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You are out on the town and a handsome man catches your eye. He is breathtaking, and in your heart you pray that his conversational skills match his physique. Your heart skips a beat when he is able to complete a full sentence, and your mind instantly conjures images of your wedding on an island in Greece: cobalt blue waters, warm breezes, and white doves released in celebration of your union. You'll be enjoying a long life together filled with happiness, love, and sexual satisfaction.
That fantasy, however, can never be reality without first talking about sex, condoms, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and more. Isn't that a mood killer? Why do we always have to talk about this stuff? And when are we supposed to? During the first conversation?
There are many reasons why people -- even in this day of instant communication -- still have a hard time verbally expressing themselves. If a man is living with HIV, he may think, "If I tell too soon, this person I just met may share my business with the world." That is definitely reason for hesitancy, but it doesn't negate the fact that the talk needs to occur. It is also safe to assume that no one wants to be rejected for something so common within the gay community. Amazingly enough, however, there are many gay men who will have anonymous sex with men whose status they do not know, but then vehemently refuse to date or be in a relationship with people who are openly living with HIV, regardless of whether they're in care or not. That speaks volumes about HIV-related stigma and why so many men refuse to disclose. It also says a lot about the kinds of conversations we have, and the ones we don't.
Dating can be a complex and draining experience, especially for people who are intent on finding Mr. Right. Quite often, I hear friends boast with glee about their new suitors and wonder whether the only questions they asked they guys were: "What's your sign? What do you do for fun? Are you full vegetarian or pescetarian?" I know that during the get-to-know-you phase, people usually steer away from the real get-to-know-you questions that may shatter the dream of a beautiful courtship. Questions about sexual history, HIV, STDs, past relationships, and more are not easy to have in the beginning, but when exactly should they begin? Is it a second date discussion, or should it only be brought up when sex is a possibility? There's no definite answer, but I would say this to my friends, and anyone else: Say something. Start the conversation, even if it sounds awkward, even if you think he might not like it.
As gay men, we are bombarded with HIV statistics, messages, and images. The constant reminders to "be safe" and "use condoms" -- or now maybe how we might take the little blue pill called PrEP -- are a looming presence some of us would like to escape, especially when we're just trying to get to know someone. You would think this constant messaging would make conversations about HIV easier, but fear and resistance are still present, especially during the early stages of dating.
Those of us who are actively dating are weary of trying to figure out how to incorporate HIV, PrEP, condoms, or anything else associated with the responsibilities of gay sex into our conversations with other men. These can be taxing topics, especially for those on the disclosing end. Yet we know that it's necessary. Maybe if HIV became a normal, "by the way" conversation, people wouldn't be so resistant to having it. Maybe if we were taught that sex should be a positive, connecting experience with another person, this would feel as easy as asking a man his sign.
It all boils down to communication. Whether we are disclosing our HIV status or other need-to-know information, we should be willing the have these exchanges if healthy and honest relationships are what we truly desire. Talking is a way to overcome fear -- to make a real connection -- and to show that guy you meet what makes you stand apart from others. If you want that Greek wedding, what are you going to say?
DONTA MORRISON is an HIV advocate, blogger, and the host of the online radio show "Diggin Deep with Donta." He is a program coordinator at APLA Health & Wellness's Gleicher / Chen Health Center in Los Angeles, where he oversees the R3VNG campaign, an HIV awareness initiative for young gay men of color.