Telling Others You're HIV Positive: How'd You Do It?

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For many gay men who have gone through the process of coming out as gay to themselves, their families and loved ones, telling others they're HIV positive is like coming out all over again. Read stories and tips from HIV-positive gay men who've grappled with the question: How Do You Decide When to Share With Others That You're HIV Positive?

Joe Ohmer, Bronx, N.Y.; Diagnosed in 2002

I feel like, if someone cannot accept me for who I am, my issues that affect me, then they're not worth having in my life. Mind you, I don't go down the street, meet somebody and say, "Hey, what have you got in the paper there? I'm HIV positive." No, it's not like that. But certainly, if it's somebody I'm thinking about having sex with, before that even comes to issue, they need to know that I'm HIV positive, so if they want to run away, they can, because I don't want the running away part to be just as we're getting intimate. I don't want to have to tell them after the fact, and them to get all hurt and afraid -- because there's still a lot of fear out there.

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Also, if somebody feels like they're becoming a friend, with the possibility of being a good friend, they certainly deserve to know my status. If they are getting into my intimate circles where I'm going to tell them, you know, my hopes and dreams, yes, they deserve to know that I'm HIV positive.

I want them to be comfortable where they are. I want to be comfortable with them there. I don't want to have to be carrying this little secret around. I mean, I'm gay. I was in the closet long enough. I don't want to be in the closet about this. The other thing is: Say they accept my HIV status, but they themselves are afraid of HIV, and they're not knowledgeable about the transmission of it, then they can take their own precautions that make them comfortable. Some people still believe that they can catch it by kissing. And you know what? No, it can't be transmitted by kissing, but it is their right to choose not to kiss someone who's HIV positive because it scares them.

Now if I were kissing somebody, or we had been kissing intimately, exchanging saliva, and then weeks down the line I tell them I'm HIV positive, and then all of a sudden they get angry at me because I allowed them to kiss me, yes, that's an opportunity to educate them, but I've also betrayed them at the same time, in their eyes.

Jahlove Serrano, New York City; Diagnosed in 2005

That's a funny topic within itself. It's on a need-to-know basis. You can't just disclose right then and there. You have to feel people out. That's what I do. I feel people out. I get to a point where I'll be like, "You know what? It's time to disclose" -- as far as for my sake. Not for them, but for me, so I can know how to handle all situations, because I like to be prepared.

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One of the best responses that I got when I disclosed was that "You're not alone." And to hear that coming from somebody that didn't know me was definitely empowering -- because I didn't know what that meant. It meant in so many ways: You're not alone in fighting this; you're not alone in that people care about you; and you're not alone, period -- God is on your side.

That response happened to me when I disclosed to one of my friends. They were positive as well. I felt like I didn't know who to turn to. Something in my spirits told me, "You need to talk to this person." And once I disclosed, we both found out that we pretty much became positive around the same time. And it just feels great to have somebody on your side that you know personally, that they didn't know that you were in it with the same issues -- which brought our friendship much closer.

Rafael Abadia, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.; Diagnosed in 1993

I couldn't tell my parents over the phone. I knew I had to fly to Puerto Rico and let them know.

So I had to prepare myself mentally for that. So that's what I did.

I flew to Puerto Rico. I had lost a lot of weight, so I made sure to wear a lot of baggy clothes to try to cover my illness. I was really concerned about how they were going to take it. They're extremely religious, Christian fundamentalists, so I knew that was an issue. It was an issue of me being gay. I didn't know what to expect. I prepared myself mentally, just in case I was going to get some rejection.

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Then the day came, and I sat in my parent's living room; my mom was in the kitchen. I looked at my dad, and I said "Dad, I need to speak to both of you. It's very serious." He called my mom, and my mom just kind of ignored him, she didn't want to come. They knew something was gonna be up [laughs].

My dad raised his voice, and said to my mom to come, that I had to speak to them. OK, so the three of us were sitting in the living room, and I told them that I had AIDS. I told them I was taking some medications.

My dad is what I like to call a true macho Puerto Rican man, who I've never seen cry. He ran into his bedroom, crying -- like, really, really crying. And I ran after him. I grabbed him and he put his head on my shoulder and we both cried. To my amazement, they accepted me immediately. I thought they were going to put away the spoons, the cups, because I've heard horror stories from other people. But no, from day one, they accepted me, and they were there for me. So, I've been very blessed, with having a very supportive family.

What would you advise others to do, when they're disclosing their status to their family or loved ones?

It's really individualized, because I've met so many people in different types of situations. I've known of people with families that completely shunned them and do not speak to them anymore. So I'm very blessed to come from a very loving family. It's easy for me to tell everyone, because I was lucky to have that support.

What I recommend someone do is to really seek some professional help. See a therapist, a counselor, who could sit down and really guide you and prepare you for whatever happens. It's a very individual decision. You need to be ready to expose yourself to telling some people about your status because some people react differently. I've had many, I even lost friends, people who I thought were my friends, but once they knew of my diagnosis they completely stopped talking to me, even within the gay community, which was my biggest shock. But it happens.

Ahmad Salcido, San Francisco; Diagnosed in September 2007

The first person I told I was positive was my best friend Ramsey, who lives in San Francisco and who is the one that extended his hand to me and said, "Look, I live in San Francisco. San Francisco has these great agencies, has this great program for gay and HIV-positive people, so you're more than welcome to come over."

It turned out well. He was the right person. You picked the right person.

Exactly! I've known my friend for five years and I told him, "You're like my little angel, you know?"

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In Islam, we believe that if you're a true Muslim, God takes care of your problems before they come to you. It's funny because I've known him for five years, and it's like, "OK, when I met you, I met you for a reason. God knew what was going to happen, so he put you there as my little angel."

I think when you're positive you're like, "I need support. I feel lonely," because that happened to me. When I tested HIV positive I felt lonely and deserted. I felt really bad inside. There was this pain that wouldn't go away. It was this permanent pain in my heart that was making me so sad, making me so depressed. Within the same week of me being diagnosed, I was like, "I need to tell someone. I cannot handle this on my own."

If you have a true friend, I think your mind, your instinct, will tell you, "I strongly believe this is the right person that I can talk to." Once that instinct tells you this is the guy you should talk to, then you analyze them.

I remember I considered: "What are the negative and positive results of me disclosing to my friend Ramsey?" I thought about it, and there really would have been no negative outcome if I were to tell Ramsey, because throughout the five years that I've known him, he's been an excellent, excellent friend.

Automatically, when I thought about telling someone because I needed someone's support, he was the first person who popped into my head. I only had positive outcomes by telling him. When I analyzed the situation, I had more positive outcomes than negative outcomes. That's pretty much how I did it.

Roger Solar, San Antonio; Diagnosed in 1999

I think you have to be honest with yourself first. You have to look around as to who you're surrounding yourself with.

If you surround yourself with real friends, your family who really loves you -- or you hope loves you -- you can be yourself and be honest.

You are going to have to build that little wall up because you know you're going to have one or two people who come out and turn their back on you. That hurts more than them making fun of you; the fact that they drop you and don't talk to you hurts more than anything.

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If you can be honest with yourself and you're comfortable, I think everybody should just be able to say, "Yes, I am positive," if asked the question. I wouldn't just go up to somebody and tell them, "Yes, I'm HIV positive."

You do it with care and with people you trust.

People you trust. Yes, you have to be careful who you tell. Even nowadays -- I don't care what anybody says -- you see MTV putting out ads and the Logo channel putting out ads about HIV/AIDS. They look normal and they're over here saying "Yes, I have it. Yes, I've had it for this many years and I'm a normal person and everything."

But in the real world, it doesn't work that way. If it didn't work that way in the medical field when I was working at the hospital -- where I had to be careful and not tell anybody -- how can the outside world that doesn't have any medical background be able to be compassionate or empathetic toward somebody who is sick?

Robert Mintz, Kansas City, Mo.; Diagnosed in the mid-1980s

My relatives are 100 percent behind me -- they want to be educated.

I want to say something about my parents. Concerning my sexual orientation, when I came home from Vietnam and decided I had to come out to my father, I was scared of how he'd respond. I took him to a park, because then if he was going to do anything he'd have to do it in public, you know? Before I even opened my mouth, he said, "Son, God gave you to me, and nothing's gonna take you away from me." I told him, "Your son's gay," and he said, "Your point is?"

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So when they learned about my diagnosis, they did not say, "I don't know you." They said, "What do you want us to do, besides keep loving you?" They spoke out whenever they heard prejudice against HIV-positive people or gay people.

James Nicacio, Selma, Calif.; Diagnosed in October 2001

I know my biggest fear was telling my mother. My mother and my sisters are the ones who have been so close to me.

They're my support system. They always want the best for me, so it was really difficult for me to tell them. But when I did, it felt like a big relief. I felt like, in some way, I was letting them down. Here I am trying to tell my mother -- the person who gave me life -- that, because of some of the bad choices and bad mistakes that I made in the past, my life might be taken. In a way, taking life for granted.

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They were the only people that I really cared about telling. I didn't mind if anyone else knew, but I really cared that my family knew. But once I did tell them, and they said that they loved me no matter what, and that they were going to support me and give me every opportunity to take care of myself. Once I knew I had their support, then I could move forward.

Do you remember how you started that conversation with your sisters and your mother?

I don't remember that conversation too well, but I think I do remember my sisters crying. I'm sure that they were very afraid for me. We didn't know anything about HIV, I guess you could say, other than what is said in the media: that once people get HIV, they get AIDS and they die. I remember them being really sad and really afraid, but the particular conversation I don't remember exactly what was said. I just know that at that time, they were my support system.

How are your relationships with your mother and your sisters now?

They're excellent. It's kind of weird to say, but since I've been diagnosed with HIV, my life has become so much better. It's better than it ever was before. Today, I'm able to live a clean, sober life. I have direction and I have the love and support of my family. They're very accepting and very encouraging. They give me every opportunity they can to do as much volunteering and outreach and education that I can. They're very supportive. My relationship is wonderful with them.

Keith Green, Chicago; Diagnosed in March 1994

My relationships with my family and friends have greatly improved since I was diagnosed.

There is a greater level of honesty and openness. When I was forced to have a dialogue about my HIV status, everything else became, like, nothing. Sexuality, whatever, you know. I have really seen that I do have people in my life who love me unconditionally, and I think that has been the thing that has kept me alive.

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When did you disclose to them that you are positive?

I told my mom and six friends right away -- in high school, there were six of us, three guys and three girls who hung together like glue. I told my mom first, and then invited all of them over and passed around the letter I got from Lifesource [saying I was HIV positive]. But the thing was, I was like, "I'm giving you this information about me, but I don't want to talk about it and I don't want it to be brought up again." I didn't talk about it again for years.

How did they respond to you?

My mom really took it hard, really hard. I never felt anything negative, just a lot of concern, and I felt that in some way she felt she was responsible somehow. My friends were all very supportive -- and very scared. One said, "You know, I really thought we would grow old together. I can't believe this is happening to you!" They were supportive, but very afraid, and rightfully so.

I didn't talk with my girlfriend at that time. What I did was just break it off with no excuse or reason. And just recently, she was able to get closure on that -- because we're still close. She has two children now; I see her all the time. Recently I was able to disclose to her and talk about why I had to break it off at the time.

How do you want people to treat you?

I think they treat me exactly the way I want to be treated: I don't want any special attention, but I do want support -- support going through this graduate program, working the hours that I work. I just need support, period, and I get that.

How do you decide whether to disclose your HIV status to someone?

Lately, I don't have a choice. Usually when I meet people, they already know because I'm a pretty public figure and I talk about it wherever I am. But there are moments when it is an issue, when I don't want to talk about it and I don't want to disclose it. It's when I'm meeting someone new, especially if we are meeting to date. It's kind of like "OK, here we go ..." I usually start by asking them if they know their HIV status, and then we go from there.

Now, if someone tells me that they don't know their status, I'm very unlikely to be intimate with him, because in this day and age if you don't know your status, you're not the person for me: You're not cognizant of the fact that you are a man who has sex with men, and we're the highest-risk population, so if you don't understand that, then our worlds are not going to gel at all: You don't understand re-infection, resistant virus, any of that. So we will be friends, and I will educate you and help you get tested. But as far as intimacy, we're not even going there.

What is the best response you have ever gotten when telling someone?

There was a girl in a class at the Chicago Vocational Career Academy when I was doing a presentation, and she was just overjoyed at the fact that I had the courage to stand in front of this class and say that. And there was so much love and so much appreciation in her words, and she wished me so much strength and well-being that I was almost overtaken. I hardly ever break down in presentations, but I almost did because of her reaction.

What is the worst response?

The worst was from someone who said that I deserved what I got for engaging in intimate relations with other men. I was giving a presentation, so I couldn't give him the Keith Green that the 'hood might know. But there was this all-eyes-on-him kinda thing, and there were a couple of folks in that room who got him together for me. I didn't even have to do it.

Brian Datcher, New Haven, Conn.; Diagnosed in 1996

It's a tricky thing. When it comes to me professionally disclosing, I don't have any problem with that at all.

When it comes to being intimate with someone and intimate issues, that tends to be a little sticky. Sometimes there are people that you meet that you may have feelings for or emotions. They may not be HIV positive, but they're not asking the right questions, so I like to be honest with myself. I like to let people know what they're getting into.

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I've seen HIV-positive people while I was doing outreach blatantly be with somebody and have unprotected sex with them. That really bothers me, and I don't want to fall into that category. I know it's easy to do when you're still in denial. I'm far beyond that. I believe in telling the truth. Honesty means a lot to me. Even if I may lose somebody I may want to have feelings for, if they can't deal with my status maybe it wasn't worth it at all. They couldn't deal with HIV and that shows me something about them. I would say, "Their loss and my gain."

How did you disclose to your most recent partner?

Well, I've known him for a long time, back and forth, back and forth. Matter of fact, he had heard from somebody and he called me and asked me. I said this is what is going on. He said, "I still care about you and love you, and I'm here to support you."

I asked him, "Have you been tested?"

He said, "I haven't been tested."

That's his bridge to cross, but I always encourage him to make sure that he knows what's going on, and to get tested.

So he knew before you got together, and it wasn't a problem for him?

No, it wasn't a problem. It wasn't a problem.

That's great. What would you say are the best and worst responses you've ever gotten from telling someone?

The worst response was that somebody just dropped the phone and picked it up and hung up on me. [Laughs.] Or I'm talking to someone, and all of sudden they say, "Oh!" and they start backing up and backing up and then they say, "Oh, I'll be right back," and then they are gone. When they came back they had washed their hands. I just started laughing. I was like, "You can't catch it from shaking hands. You can't catch it from being in my presence."

They were like, "Oh, no, no, no!" and I could see them turning red. I was like, "Wow!"

The best response was from my mother. She said, "No matter what, you'll always be my son and I'll love you." Her being a nurse, she said, "I kind of figured that was what it was. I prayed that that wasn't what it was, but no matter what, I'll always love you; no matter what."

David Garner, Houston; Diagnosed in 1993

My rule once I became HIV positive was that I said, "Before we get naked, I'm going to tell you."

That was just my rule of thumb. I chose to bring it up in conversation some kind of way along the way. I kind of let them decide to do whatever they felt like they needed to do. I got turned down sometimes. A lot of times I got rejected. But at no time, thankfully, did I experience any violence.

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What were the best and worst responses you have ever gotten when you disclosed?

The best response when I told someone I was HIV positive came from my daughter, who looked up at me with those little brown eyes she has and said, "Well Daddy, no matter what happens to you, I will always love you." After that, it's like, you know, who cares? Everybody else can take a number, because I'm all right now.

The worst response, probably, was from someone I thought was my friend. This was kind of early on when I was still in the Navy, and I ran across someone -- we were close while I was on the ship -- and I told him what was going on with me.

He kind of looked at me. He was younger than me. We never had a physical relationship, but we were close friends because we worked in close quarters, and we talked a lot. He looked at me and said, "How could you do that to yourself?" He proceeded to just berate me: "You should have known better. There is no reason why you should have it."

He was absolutely right. But of course, it doesn't help. It hurts more than it helps. Of course, in hindsight he was completely right. But he got so upset he just walked off, and I never heard from him again. I would hear about him through other friends, and I would send my regards on, but I never saw him after that.

Bishop Kwabena Rainey Cheeks, Washington, D.C.; Diagnosed in 1985

My relationships are good. I didn't hide anything. I told them when I found out, when I was in the hospital.

It's important to build a support system around you before you get sick. If you got sick right now, you should know you could call one person, and they know everybody to call.

Don't assume family and friends will not love you. Most of the time, you will be quite surprised -- they come around and are there for you. If they're not, it's better to find out while you're healthy than when you're ill. I tell people, "Take the power out of a secret: Tell it."

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How do you decide whether to disclose your HIV status to someone?

I think you have to look at each person you tell on an individual basis: How important is that person in your life; how close are they to you? I'm a public person, so I've told it in magazines, newspapers, on TV. But that's not for everybody. Even when I speak to people now, I still sometimes get a little nervous. It's still like having to come out again when I'm standing in front of people saying I'm HIV positive. You have to begin to find those one or two whom you can tell, so it takes some of the anxiety out of it. If it's a really close person, you need to tell it, get it out of the way, and have faith that they can handle it.

What is the best response you have ever gotten from telling someone?

The best responses were times when I was ill. People showed up that I didn't expect to, just to be with me. I've been blessed with that. I've had people drive hundreds of miles to see me. I've been home and a friend came to me and said, "I want a set of keys to your house." And I said, "For what?" He said, "So that I can get in." And he just took over, and I sat back and laughed.

Also, I've had people come to say thank you because they've heard me speak, or watched me go through it.

What is the worst response?

The worst responses were in early days when people got judgmental. I knew they were just venting, and I was able to stand there and let them get it out of their system, which most people have a hard time doing.

I was speaking at one event, and a guy stood up and pointed his finger at me like he had a gun, squeezing the trigger, and waved at me to come outside. After I had finished speaking and greeting people, I went outside and stood across the street. My attitude was, I would die standing, but I wouldn't run and hide.

You still have people with negative responses. I've been blessed not to have it much because I'm very clear: If you want to judge me, then let's open up the doors, let's see what you're doing. I believe in the Scriptures, which say, "Love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And love your neighbor as you love yourself." It didn't say love your neighbor if they're HIV negative, or love your neighbor if they're straight. It just says, "Love your neighbor."

Also, a doctor told me in 1990, the first time I was hospitalized, "You will never walk again. You won't see Christmas."

I said, "Who told you that?"

He said, "That's my professional opinion."

"Then I'm safe," I said, "because you can be wrong."

He said, "I've seen this a hundred times before."

I said, "I'm a hundred and one. I'm the one you haven't seen, and I'm telling you, I will walk."

It wasn't easy. I struggled; I forced myself to get up. I had people hold me up, and let me wiggle, but be there to catch me if I fell.

Where do you think you get that strength?

Two places. One, my mother and grandmother were two very determined black women. Two, I started training in martial arts when I was 14 in a very traditional way with a Korean instructor. The mind-set was: You do not let anything defeat you. I studied meditation and yoga, which gave me inner strength to visualize and accomplish my goal. I would visualize myself standing and walking, just like when I was in a martial arts competition I saw myself going through and winning. Every time I stood up or took a step, I would go, "I win."

Building that kind of attitude gets you through. And having strong faith is of major importance for me.