For a new generation of HIV positive men, disclosure remains a controversial topic. In a searingly honest essay, Andy Kane recounts his experiences of opening up to potential partners.
As a poet and a writer, most of my work deals primarily with truth – that is the ability to honestly represent my experiences. As an HIV positive person, being open about my status is important for all kinds of reasons: mental health, visibility and making sure that through talking honestly about HIV that people are able to educate and inform themselves. With HIV infections at an all time high in Ireland, I want to be a mouthpiece for issues that I know for a fact, continue to affect more and more people in our community, and to do this one must disclose their status – which is exactly what I am doing here.
A controversial topic, disclosure. The general understanding is that it’s the positive party’s responsibility to always make their status clear. Specifically I’m talking about when it comes to sexual encounters, as opposed to telling family and friends. In Ireland, as the law stands, an HIV positive person is not obligated to disclose their status under any circumstances; be that to professionals like the the dentist, to their employer or to their sex partners, but no matter, people fuck all over the world, so it’s worth bearing in mind that there are enough places on the planet where failing to disclose can potentially find you facing criminal charges.
Now, without giving too much away about my slutitude (that is to say, I would tell you my number but I lost count many, many moons ago, right about the time I also gave up feeling guilty about it) I have had sex with enough men to know that I have had sex with HIV positive men who didn’t bring up their status. It’s just the odds, plain and simple. With those odds in mind, before I tested positive I can count the number of men who disclosed to me on, well, no hands. In fact, the first time anyone ever did, it was after I had tested positive, in a text message, the morning after we had had sex (I guess he presumed that it was ok to not mention it because we both were, but that’s another column altogether).
Because no one had EVER had the courage/respect/manners/bravery to disclose to me, it took a while for me to figure out how to go about it myself. A couple of times I’d meet a guy I wanted to sleep with and wanted to make a point of doing so, but didn’t have the courage, or a model of how to do it. There are so many variables – do you do it at the bar or wait til you get home? Do you put it on your profile? Set the ‘safer sex’ option to ‘when appropriate’ and hope they get the hint? Or spell it out in the about me section and risk making it the centre piece to your sex life, automatically admitting it to anyone who happens to be drawn in by that cute selfie on your profile?
There are many ways to go about it, many situations where it needs to happen, and just as many responses when it does. Every situation is different, and how you talk about it will vary. Ultimately you’ll find that with practice you’ll be able to tell more easily how you need to go about it. Practice makes perfect. In the early days, I found that it was best for me to jump headlong into it, steel myself against the response, and just open myself up to experiences where I could practice and experiment.
Here’s the thing, now I’ve gotten into the habit I’ve had every response you can imagine. I’ve had the guy that I’ve shared a mutual crush with for years all up on me in the club, ready to finally seal the deal, who when I lean in and shout in his ear “Just to let you know, I’m HIV positive” as if I’m ordering a whiskey, their sex positive punk cred dissipates immediately. In the next few minutes the preamble to awesome sex devolves into a slap stick pantomime as I watch them, shaken up by confidence and unexpected honesty, try to figure out how to let me down gently, without revealing their pity, or that the sudden change in temperature has anything to do with the words I’ve just uttered. In these instances it’s better to just enjoy the show, consider it a lucky escape and be glad you didn’t wait until the bar closed and choice #2 disappeared with some other lad.
Sometimes you will get them home before it comes up and something similar will happen. They’ll begrudgingly let you engage in some oral sex, then suddenly disappear without taking your number and you’ll never hear from them again. “I’m positive” you say. “Oh.” they reply, expression blank, poker face. “I’m undetectable, healthy, on meds” you say. “Oh. OK.” they reply again, having no idea what any of those words mean, and being too afraid to ask, not wanting to prolong the time they spend with you, just knowing that they’re in the same room with someone who has a disease that they don’t want and doing anything short of making an action hero exit through the window to get out of there. When they’re done, they might give you five minutes of cursory, uncomfortable, post-coital snuggling and then suddenly remember that shift they have to cover in the morning or that boyfriend who wasn’t out that night; “Oh, well, I was so ready to cheat with you, but now that you’ve told me that – well I have to protect my fella…” Great. Cheers. Tell him I said “Hi”.
But it’s not always like that. For the most part, when I think about my disclosure stories I’ve had a positive response. The bad ones stick out because they’re the minority. I remember soon after I had seroconverted, working a gay charity event. I ended up going from there to dinner, then to drinks, having an incredible time with an incredible guy – laughing, flirting and getting on famously. It was at a time when I didn’t have a lot of experience with the situation and as the night wore on and it became clearer and clearer with every drink he paid for where things were headed, I started to fret. When we got back to his apartment I was so nervous and had grown so quiet that he asked me if something was wrong. I sat there on the window sill, smoking, head turned away so he couldn’t see how close to tearing up I was. Deep breath. “I have to tell you something.” Pause. “I’m HIV positive.” Pause. “So if you want me to go that’s ok.” In my head I had built this moment up. Over the evening, over the previous weeks, this was going to be it, my first rejection. The first time HIV was gonna come between me and a guy who really liked me.
He was quiet for a second as he took in what I said, and then his face changed completely, melted you might say, and he gave me a look that basically read; “You big, stupid, gorgeous sap, you’re going to break my heart.” I cried, he hugged me, told me I was crazy to be so freaked out about it. We fucked that night, and dated now and again for a while as well. Even though I’m not sure he ever knew exactly what that first night we met did for me, he was always a perfect gentleman who was genuinely interested in who I was and genuinely comfortable enough with my status for it to not even slightly raise any concerns. He was able to disassociate me from it completely, in a way I couldn’t even do yet. Now, when I have to disclose to someone new, I still think of him and how his understanding and kindness opened up a well of courage for me, and helped me accept myself. These are the men worth holding out for.
Since then I’ve had serodiscordant dates, relationships, fuck buddies – and pulled them all off successfully. I’ve heard it said that a positive status is a great asshole detector, that disclosing is actually a great meter stick to figure out the men who aren’t worth you time. The ones who shut down completely are probably not the guys you should be dating. If they can’t see past the stigma to who you are, then do yourself a favour and try to move on as quickly as possible to someone else, because inversely, the men who respond to you despite it are the keepers, the ones who understand your value as a person regardless. Where it gets tricky is when you have to deal with their response more than your own – fear and ignorance are both curable with knowledge, and you may find that some will ask you questions, everything from “How likely am I to catch it if we fuck?” to “Who gave it to you?” Some of the questions might be too personal to you, and no one is forcing you to be an ambassador for the HIV positive community, but for me personally, I find it best to just answer anything, completely honestly, and try and share anything of my experience that I can in order to enlighten someone and help neuter the stigma – if not for me, then for the next guy he encounters in the same situation.
Many men, particularly in a small scene like Dublin where most people know each other and gossip travels like wildfire, might be afraid of the looks and whispers, and that might put you off disclosing. The law here states that it’s up to you. That being said, the more honest we become with one another, the less we will have to worry about who thinks what. Even if other people do know, even if they do talk among themselves, the more people talk the more people there seem to be who are affected. Being afraid to talk about HIV is a problem for the everyone, not just for the person who is afraid of what it will do to their reputation, but for the people who will end up sleeping with someone who is too afraid to be honest, or too afraid to get tested. Because no matter who we say is responsible for starting the conversation, we all owe it to one other to not make anyone feel uncomfortable about being honest when it comes to issues that affect all of us.
A lot of young gay men in Dublin keep these secrets, live with stigma and shame and use it to silence themselves. Little do they know that not only could they be sleeping with or dating someone who is too afraid to be honest, they could be best friends with them. Once you start talking, it’s surprising how may other people will. At least twice in Dublin I’ve disclosed my status to a guy and had them disclose right back to me – but from the way it happened, I know that had I not brought it up, neither of us would have. When you’re so protective of your secrets, sometimes you can’t identify those who could really understand.
In my one instance, a good friend of mine cut themselves pretty badly. After we’d cleaned up the cut and the blood, he asked me if I was positive. I was thrown because I hadn’t told him, but I confirmed anyway. A few minutes later he revealed that was as well, not only that he was, but that he had been for nearly twice as many years as I had, maybe even longer than I had known him. It shocked me, because here was someone who I love, who I count among my closest friends, who had been unable to come to me at any point and tell me, and then me, equally alone, and we had been in the same boat the all along like fucking Life of Pi or something. More to the point, after he had calmed down, and we could laugh about it I said to him “I only wish you’d told me sooner – so we could have been riding this entire time!”
There is a level of freedom that comes with being open. People refer to HIV as a life sentence. Think about that language – not only does it mean something that you will always have to live with, but it conjures up the idea that being positive is somehow criminal. I don’t identify with this idea, but there is something to the idea that HIV can become a prison cell to some people. Fear of stigma, of being marginalised and segregated, can hold you prisoner, and the best way to get out of the enclosure is to disclose. It’s gonna be scary, it’s gonna be frightening, but ultimately, the sooner you are able to share, the sooner you will learn that HIV doesn’t have to rule your life. So take a chance, talk to friends, and let’s be open enough to start a conversation, because even though things have changed, are changing, statistics don’t lie: you are not alone, you just don’t know it because everyone is keeping their little big secret. Let’s take a chance, make a change and give HIV the platform it needs to help HIV positive people feel comfortable to talk, to allow HIV negative people a chance to learn. Silence, shame and stigma are the most important factors in the spike in infections – use your words and let’s talk about the issue so that we can help stop the spread and make those who are positive feel that they have a safe space in our community.
By Andy Kane
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