The first three times I had to tell someone I was interested in or in love with that I was HIV-positive, there were tears. Mine. Like a very special episode on the WB, I pleaded, “If this is a deal breaker for you, I totally get it!”
After my shame period came my brief phase as a Grindr HIV activist. I laugh as I think of it now, but then I would scold people for rejecting me and criticize their lack of education on a subject that still disproportionately affects the MSM community. I held myself up as a gay apostle, given the virus to help enlighten the masses.
Thank God that phase passed quickly. Truly, the thing that put it to rest was my public coming out of the closet as HIV-positive. Having made peace with my unwelcomed viral passenger, I was no longer a bubbling well of emotions, molten, and ready to explode. After being in a relationship for a spell, and now single again, I had forgotten how varied, confusing, misinformed, and inconsistent people are when it comes to being intimate with someone who has the good manners to let you know they are HIV-positive.
Let’s go through some archetypical conversations that might lead to a sexual encounter. Picture this conversation in a bar, on a hookup app, or at the gym.
Me: “FYI, I’m poz/undetectable.”
Guy 1: “Oh, er, sorry.”
LOL. This one is the worst. You are rejecting me, not excusing a fart.
If you’ve ever been the guy in this scenario, and you’re negative, I’ve got suggestions for an improved experience for both parties. First, be proactive about the conversation, saying, “I’m HIV-negative, what about you?” This makes the process a lot less awkward all around. Second, if you know that dating a positive guy isn’t something that works for you, figure out a go-to line like, “Thanks for letting me know but that isn’t something I am comfortable with right now.”
Me: “FYI, I’m poz/undetectable.”
Guy 2: “That’s cool, I always play safe no matter what.”
Here is an educated gent. If you take the time to define for yourself what is safe, then in theory you will be safe no matter who you are sleeping with. Finding out more information abut your partners — including status, viral load, and last time of testing — will help inform you, but safe will still be safe. For whatever reason, I have mostly dated negative guys and they are all still negative. Responsible dating requires conversation, testing, and protection to prevent HIV infection, and these are all things we are capable of doing.
Scenario 3: Me: “FYI I’m poz/undetectable.”
Guy 3: “It’s cool, I am on PrEP.”
Condoms and low-risk behavior used to be the only line of defense against HIV infection, but that is no longer the case. In studies released last year, HIV-negative people that consistently took daily antiretroviral medication (also known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP) are as much as 94% less likely to contract the virus while engaging in sexual behavior with various levels of safety.
Some worry that PrEP use will lower rates of condom use, erode dialogues around status and disclosure, and encourage more risky behavior. This is a tough one. The core issue here is that no one wants to be interpreted as endorsing bareback sex. For example, you have a friend who is constantly having “slip-ups” and engaging in unprotected sex with guys. Would he be more protected if he started and regularly took PrEP? Yes, for sure. By treating him this way are you condoning his lack of consistent condom use? I’m not sure, but at least you are acknowledging it.
I truly believe that medical innovation is the key to ending AIDS, and have dedicated my life to funding a promising functional cure approach. Until that day comes, I am going to do my best to marry respect for others, personal transparency, and my personal desires to keep having fun. Short of a statistical average, I can tell you that this approach works great. Best of all there are no tears, or anger.
Zachary Barnett is the Founder & Executive Director of Abzyme Research Foundation.