“Obviously, I wasn’t expecting it… I’ll have to think about it.”
These words were uttered at the time of my latest disclosure. They stuck with me for a few days afterwards.
Not the ‘I’ll have to think about it’: I know that some people need time to process the information.
Not the ‘I wasn’t expecting it…’, although it is a bit dodgier; as if one could tell from just looking into my big blue eyes for two dates.
It is the ‘obviously’ coming before that was the biggest blow. “Obviously”? Really? Why? It was “obvious” to you that I couldn’t possibly have such news to impart?
Ah, words… They do matter. Every single one of them.
If you are a gay man and owner of a smart phone, chances are you have experienced dating (sic) apps and the myriad of men they have to offer.
Recently (by which I mean something like over a year ago), Grindr introduced optional ‘tribes’ to its users, a simple way to identify as a member of a specific category within the gay community: bear, geek, etc. And ‘poz ‘.
This serves three main purposes:
- instant disclosure (provided people read the profile – yeah, I know, I laughed at that one too),
- \the option to search for other HIV+ people for dating *winks* or otherwise *winks, winks*,
- and for a few (negative) people to look for unprotected sex – since, for some, it seems HIV+ = bareback-friendly. But don’t get me started on that one, I already have.
It is Sunday morning here in London. 10.45am, precisely. Using Grindr’s search tool to highlight HIV positive men, my screen fills up with profile names suggesting various bodily fluids, emojis of pigs (and associated onomatopoeia) and drug-friendly people ready to fuck. Very few (one in ten maybe) have a profile that doesn’t read like the summary of a hardcore porn movie.
Of course, this being Grindr, one could argue that being HIV+ has nothing to do with such details. It may just be down to being a gay man on Grindr in London. Somehow, however, it just looks more prevalent, more in-your-face amongst this subsection. And for my date, this might be one of the limited opportunities HIV gets on his radar, through the strong representation of these men.
Don’t get me wrong, the more power to them! I envy these people, in a way. They are totally open about their lives, their needs, their desires; and have found a way to fulfil them.
But I’m not one of them, and I doubt most people are (yeah, yeah, call me naïve…). I don’t want to be used, I don’t want to do drugs, I don’t want to meet someone here and now to have sex with (I mean, not BEFORE lunch, alright!). I go on dates. I like fresh air. And I don’t enjoy being spanked in the bedroom. I really don’t. Stop it already!
Mind, it is not lost on me that I am part of the issue: I could just as easily tag my profile as Poz, therefore showing another facet of the disease, one of vanilla sexuality and moderate lust. I see a few do it, people I’ve met, other guy-next-door types for whom the mass media’s description of Gay & positive doesn’t apply. But I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into that community, for once you claim to be part of one – may it be bear, geeks or else- it tends to limit the level of interaction you get with other ‘tribes’.
I hear a lot of people praising how beneficial the ‘HIV community’ was to them when they were diagnosed; I fully understand where they’re coming from and how it could have been a lifesaver. But for me, it wasn’t. I didn’t need that community support at the time; I had a boyfriend and friends. It was only a year or two later that I thought, hey, maybe I’ll go to a Poz event, to socialise.
As for any other event, some people I got on with, some I had things in common with, others I just couldn’t relate to at all. I don’t remember many of the discussions I had there, but I remember the confused look on a guy’s face once, when I mentioned I didn’t go to saunas or was on the lookout for bareback sex. He may have thought I just got lost and ended up there by mistake. That sure is what his reaction suggested.
Eventually, it is a strange place to be in: outside the gay scene, outside the sex scene, outside the drug scene, outside the HIV scene. But gay, positive, and loving a good dance nonetheless. We, the positive gay dancers, get little representation. Because we are lucky, we are “FINE”, we don’t put our lives at risk, or others’, we just go our merry way, one antiretroviral pill at a time.
Against all odds.
A good friend once told me of an unprotected encounter he had had. He knew the guy was HIV-positive, but he let him fuck him and cum inside him. Unprotected. He felt horrible later on. Obviously, he was in a bad place at the time to even allow this, aware of the risks. A gay man and his horn can make the most dreadful decisions one would never even think of.
In the end, he was fine, thankfully. But he felt guilty, telling me his story. Knowing I had been infected in a far less risky situation, knowing he had remained negative despite the odds.
It goes to show how unfortunate HIV infections can be. And for everyone out there, a dreadful reminder of how it can happen to anyone. Not fair!
Scrap that; HIV is fair. But Life isn’t. HIV can be kept at arm’s length; but Life, like a continental grammar guide, lays down rules only to add to them a plethora of exceptions.
One could have thousands of unprotected sexual encounters and escape unscathed. Or a just one of those and spend the rest of their life fighting a chronic disease… I really should have played the National Lottery that week!
I guess that’s how people with throat cancer who have never smoked in their life feel. Well, kind of. After all, I knew from day 1 of my sex life that each encounter would be a risk, albeit often minimal if well managed.
But the irony burns deep when, despite being one of the least promiscuous persons in your social circle, you end up being the diseased, stigmatised one. You try and live a good life but don’t get rewarded. Clearly, there isn’t a God. Yet, it sure *is* a miracle that I became infected, mwahahah. Go figure.
All in it together
The bottom line is I don’t feel like I belong in the HIV community as it is represented out there today (or, at least, how I interact with it); I cannot fully embrace the HIV tribe as mine, because it is such a small part of my life that I would rather identify simply as a gay man, or even as a cyclist. The HIV badge, however, I leave under my bed. Literally. That’s where I store my meds; and that’s that.
Yet, we are all in it together. Life isn’t an episode of Brass eye, and my HIV is neither the ‘Good’ nor the ‘Bad AIDS’. I, like the loudest members of the Poz crowds out there, do suffer from people’s discrimination and stigma. (See the anecdote at the top of this page.) But those, I’ll fight my own way; through these posts, snippets of what’s it’s like to be living with HIV in your 20s in London: away from the saunas, away from the orgies, away from the drugs. Because this isn’t how most people, gay or straight, positive or not, live their lives. I’ll leave this to those who know better and do great work to help.
If anything, I’ll try and be that moderate voice of the quiet guy-next-door, here to remind who will listen that HIV can happen to anyone. And it does, so it is preposterous to try and picture an archetype of the HIV villain. There are positive accountants. Positive doctors. Positive gays, positive straights. Men and women of all kinds and backgrounds. There are even positive virgins, born with it.
It is impossible to ‘obviously’ know to ‘expect it’. Or not to expect it. From anyone.
Never judge a book by its cover, they say. Especially when the covers are mere book jackets that one can shed and change at will. And there are as many jackets as there are positive people.
So, I am not one of us. For there may be no ‘us’. We are all really, really different people, who just happen to share a virus we’d all like to get rid of… And no longer needing a community for our condition may well be the only thing we all have in common.
This article previously appeared in Tom’s own blog Living with HIV here.