“The year that wasn’t” is possibly the best way to describe the pandemic era of 2020. COVID-19 has brought a long list of cancellations into our lives, including cancellations of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) prescriptions, in-person dance parties, and casual sex. Of course, the need for frisky interaction has not been thwarted outright; it’s simply shifted its mode of operations.
Many people across the nation have navigated the anxiety of coronavirus and the need to get their freak on by forming sex pacts: agreements between two or more individuals to have sex with each other exclusively, while limiting their interactions with others. However, not all of these relationships have survived the monotony of forced monogamy. A casualty of these breakups has been a gross breakdown in common sense when it comes to disclosing HIV and sexually transmitted infection (STI) statuses.
In case you didn’t know, a person’s sexual history is nobody’s business but their own, unless they choose to share it with you. And even when that information is shared, it is to be guarded. But the shift to COVID reality has marked a return to some of the ugliest stigmatizations from the AIDS epidemic.
There was a time when certain people considered it their public duty to warn others about who might or might not have HIV. Junk science and homophobia helped fuel this hysteria back then, just as the current administration’s terrible response to COVID is disseminating misinformation and paranoia today. But even as contact tracing has raised privacy concerns among many people, there is a huge difference between the need to respect the privacy of those who have coronavirus antibodies and that of people living with HIV.
Unfortunately, the loss of physical contact and surge in doomscrolling on social media has led people all over the world to overshare everything from how a cable guy showed up without a mask on to their relief that a boyfriend “got over his syphilis phase before we hooked up.”
I recently learned from a former situationship partner that he had defended my being absent from our social group by explaining, “Well, you know, he’s got HIV, so that’s a lot to handle.” I’ve had HIV for over five years now, I handle it just fine, and the idea that anyone would use my status to defend my perceived flakiness is offensive on numerous levels.
Because this situationship partner thought that he was defending me, he felt that it was OK to put my information on blast. While I am open about my status, I had not shared that tidbit about my life with everyone in our social group. The reasons why do not matter. What does matter is that it was not my situationship partner’s place to air my business, just as he would feel mortified by me discussing the mole on his penis. After apologizing, this person commented that, “COVID’s got me messed up. Sometimes I just start talking and I don’t even know why.” Neither do I.
The award-winning, Afro-Queer playwright, Donja R. Love, said it best in a recent Twitter post:
Love believes that this is true even when a person is publicly open about their status. “What it boils down to is that their status is not yours to disclose,” he says.
Far from being malicious, most inappropriate disclosures that Love has encountered have come from queer HIV-negative men in serodiscordant relationships who are seeking advice for how to support their partners. “I could feel the utmost love and respect that they have for the person,” Love says, “but that still doesn’t make it right.”
He says that what troubles him most about these instances is that as members of a marginalized group of people, “these folks understand how shame and stigma work, but they’re still perpetuating it without even knowing it”.
“Why do folks feel entitled and comfortable with disclosing someone else's status?”
Recently, Hal, a 26-year-old bookseller in Brooklyn, was warned by a friend not to sleep with Bob because Bob “has the AIDS.” “Is this the ’80s?” Hal responded. Ugly pejoratives aside, Hal says that what bothered him most was being told that “I deserved to know the truth about Bob,” as if his status made him a public health risk. Hal shares that even though he is not on PrEP, he has no problem with having sex with men living with HIV, because “I assume that everyone has an STI until I find out otherwise. It’s not like I’ve never had chlamydia.”
Of course, HIV and chlamydia are worlds apart when it comes to their potential impact upon a person’s life, though neither should have any bearing upon a person’s value. Hal says that he considered the betrayal of Bob’s privacy a vindictive act and opened up his eyes to how someone might weaponize another person’s status against them.
Disclosing What’s Already Known
Disclosure is not always done in malice. Social media has inadvertently led a number of people to share all sorts of information that is not theirs to divulge. Anne, a 43-year-old arts administrator based in Philadelphia, told TheBody that she unintentionally revealed that her former hookup partner had genital herpes in a private Facebook group for her friends. She says that she did so because she assumed that “everyone already knew about it. He jokes about it all the time, so I thought it was fair game.”
Anne says that she wishes she’d “kept my mouth shut,” rather than “making it look like I’m a bigot in front of my friends.” Though she wasn’t aware of it at the moment, Anne realizes that she was also defining her ex by his status, which she regrets.
The Consequences of Disclosure
It’s easy to trace HIV stigma’s roots to homophobia and leftover hysteria from the early AIDS epidemic. So, doesn’t open disclosure help combat those issues? That’s the attitude I take when publicly discussing my status as a Black queer man living with HIV. Much like Love, I bear my status openly because I hope to serve as a possibility model for my brothers and sisters who are often treated as if they are at fault for one of the most devastating experiences that they have lived through. But that is my choice—and it has consequences that I would not wish upon anyone else.
Though health discrimination is illegal, I lost numeorus jobs as an educator after my status became known. I have lost potential romantic partners, and former friends have told me I am a “walking biohazard waiting to explode.” Though I tell myself that I am lucky to know where anyone who communicates this garbage to me stands, the truth is that I don’t enjoy having to deal with their nonsense.
I’d rather be treated as nicely as my friends with self-inflicted emphysema or cirrhosis are. It’s easy for me to understand why people hide their status, whether they have hepatitis B, warts, or HPV, because the assumption is that we are nasty individuals deserving of scorn. Well, I am a nasty individual, but that does not make me, or any other nasty person, less worthy of the highest accord.
Discussing Someone Else’s Health
If you have questions about whether or not you should disclose someone’s status, the answer is don’t do it, especially on social media where nuance is difficult to convey. Whatever your intention, these discussions should start with the person whose health is involved. Opening up that conversation can feel awkward and uncomfortable. Talking about a life-changing health status, such as mastectomy or seroconversion, can feel scary. That’s why Love says, “We need to normalize consent and holding folks accountable.”
For some people, broaching the subject can prove retraumatizing, but I guarantee that the person whose health you are thinking about—whether they’ve had cancer treatment, knee surgery, or a change in their HIV medication—will appreciate that you took the time to consider their feelings and speak with them before telling others. Most importantly, you won’t have to worry about whether or not you are gossiping about someone you care about.
When it comes to initiating that conversation, Love suggests going in with sensitivity, softness, and the knowledge that you will probably make a mistake. “There may be moments of fuckup, but you’ll learn how to navigate so that you don’t fuck up again.”
In other words:
- Ask questions.
- Lead with softness.
- Forgive yourself.
- Have grace for the other person.
On top of preserving your relationship, you’ll be able to investigate why you were thinking about their status in the first place and confront any underlying shame you might have towards it and yourself.