Living the Questions

By Tyler Helms

Originally published on Advocate.com July 26 2010 3:50 PM ET

COMMENTARY: I don’t remember much about the day I was diagnosed, but I do remember the first question that came to my mind. Who do I tell? Followed by, When do I tell them? My doctor, after giving me a prescription for Xanax, quickly took my BlackBerry away and said, “Be cautious who you tell and know once you tell someone; you can never take it back.” Now, three years later with a different doctor, an iPhone to replace that BlackBerry, and having told virtually the world my status, I still struggle with the question: When is the right time to tell someone you have HIV?

The first person I told was my best friend, Felipe. Over a glass of wine and sworn to secrecy, he would be one of 12 people, including my family, past boyfriends, and a few friends that would share my secret for nearly 2.5 years. During this time, I had researched at length about when and how to tell people. Medical sources encourage caution and honesty. HR handbooks encouraged privacy. And personal blogs ranged from openness to horror stories. I was finding that society expected full disclosure, would hold you accountable for any risk, but was virtually unprepared for the openness.

Accountability is evident through legislation in some 30 states that require you to tell sexual partners. But is the expectation to tell someone on that first date — or first hookup — realistic? Even if you don’t partake in sexual activity early on, how long is too long before the person across from you should know?



I remember being asked by someone at a bar if I was “clean.” Is that what everyone else thought — you were either "clean" or "dirty." I couldn’t very well say, “I am dirty”. Before HIV, believe it or not, I had never had an STD. I don’t let anyone sleep in my bed without showering and can often be found cleaning my office phone and keyboard simultaneously. We, of course, went our separate ways when I disclosed that I was in fact “dirty.”

Outside of the bedroom, the question is just as difficult. In the workplace, while privacy is encouraged and laws are in place to protect us from discrimination, I was often conflicted: Is it too personal, unprofessional, or an “over-share”? Regardless of where you work, there is an innate fear of being treated differently, being judged or simply feeling exposed, a fear that leads to secrecy.

The first time I had complications that involved a large infection on my face, I told coworkers an elaborate story that involved a spider bite while on vacation. I lied out of fear, to cover my greatest truth, a truth that was manifesting on my face, one I didn’t want to impact the career I was working hard to build. When I eventually disclosed my status, my company became one of my biggest pillars of support. The conversations I have had with some of my coworkers have been among the most compelling and valuable moments.

And even when you have all the support in the world — work, family and friends — the decision is still hard. Just last February, I went against everything I had started to stand for. After months of no dates I had met someone who got my attention, and when he asked in a intimate moment “Are you positive or negative?” I immediately answered without hesitation, “I’m negative.” Yes, I lied. After spending months encouraging honesty and dialogue, I had lied to someone who was doing just what I wanted him to do, ask the question.

Though I told him the truth moments later, the lie was telling. I did it for the reasons many still do. In that moment, I felt normal. I felt accepted, attractive, and worthy. For a split second I felt a sense of hope and was without shame. I felt like I had finally scrubbed away the invisible dirt only I could see. For one moment, I finally felt "clean." The reality being, that lie was likely the dirtiest thing I had ever done.

He was gracious and understanding and holds a special place in my journey. He reminded me why my truth was just as much his and everyone’s else. He reminded me that my truth was anything but dirty.

There is something destructive about living with a secret. Ruining relationships, detracting focus from work, and impeding on an overall healthy lifestyle to name a few. But demanding honesty and integrity is hard to do in a society that encourages truth but would prefer not to know it. In a country where you can still be put in jail for knowingly or unknowingly spreading HIV. In a society where some still believe it's God's way of punishing the gays. In a city, even New York City, where you will be heckled for speaking out about a truth that impacts us all. It even gets the most vocal of us down.

So without an answer, I ask you — whether gay, straight, positive, or negative — when do you want your coworker, your friend, your lover, your daughter, your son, or you first date to disclose their status? And when they do, are you prepared for what your reaction will be?