It happens like this: We’ll meet at a bar or a party, or—just for the sake of argument since I haven’t seen the inside of one in almost five years — at the gym. We will smile and flirt and do our best to charm one another as we share some beers or a few shots, or — again, for the sake of argument — a delicious and healthy fruit smoothie. We will exchange numbers and make plans for later in the week. And when we meet up, we will have a lovely time.
The conversation will be easy and free-flowing, the chemistry will be palpable, and at some point — maybe while we are sharing an after-dinner glass of wine, or perhaps during a post-movie moonlit stroll — I will find a way to work into the conversation the fact that I am HIV-positive, and you will come to a full stop. Your eyes will widen slightly and your face will go completely blank as you begin to do a kind of subtle calculus in your head, weighing your culturally ingrained, almost instinctual fear of contracting HIV against your — hopefully considerable — attraction to me. And let me tell you, this moment is just as uncomfortable for me as it is for you—though not for the reasons you might suspect. Because, you see, this isn’t really about the fear that you’ll reject me.
The interaction that you and I just participated in — the beers, the moonlit walk, the wide eyes and blank face, all of it — is something you’ve maybe experienced once or twice in your life, if at all. I, on the other hand, have danced this particular dance dozens, if not hundreds of times since learning in the spring of 2005 that I am living with HIV. And though getting rejected for being HIV-positive never starts being fun at any point, like most things, it gets easier with practice.
In some ways, getting rejected by you is the easier course. Whether you politely tell me that you just aren’t comfortable dating a guy with HIV, or excuse yourself to use the bathroom and never come back, after we part ways it’s over, and I never have to think about you again. It is when your mental math ends in a smile and a willingness to take things further that it starts to get complicated.
Complicated because at this point you and I have shared some awesome times, and you have proven yourself to be either well-educated or brave enough to see past my serostatus and take a chance on a guy living with HIV. Complicated because I have a thing for interesting, brave, well-educated guys who like beer and moonlit walks, and by now I’m probably starting to crush on you. Complicated because at some point in the near future, you and I are going to be naked together and I am going to come face to face with my greatest fear. (No, not clowns, you kinkster.)
My greatest fear is that I am going to give you HIV. In fact, I am just as afraid of passing along my virus as you are of contracting it. And that is true for most of the HIV-positive guys I know.
It doesn’t matter that, arguably, the safest sex you can have is protected sex — either by PrEP or with condoms—with a guy who is HIV-positive and on meds, and that there is almost no chance that I could transmit the virus to you; I’ve been on antiretroviral medication since 2006, and I’ve maintained an undetectable viral load ever since. My fear is irrational, but there it is.
That doesn’t mean that this hypothetical relationship isn’t worth pursuing — all of my serious relationships since seroconverting have been with guys who are HIV-negative. It just means that if you meet me or one of my HIV-positive brothers be patient with us. And know that when it comes to keeping you HIV-negative, we’re in this together.