Rejecting the 'Poz' Label

It has been well over a year now since I discovered that I'm HIV-positive. When I learned about my newly acquired status, it was like I took a big breath... and held it in. Then, little by little, with each person I told, I was able to exhale. But it wasn't until I truly came out as an HIV-positive man that the color in my face returned to normal. I've discovered that living openly with your truth, whatever that may be, makes breathing a hell of a lot easier. But there are certain caveats that can come with being a loudly out HIV-positive man that I wasn't quite aware of. And they were also nothing that I was interested in entertaining.

My intention behind disclosing my status to anyone with a pulse and access to the Internet was to come out from under the weight of the "HIV-positive" label and reclaim my life again. As I have written about ad nauseam, keeping your status secret is an isolating, frightening and completely unnecessary experience that far too many gay men continue to go through today, unfortunately. Just as in coming out as gay, it is only the big leap that is scary. Everything after is pure freedom. Or at least it should be.

To my surprise, I wasn't quite allowed to fully return to being the man who'd walked into the clinic on that fateful Friday afternoon. I was now a "poz" man, and with that came certain expectations and assumptions that I wasn't quite aware of.

I should state that there isn't anything inherently wrong with being labeled "poz." As with any slang, the problems may arise in the individual intent behind the usage. Strangers and acquaintances alike continually ask me if the man I'm currently dating is "poz," as if they were asking me if he's into cycling or has any tattoos. After I casually reply "no," there is usually a register of surprise.

When that surprise comes from HIV-negative men, it is usually related to their admitted ignorance of just how easy it is to prevent transmission of the virus. I usually respond with a quick explanation of sexual mechanics, medication and the statistics of HIV prevention. After the epiphany bulb lights up over their cute little faces, we move on to the next topic.

But when the surprise comes from HIV-positive men, it's sometimes accompanied by anger over the fact that I'm not with another "poz" man, because it's just so difficult for "our kind" to find a good guy. Occasionally I'm accused of holding a bias against other HIV-positive men, the allegation being that, somehow, I believe that I am different from other "poz" men and therefore only date HIV-negative men. Of course, this isn't the reaction of all, or even most, of the HIV-positive men I come into contact with, but it's enough to dissuade me from taking part in "poz-only" discussions and groups.

The truth is that if a guy has a cute smile, can name at least four U.S. Supreme Court justices and doesn't live with his mom, I am going on that date. I expect any man, positive or negative, to view me as a fully realized person. And I can only expect that if I look at any potential romantic or platonic match in the same fashion. In the realm of romance, I reject the "poz" label because, quite honestly, it's irrelevant, at least when it comes to the men I'm interested in dating.

Outside romance, being a "poz" man comes with an entirely different box of mousetraps. With everything I produce in the name of HIV awareness, it has always been my intention to create a level playing field among gay men, regardless of HIV status. It is still my assertion that the only way to improve prevention in the modern era of HIV is to remove the divisions between HIV-positive and HIV-negative. Question marks can be found on either side of that dubious divide.

But some see my softer approach to discussion around the virus as evidence of my alleged discomfort with my status. Fellow HIV activists who have long established their "poz" armies have lashed out against certain opinions of mine that I thought were not even that interesting, quite honestly. There are others who feel that I have no right to be speaking on any matters relating to HIV, and that I am only doing so to gain attention for my personal endeavors.

I am a mandatory member of the "poz" club, but sometimes it's felt like my opinion is seen as less valid because I'm relatively new to this club. But if I have to deal with the pitfalls of medication and keeping an eye on my CD4 count, I plan on using my experiences to bridge the gap between ignorance and education. It would be impossible for me to accurately represent or even speak to every "poz" man out there. I never intended to. In fact, I hope that some "poz" guy out there disagrees with me so much that he's moved to come out about his status and speak out on his own behalf.

In romance, friendships and politics, one's HIV status tells about as much about that person's character and disposition as the state where they were born. I may be from Texas, but I have no idea how the Cowboys are doing this season, I don't speak with a twang, and I certainly do not fall in line with Ted Cruz's handicapped point of view. Sure, being from Texas creates a common thread that links me to other Texans, just like being "poz" means I have a few things in common with other HIV-positive guys, but a single thread does not make a person who they are, and it most definitely doesn't define them.

Coming out as an HIV-positive man is a way to ensure that you'll be recognized for your own individual character rather than defined by a disease that comes with a lot of character judgment. There is no rulebook, no operator's manual and no single best way of being an HIV-positive person. Outwardly, it is safe to say that everyone living with this virus would like for everyone who isn't in their shoes to be more understanding, compassionate and knowledgeable about HIV. Inwardly, we should recognize that we all have different taste in shoes.

I am an HIV-positive individual, and that's a damn good thing.