The biggest and first hurdle you will encounter when you are positive and dating is how people will react when they find out the news. Disclosure can play itself out in a variety of ways. You can share your status before you meet your date in person, such as over the Internet, or in a print personal ad; after a few preliminary dates when you know you'd like to pursue the relationship further; or the least preferred, after your date finds out on their own and consequently feels deceived and taken advantage of.
For many of us, disclosing our HIV status is even scarier than asking someone out on a date. Because of rejection by family and friends, disclosing to a potential or current lover may be a paralyzing experience. People have used different ways to avoid actually saying the words "I am HIV-positive" to someone they care about and would like to become intimate with -- emotionally or physically.
Two to Tango Three to Tell
Regardless of how much he calls himself "the ugly Latino," Fernando looks good in black. He takes time to shine his clunky army boots, which go with his faded black jeans and T-shirt. Slicked back and cut short above his ears, his inky black hair is thinning. His black moustache looks as if it bridges his face. He is not a model by any means, but his smile exudes a warmth that draws in just about anyone. He is going out tonight, and so Fernando takes his time getting ready.
Tonight Fernando is attending a Monthly Social for HIV-positive men. These socials are reminiscent of apartment parties hosted by gay men and lesbians during the 1920s and 1930s. Historian George Chauncey describes similar events in his book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940, as "hosted on a reciprocal basis among friends, or on a grander scale by men of exceptional means ... Many such parties were small invitational affairs, but others were immense and became regular events on gay men's calendars ... Parties, whether held in palatial penthouses or tiny tenement flats, constituted safe space in which a distinctive gay culture was forged." At these parties lesbians and gay men could socialize, dance with, flirt with, and kiss whomever they chose with little fear of arrest or bashing.
Before World War II, these and other social events had an unwritten rule of confidentiality. Their comfort and ease were contingent on no one's tattling on anyone else. Many who attended were still considered heterosexual at work and by their families. To preserve their jobs and lives, the people at these gatherings knew to keep quiet. Today, like the pre-1960s parties, the Monthly Social remains a confidential and therefore safe gathering space. The continuing prejudice against people with HIV/AIDS necessitates this secrecy; it is because of this that the gathering resembles gay parties before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The Fear of Telling
"I am a very bad boy," says Fernando as he begins his story about why he has three boyfriends. He fills his story with a running commentary of self-inflicted moral judgments. Because he thinks himself unattractive, he allows himself to be seduced by beautiful words from beautiful men. Of his three boyfriends (and the occasional weekend visitor), only one knows that he is HIV-positive.
Fernando's fear of disclosure comes from experience. More than once a potential lover has hugged and kissed him, saying "It's all right, we can still be friends." Then they never called back. Fernando has quite a few friends, and he certainly doesn't need friends who do not call back, so he fears putting himself in a situation where he can be hurt like that again.
Fernando also likes having three boyfriends, and he's afraid that if he tells his boyfriends about his status they will leave him. His fear is, of course, complicated by the fact that he has known the three men for a while and still has not told two of them. Every day that he does not disclose, his fear of rejection doubles and triples. He hears in his head the surprise and shock: "What!?! Why didn't you tell me earlier?" The longer he keeps it a secret, the harder it is to break the silence.
Flirtation to Penetration: When Do They Need to Know?
Every flirtation that could end in emotional or physical intimacy brings a decision point: to tell or not to tell. Some individuals cannot or will not face it, especially when they'll have to do so over and over. So they navigate the issue in a variety of ways.
Clubs urging chastity vows for teenagers have sprung up across the country. Women have begun reclaiming not only their bodies but their hymens as well and proclaiming themselves "born-again virgins." These movements have gained some momentum (and federal funding) across America, but abstinence-only messages targeting gay men have not gathered much steam. However, celibacy even temporarily, is one choice that some individuals make, though not always just to avoid disclosing their HIV status. "Sex is how I got the disease," one man stated. "I have to heal first -- you know, emotionally." Some of us who are recovering from sexual abuse or bad relationships also need this time for healing. While celibacy limits physical intimacy, it can expand the limits of emotional and spiritual intimacy.
Anonymous or Casual Sex
In a paper presented by Peter G. Keogh and Susan Beardsell at the 11th International Conference on AIDS, the sexual activity of newly diagnosed men was examined. Directly after diagnosis, some men dramatically increased the numbers of men they slept with, while others decreased the number of their partners. The men who increased their sexual partners "reported a preference for having no emotional or social connection with their partners." Having little to no connection to our sexual partners makes it easier, and sometimes preferable, not to disclose.
Some choose to avoid emotional intimacy, and its incumbent risks, by having anonymous or casual sex because they do not feel they need to disclose their status in those situations. While most agreed with the importance of letting your partner know about your HIV status, many of them emphasized a difference between anonymous or casual sex and a relationship. They also stressed the different obligations to disclose in these two situations. In back rooms, parks, and other places used for public sex, a "buyer beware" standard has come into play. The assumption is that any individual entering a place for anonymous sex knows the risks involved. Therefore, as long as safer sex is practiced, a positive individual is not required to tell the partner of the moment.
The rules change if you are actually dating someone and having a real relationship with him. Most of the men in my practice insist that partners should know. Not all, however, have followed through. These men alternate between dating with disclosure and anonymous ejaculation in silence. Moreso, it often comes down to intent, whether the goal is to hook up or perhaps get more serious and maybe have a long-term relationship. Hence the incidence and proportion of not only guilt and shame but hopes for acceptance directly correlate to how long and well they know their partner and the intent of the sexual encounter.
Of the respondents who reported a dramatic increase in sexual activity and number of sexual partners, most reported increased anxiety over disclosing their status. The respondents were more worried about an invasion of privacy than they were about rejection, especially if they were looking for casual sex. Some of their sexual partners became overly interested in their health and their life outside the casual sexual encounter, and the respondents saw this "as an invasion of privacy or as simply distressing." The report continued: "Respondents reported being in a double bind if they disclosed their HIV status. They risked negative or inappropriate reactions which make sexual encounters prohibitive. If they did not disclose, they risked being 'found out,' or having to disclose after they had perhaps risked infecting a partner." This double bind is even more complicated if the anonymous encounter results in an ongoing relationship. It is this double-edged sword of disclosure that makes anonymous sex so easily available and dangerous at the same time.
Socials and the Personals
Two excellent Web sites that specialize in HIV-positive personals include www.positivepersonals.com and www.livingpositive.com. Both allow you to do geographical searches by state or internationally as well as view pictures and profiles of other positive (gay and straight) individuals looking to connect.
Somewhere between celibacy and anonymous sex with strangers lies a place where you can meet people who already know your status. Depending on where you live, this may take a little more work, but if you really want to find people you can relate to and can accept your status, it is worth it. There are social organizations like the Monthly Social, created primarily for singles, that Fernando attends. You can also find people over the Internet or by placing personal ads that announce your status in advance, which eliminates the necessity for disclosure altogether.
The personal ads present a space where we can announce ourselves as available, attractive, and either positive ourselves or willing to date someone who is. Regardless, gay or straight, revealing your status will guarantee that the respondents will accept you for who you are. Writing a personal ad is a useful exercise whether or not it is ever published. Making a physical list of your own qualities and the qualities you need or find interesting in someone else makes weeding through the throngs of potential partners a little easier.
How Do You Tell a New Partner?
When disclosing, think about how you would like to have the information presented to you, such as early in the dating process, say over coffee; while walking in the park; or in a bedroom after a long passionate kiss? Like nothing else that you could bring up during a conversation, revealing your HIV status is going to force a decision on the part of your date. By bringing up your status early in the relationship, you give your date time to consider both the emotional and health risks he or she is willing to take.
In a study by researcher Daniel Schnell, "Men's Disclosure of HIV Test Results to Male Primary Sex Partners," an overwhelming majority (82 percent) of the HIV-positive men who revealed their status to their partner "reported that the relationship remained 'as strong as ever' after six months." On the other hand, "most of the men who did not reveal their test results to their main partner reported being 'single' after six months."
Sharing your status early in a relationship instills a confidence that can facilitate intimacy, or at the very least a belief that you are an honest person. Thus, the honesty points you gain by disclosing early on may or may not move you from the coffee house to the bedroom, but it may encourage a prospective partner at least to keep calling when he said he would.
Michael Mancilla, M.S.W. is an openly HIV-positive therapist and co-author of Love In The Time of HIV: The Gay Man's Guide To Sex, Dating and Relationships (with Lisa Troshinsky) from Guilford Press. For more tips or to contact him visit www.hivandrelationships.com. Artwork by Elton Tucker.