comes down to exercising personal responsibility. For me, I’ve always assumed that everyone I was interested in was living with HIV, even when I was a teenager. And that includes myself. Until I got tested with the person I wanted to fuck, in my mind we were both HIV positive and needed to use protection. And even then, I knew that only gave me a three-month window and not a perfect picture of our current health.
James: Not at all.
Porter II: What bothers me is when I meet people who are afraid to get tested because they’re afraid of the results.
James: You should be knowing, to know where to go. That’s it. You’re not getting tested to get a negative result; you’re getting tested to get a result so that you know what to do next. That should be the conversation, but, again—stigma.
Porter II: What happened after you made your video about disclosure?
James: Two heterosexual guys took that, edited it down to where I said people living with HIV shouldn’t have to disclose, posted it on their Tik-Tok and YouTube, and reacted to it.
Porter II: Trolls.
James: Yeah. It’s easy for some people to make fun of people living with HIV, when really it should be, if we’re really interested in combating HIV, we should also be interested in combating HIV stigma. Well anyway, I received so much hate from that. People were telling me, “You’re out here spreading the virus; you’re not telling your sexual partners!” And I’m like, this whole time I’ve been in a two-year committed relationship.
Porter II: Not that that is anyone’s business one way or another. What happened after you released your widely shared follow-up video?
James: Suddenly people were like, “I get it now. I have to be responsible for my own sexual health.” Because at the end of the day, you consent to sex with someone else. So stop asking who gave me whatever. Nobody gave me anything. I had sex, and now I’m doing what I can to maintain myself.
Porter II: What’s amazing to me is the idea that a stranger would expect you to disclose your status when you don’t even know their favorite color. I’ve always maintained that living with HIV is not the most interesting thing about me.
James: Not at all. Some people can’t wrap their minds around that. We do need to talk about status, but who are we focusing that energy on?
Porter II: Ourselves or the other person?
James: And we have to get out of this position that “it’s just people living with HIV.” But how do we even know who is or isn’t positive if people are not getting tested? If we’re creating an environment where people don’t feel comfortable with disclosing, then people aren’t going to feel comfortable getting tested because they’re fearful of getting locked up for not disclosing. Or dealing with violence.
I was in a situation once where somebody was literally forcing sex onto me and I didn’t feel comfortable with it because I hadn’t disclosed yet. Can you imagine me telling somebody something like that right in the middle of sex? I don’t know what that person’s reaction will be because they’re gonna react to the stigma.
Porter II: Right. He’s not reacting to you, the person in front of him. That’s where the real stigma comes in. I want to go back to what you said about being locked up over disclosure, which is a real thing in the state of Georgia and can put people onto sex-offender registries for life. What I don’t think a lot of people know is that the burden of proof is reversed in these cases and put onto people living with HIV so that they are presumed to be guilty until they prove otherwise. Even if they are virally suppressed or undetectable and therefore unable to transmit HIV.
James: Because we blame people living with HIV. That’s why some people I’ve met have lied about how they seroconverted. They say they were sexually assaulted or their partner lied and gave.
Porter II: Where do you think that comes from?
James: Society paints people with HIV out to be sexually active.
Porter II: Or nasty.
James: But even if they are, that’s fine!
Porter II: One of my favorite articles on TheBody is titled, “How I tested positive is none of your goddamn business.” Because it isn’t. Whether you’re running through every single dick in the streets or doing sex work because you need to pay for food or Gucci or whatever; it doesn’t matter, because if we lived in a system where sexual health was treated and provided for the way that it should be in this country, then HIV wouldn’t exist. As you’ve said in your videos, the fault is that we live in a system where this is allowed to happen; it’s not because of individual behaviors.
James: Especially because those are the same behaviors as our white counterparts. They’re doing the same things that we are. But who has more resources and access to care?
Porter II: I very foolishly looked at some of the comments on that Tik-Tok video.
James: That’s another reason why I released the second video; because I was tired of that doctored video being out there when what I have been saying is that people living with HIV should not always be the ones disclosing; because you need to disclose what you’re doing too. You say you’re negative, but you haven’t been tested since August and you have been sexually active.
Porter II: And not always practicing safer sex.
James: So we don’t know what the hell you are.
Porter II: And as I’ve pointed out to many people who wanted to dip their dicks in me after “Hello,” HIV is not the only thing to worry about. I may not be able to transmit HIV, but you can still give me a full range of STIs [sexually transmitted infections] that I don’t want.
This isn’t to shame anyone who has an STI. What I mean is, instead of saying, “If you don’t have HIV then you’re good,” what if every sexual encounter or conversation was about taking care of ourselves? Regardless of what type of relationship I’m pursuing—a hook-up, a situationship, or something long-term—I’m still going to check in and have an honest conversation with myself and my partner to make sure that we’re OK.
James: That’s the only way we’re going to end HIV. By getting rid of stigma and creating the space where people are safe to talk about and take care of their needs.
The King of Reads talks about a range of culture issues, including sex, HIV, fashion, and the latest gossip on Twitter. You can see his full video about HIV disclosure on YouTube.
Three of TheBody’s original articles that were referenced in this interview appear below:
How I Contracted HIV Is None of Your Damn Business. TheBody.com. by Toraje Heyward. July 31, 2019.
When Using Dating Apps, Disclosing My HIV Status Is Earned, Not Your Right to Know. TheBody.com. by Juan Michael Porter II. January 29, 2020.
HIV Transmission and Risk: Separating Fact From Fiction. TheBody.com. by Sony Salzman. January 22, 2020.