As I write this, it's a beautiful, crisp December afternoon. But this column is already several days past deadline and I've deleted half a dozen opening paragraphs from the computer screen hoping each new attempt will be the one I can live with. I'm a pretty opinionated guy and I certainly don't have a problem talking about sex, so what's up? Well, I've chosen to write about something I find disturbing on a profoundly personal level, and I'm about to cross that imaginary line between my role as safer sex educator and single gay guy with an attitude.
Last May I met a man at a potluck dinner sponsored by a spiritual group I support. I'll call him Brand X. Brand X is from South Carolina, with an agreeable accent and gentle stud energy. We spent a mere 20 minutes conversing, but plenty long enough for me to be charmed. We separated that evening without so much as a hug or an exchange of phone numbers. I suspected our paths would cross again anyway. And, indeed, we ended up attending the same gay mens' spiritual retreat just four months later in September. But I sensed something was different about Brand X. A change. Sadness. And I guessed that maybe it was HIV. I have developed an uncanny, uninvited ability to read that in some people.
There was a dance on the third night of the retreat. I walked onto the dance floor and discovered Brand X swaying alone, as if waiting for a partner. I joined him and we danced, sometimes touching, sometimes holding one another. Wordless ... until he spoke the words I already knew: I'm positive.
We left the dance, sat outside by a big fire under a clear sky, and shared kisses. Eventually Brand X invited me to spend the night with him in his cabin, and I agreed under the condition that we would not have sex. Later, in bed, we talked about my own HIV status, too, but mostly he seemed to need a place to share and be safe with someone. I held him while he cried quietly and whispered that he felt like HIV had made him lose his soul.
I was touched by his willingness to trust me and moved by his vulnerability. I listened to him recount the night he received his HIV test results (he'd done a home HIV test kit and called for the results the very same night I'd met him in May). He talked about finding an infectious disease specialist in Atlanta and driving here for appointments because he felt the level of care and confidentiality would be better than in his South Carolina hometown. He talked about the drugs and their side effects. He worried about his future. He feared his coworkers finding out. He felt shame. He wondered how to tell his parents. He was scared of getting sick. And he seemed acutely aware that his life had been forever changed by HIV.
In the month following the retreat, we talked regularly by phone. He stayed with me one weekend in Atlanta and I spent a weekend with him in South Carolina. We attended an AIDS fundraiser together. Brand X and I slept together a half dozen times and never had sex. We talked about having sex, and the attraction was obvious, but it never happened. I remember telling him it was okay for us not to be sexual for a while and he took me literally. I was more interested in getting to know him first.
I got to know him. I know, for instance, that he hates condoms. He mentioned that repeatedly. And I know that he continued to have unsafe sex with other men after he tested positive for HIV. Anal intercourse. Brand X inserted his penis in another man's rectum without a condom and without disclosure of his own status. I have real feelings about what he's doing, complicated by the fact that I have real feelings for him. It's not as if I'd pronounced him Mr. Right and pictured us living happily ever after in a charming bungalow. I just liked the guy and was ready to see what might develop. Nothing developed. I stopped calling and he stopped calling.
Because I have been a peer counselor and sex educator for so long now, I automatically put on a poker face and quell judgmental language. I listen and offer options. I teach men how to protect themselves and their partners. I slipped into counselor mode with Brand X. And for the first time since I began doing AIDS-related work, I regret it. I regret not telling him what I really think: Your behavior is reprehensible. It is unacceptable to me that you would risk infecting another human being with HIV because you hate condoms. It sickens me to think you may continue to do this and that you will find more compliant partners. How can you weep about what HIV has done to your life while simultaneously spreading that same virus to other men? How can you show your face at an AIDS benefit? Does your conscience shut off at the bedroom door? Do you have any moral principles whatsoever, or is everything driven by the considerable equipment between your legs?
I don't use words like "moral" or "ethical" or "decent" in my counseling or safer sex presentations. I refrain from judging behaviors out loud. I have never bellowed "What the hell were you thinking?" at a client or workshop participant. But I've shuddered and cringed silently and hoped my face didn't betray me by registering shock, dismay or disgust. And sometimes, I wonder if someone like Brand X would survive the rancor of a Jerry Springer audience or the wrath of a former sex partner who does the math.
I like Brand X. I know he's only human, and by most people's accounts, a nice guy. But in my heart, I feel he's an immoral, unethical, indecent, sexually irresponsible creep with a disturbing inability to tell right from wrong. And I think I'm a coward for not telling him so.