Language Stigma and 'Disease Free' Dating

George M. Johnson
George M. Johnson

His dating app profile:

Jay Robinson
Age: 33
Height: 6'1"
Weight: 175lbs
Interests: I love going to the gym four times a week. I am an easy-going guy that enjoys a cocktail every now and then. Looking for an LTR with a guy that is motivated, career driven and goal oriented.
DD free here; you need to be the same.

Another one bites the dust. Dating in the gay community can be hard, especially when you are HIV positive. In addition to stigma and discrimination, we are often times dealing with language that can be harsh, crass and simply demoralizing to our character. When I see the term "DD free" I often cringe. The drug free part I can understand, but even that would need clarifying because many have this in their profile but also smoke weed or use poppers. The disease "D" is more troubling for me. It refers only to one disease and that is HIV. Rather than saying it outright, people have chosen this as a way to say it without saying it, which in turn could be problematic for those who consider HIV a virus and not a disease.

I understand that there are some people who simply won't date someone who is HIV positive and that is their right. The problem I have is when a person is more comfortable dating or sleeping with someone of an unknown status than someone who is on treatment, truthful and undetectable. We need to have more nuanced conversations than, "I don't want to get HIV." Given that there's no documented case of transmission from an undetectable partner, sleeping with a person who is on treatment and undetectable could significantly decrease the chances of acquiring the virus, rather than sleeping with people of unknown status or who believes they are HIV negative. And if a person is on PrEP, there is virtually no risk of HIV transmission.

What I see most often is people asking "are you clean," to which a person of an unknown status will respond "yes" and that is taken at face value. When we use language such as "are you clean," we are walking a tangled web of dangerous miscommunication and discrimination.

First the miscommunication. Asking a person "are you clean" when they may not have been tested in years will never yield the result you are looking for. A person can easily tell you that they are "clean" because as of their last test three years ago they were negative. We need to use the terms that will yield the results that we are looking for. Ask a person "are you negative and when was your last test." This is the actual info you are looking for. Even with that, if someone's last test was one month ago and he has been sexually active since, it could be an untruthful answer. People are only the status of their most recent test with no sexual contact since it was completed.

Now the discrimination. "Clean" is disrespectful and there is no nice way to say it. The opposite of clean is dirty. So the notion that a person who may have HIV or any other sexually transmitted infection is dirty is just not cool and should not be the message we are trying to convey to our own community. As black people, we grew up in a society that once viewed our skin color as "dirty." Many soap companies got their starts using "negro"babies on their products to show dirty, with the after-shot of a white baby being clean. We have now taken that language and flipped it in way to separate the "clean" from the "dirty" in whom we date. Language can be violent and dangerous when it is used to demean a certain group of people.

Lastly, I want to speak about the daily violence that those who are living with HIV face from terminology. I have noticed that people often cringe or get flashes, hives or some other weird reaction when the term HIV is brought up. Some have even come up with clever nicknames as a way to not have to use the acronym. "The Monster," "The Monkey," "The Alphabets," "Dirty," "Burning" and many other words are often used in conversation rather than just saying HIV. If you haven't heard it before, I am here to tell you that words hurt, and these are some of the harshest things you can say about a person living with the virus. The virus is a virus. It is not something that occurred from being nasty, or deviant, or anything else. There has never been a case of someone contracting HIV from saying the word. Let's become adults about this and start using proper terms. Many of you are shaming your friends and family who may never tell you their status because of how you talk about others afflicted by the virus.

People living with HIV are strong, resilient and deserve to be respected. We as a community must begin to remove the language created during a time when it was shameful to talk about the virus or be in the same room with someone who was positive. When we as a community come together to break down barriers, erase stigma and discrimination and use language that is respectful of others' lived experiences, we will end up in a world where being "positive" is more than just a status.