Ian Awesome is a disreputable Occupy organizer and general rabble-rouser living with HIV in the Pacific Northwest. A former anti-DADT activist and current radical ne’er-do-well, he can usually be found publishing his ire at OneAngryQueer.
One of the quirks of being open and outspoken about living with HIV in the new millennium is that — as we navigate the current age of miracle treatments and criminalization controversies — I get asked questions weekly about HIV.
As we attempt to lessen stigma and integrate healthy, happy poz folks into queer communities, it’s become appropriate to discuss how to deal with the social aspects of the disease, while also informing people how to keep a low-risk of spreading or contracting it.
I get asked questions about HIV etiquette all the time, and while this is a blessing and a curse — educating people is nice, but damn, people can be ignorant at times — I got together with Gay.net and to try something slightly new: answer questions from HIV-negative people about how to interact with those who have HIV.
So gird your loins, boys, and let’s learn how to not be a jackass when that hot date you picked up at the Manhole discloses his HIV status to you.
QUESTION: The man I’m interested in just disclosed to me that he is HIV positive. I’m not sure how to feel about it. What do I do?
If I had a dollar for everytime some young homo approached me confused about how to deal with a sero-positive lover for the first time, well, I wouldn’t be hawking my schlock to blogs — I’d be lounging in Fiji eating bonbons and watching The Young and the Restless.
This is an understandably difficult question for those who haven’t really thought much about HIV’s effect on their love life (though, really, why haven’t you guys thought about this yet? Come on.). Nevertheless, we can outline several steps to take when you find out that stud is carrying one of the scarier and most stigmatized viruses around.
Step 1: Relax. This isn’t the first time you’ve encountered the virus, no matter what you think you know.
Last year around this time, I was interested in a man so in casual conversation, before even propositioning him, I mentioned my HIV status. His immediate response? “You’re the first person I’ve known with HIV.” To which I responded, “No. I’m just the first one you know who knows his status and has disclosed it to you.”
Let’s be real — the majority of queer men have a lot of sex. Considering the proliferation of HIV in gay men, chances are that you have slept with someone who had HIV and just didn’t know it yet. This is, of course, why it’s important to have sex with a condom every single time, but when you first get disclosure from someone, calm down. This is actually not your first time dealing with this virus; you’ve dealt with it before and you’ve most likely kept yourself safe without even knowing it.
Step 2: Be glad he knows his status, is probably seeking treatment, and is disclosing it to you. The most important part of living with HIV is knowing your status and seeking treatment, not only for the health and longevity of poz people.
If someone is currently under treatment and has controlled their virus to the point of undetectability, the likelihood of transmitting the disease is lessened to be near-nonexistent.
Frankly, you are safer sleeping with a man who knows his status and has disclosed it to you than you are sleeping with that trick from a gay hookup site who hasn’t been tested in a year and thinks he’s still negative — he might not be, and those who are poz and aren’t on meds may have skyrocketing virus loads, making them highly infectious if they are not using safer sex measures.
This isn’t to say that you should panic and swear off your addiction for hot online power-bottoms. This just reiterates: don’t freak out when someone discloses their status to you, and don’t ever ever have sex without a condom.
Step 3: Educate yourself before this even comes up. Ok, ok. If you’re reading this because you have a situation like this on your hands right now, this step comes a little late. My bad.
But if this is something you haven’t really dealt with before, now is the time to educate yourself. Let’s be real: this is 2013. In this modern age, there are enough resources and publications exhaustively covering HIV that you should be able to read up about it and make up your own mind about how to sensitively and confidently approach the topic of HIV.
So pick up a copy of HIV Plus magazine. Read about the latest treatments and seek out articles online about the future of HIV vaccination. This information isn’t just there for people living with the virus; you can learn a lot as a neg person about the risks and issues surrounding HIV today. Frankly, you need to know about them and you shouldn’t wait for some poz advice columnist to explain it to you.
Step 4: If you’re unsure and uncomfortable about potentially having sex with someone who is living with HIV, don’t. One of the boons and beauties about being sexual is our ability to decide. If someone digs you and you dig them, you can choose to have sex with them.
If someone digs you and you, for whatever reason, don’t want to have sex with them, you don’t have to. It’s perfectly all right, if you haven’t decided how you feel about HIV and sex with seropositive folks, to wait to take the plunge until you feel like you have a good understanding of the right decision for you.
Of course, this means that you may end up rejecting someone on the basis of their serostatus. I am not going to lie; as someone living with HIV, this would be really hard to accept were I not so comfortable with my disease and what it means. You may, in fact, hurt someone’s feelings.
But honestly, sex is supposed to be enjoyable. Having sex with someone unsure and uncomfortable about HIV probably wouldn’t be as fun as having sex with a man who has wrapped his head around HIV and is comfortable in his agency to protect himself.
Naturally, don’t be a dick. “Ew! No, I’d never have sex with someone with HIV!” is not the way to go. I’d write you right out of my Rolodex if you said something like this to me.
However, if you are polite, honest, and thoughtful, I’m probably going to respect you more. “I’m not sure how I feel about having sex with someone with HIV” is perfectly appropriate, and if the poz object of your affection reacts negatively to that, they likely have feelings about their seropositivity that they need to resolve on their own.
In the end, the best person to decide how to deal with being confronted with disclosure from a love interest is you. So read about it, wrap it up, and face the idea of sex with men with HIV and what to do about it. You’ll be happier in the long run, and maybe I’d stop having this question tossed at me every other day. Happy hunting!