We have survived an epidemic. However, HIV continues to torment us, tearing our community apart from within.
Vice recently published an article entitled: I Prefer to Date Men Who are HIV Positive. As an HIV-negative gay man, I was infuriated. Though the writer makes several worthwhile points, he perpetuates a long standing problem within the gay community. Gay men should not be exclusively seeking HIV-negative or positive partners. More than this, we should not even be stating our HIV status on dating apps (a trend that is only increasing). In doing so, we are causing a rift, strengthening internal homophobia. It has taken me a long time to reach this position, having battled HIV fear myself. However, it is vital that now, more than ever, we listen to the science and put the distinction between positive/negative behind us.
As a child, I obsessed over cleanliness. I feared the bacteria that promised to wreak havoc on my body. I anticipated hidden threats, forever preparing for disease. I would get lost in fantasies: a doctor relaying my terminal diagnosis; my family preparing for my premature departure. With time and treatment, the visions diminished. I came to accept that my fears where nothing more than irrational tricks of the mind, birthed from faulty neurochemistry. Despite therapy and medication, one particular obsession remained, forever tormenting my consciousness. The obsession of contracting HIV.
HIV has, and always will be, a vital part of my conscience. Whether I realized it or not, HIV became a part of me the moment I embraced my gay identify. At first fear of the virus would torment me after every sexual encounter; gay sex will inevitably lead to AIDS. Today, I have grown past this destructive thought process. Yet, that is not to say HIV/AIDS no longer impacts me. It drives my behavior on a daily basis, it features in the media I consume.
Gay men live in an age far removed from the 1980s and 1990s. This is a time of PrEP and PEP, of ‘one-pill-a-day’ treatment regimens. HIV has become a personal matter, one that affects no one but the infected individual. When we view HIV on a larger scale, it appears theoretical and distant, locked in the realm of the abstract. Sure, we may go to fundraisers and support charities. We may even go on marches. However, we seem to have forgotten that HIV has infected the entire gay social body in America. Such that today, every single gay male, regardless their status, lives under its dark shadow.
In some way or another, we are all infected.
HIV attacks on two levels: the individual and social.
On the individual level, the attack is sudden, a quiet invasion destined to kill. It is but a simple offloading of contents from one individual to another. Although HIV is not a ‘gay disease’, as was once hypothesized, anal sex efficiently facilities viral transmission from one individual to another. Why? Tainted fluids released during unprotected sex seeps deep into to anus, where it meets a thin mucosal membrane. The strength of the membrane is weak enough as it is, factor in the micro tears created in those moments of unrelenting passion, and it is all too easy to see how HIV invades the body. HIV will fight through a thin layer of protective epithelial cells. Our dendtric cells may well investigate, carrying the foreign substance to the lymph nodes for further analysis. What is this strange substance? Is this foreign body a cause for concern? Once in the lymph nodes, HIV goes on to hijacks the body’s immune system.
From there, it is a downhill journey.
The viral attack on the social body is slower, though non the less devastating. Much like the initial biological invasion, the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s was met by a panicked curiosity; a concerted effort to deal with the mysterious infection that had attacked 41 homosexuals. There was investigation and intrigue, a quest to gain greater understanding. However, as the death toll climbed, so too did the victimization toward gay men. Much like the depletion of immune system in an infected body, vital forces designed to protect humans – political institutions, medical establishments - turned against us. In hospitals, victims were quarantined, disposed of in black trash bags. By 1987, doctors were debating the right to refuse treating HIV-positive individuals.
While the infected individual was left to rot, the gay social body was able to survive. Why? Because the gay community was able to rally together to fight for survival. It was a brutal struggle, one that ultimately took far too long. However, the courage and commitment of activist groups saved the gay community. Their battle is utterly inspiring. It is not surprising that the scope of political activism of the 1980s and 1990s continues to receive attention. Most recently, David France’s documentary and book, ‘How To Survive and Plague’ and the fabulous new feature, ‘BPM’ capture the battle.
The widespread camaraderie and community support witnessed during the epidemic has vanished. The social body has turned against itself.
The landscape of HIV in America has changed. The introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HIIT) in 1996 turned an HIV diagnosis from death sentence to a chronic condition. In time, the epidemic moved into the collective memory of those who survived the crisis. Now, we go about our daily lives largely ignoring HIV, not quite realizing the carnage it once unleashed. This is especially true for the generation of gay men born after the crisis.
Young gay men do not know HIV like the generations that came before. Even though we take PrEP and know the importance of safe-sex, we were not there. We did not await death. We were not forced to bury our friends on a weekly basis. We were we forced to survive. Today, many HIV-negative men live far removed from the virus. As mentioned, it exists but in the abstract…something we know to be there, yet seldom do we give it much thought. Now, I am not suggesting we dwell on the past. Rather, I am suggesting we re-frame the discourse around the virus. Namely our need to distinguish ourselves as HIV-positive or negative.
Now look before going further, it must be recognized that AIDS continue to be a deadly disease in America. A CDC report written in 2016 notes that, despite advances in treatment, “nearly 13,000 people with AIDS in the United States die each year.” Just this past September, the world lost theater extraordinaire Michael Friedman to HIV/AIDS related complications. However, for the most part, the biological ramifications of HIV are not nearly as detrimental as they once were.
So now lets get to the problem?
Gay men like to classify one another other by physical appearances. Sometimes we allow character traits to come into play, but for the most part, the body’s appearance is key. We are visual people. Dating apps, such as Grindr, legitimize these stereotypes. We are able filter results to merely search those that physically appeal to us.
To the uninitiated there are jocks, otters, trans, twinks, rugged, poz…
Those with HIV.
At first, the existence of this category seemed to be commendable, a means to allow HIV positive men to seek out others with the same serostatus. It fosters a greater sense of community. It prevents the need to ‘come out’ as HIV-positive to new sexual partners. However, the more I dwell on this, the greater my disgust. Specific dating apps for positive men, as well as happy hours and events, are essential and I could not support their existence enough. However, the ability to identify as ‘poz’ on mainstream dating apps is simply not OK. A user should certainly have the ability to note their status in the profile should they wish. However, by creating a specific category, we are establishing a divide between the positive and negative; the sick and the the well, the clean from the unclean. While all the other so called ‘tribes’ are based on physical appearance, an HIV-status is not. It is absolutely irrelevant.
When we are given the option to identify as positive or negative on such apps, we immediately generate a perceived importance to this distinction. We assume it to be relevant. If I want to hook up with someone on a dating app, the specific status of my partner is absolutely none of my business. If I want to have unprotected sex with someone, regardless of what I are told, there is no certainty of my partner’s status. Proof of negative test results may hide traces of a virus yet take over a body. Equally, those living with HIV should not feel shame, nor should they battle with the moral dilemma of having to reveal their status. They should not feel compelled to disclose their status and insist on wearing a condom, for fear of spreading their virus. If an HIV-positive individual strictly adheres to their antiviral regime, they will not transmit the virus. It is really quite simple.
When HIV stops becoming a discussion in the community, we may well see increases in the rates of testing and a decrease of internal stigma. We may all start to appreciate that undetectable means untransmittable. Every time I am tested, I always think about the potential ramifications: will people be afraid to sleep with me? Will I lose out on love because of a drunken mistake? I am not, to the best of my knowledge, HIV-positive. So I cannot speak of the emotional ramifications of a diagnoses. However, I not blind to the articles, videos and talks helping poz men ‘come out’ to their partners. When to best break the news? How best to do it? First date or second? Meeting partners when you are part of a sexual minority group is stressful enough as it is. Declaring an HIV status only adds strain to our dating life. It can place a black cross over an individual’s head. It can banish someone from the dating pool. More than anything, by ‘coming out’ as positive, we create the illusion that we are hiding a deep, dark secret…that there is something to be ashamed of. For a gay man, coming out as gay is to face potential rejection. The same goes for coming out as HIV-positive.
External HIV-related homophobia is a very real problem. But first we must first battle the homophobia that comes from within. We must all recognize the centrality of HIV within our collective history. To be a gay man is to be tied to the burden of HIV. We will love someone who has the virus; we will kiss then; we will fuck them. We may be on PrEP, we may not. We may bareback, we may stick to the rules of safe sex. When we re-frame the narrative of HIV, seeing it as a condition that directly affects us all, we are in a greater position to strengthen our community. We will finally be able to remove out dated distinctions between being clean and unclean. As the old historical dictate states, history makes us who we are and why we are the way we are.
If you want to be a jerk and reject someone because of their status, go for it. If you want to ask someone if they are ‘clean’, I cannot stop you. But realize that if it were 1985, you would very probably have the virus swimming around in your blood, just waiting to pull you under. Think about that the next time you consider rejecting someone based on their HIV status.