Detecting Stigma

A heated conversation about Undetectable = Untransmittable

by John Francis Leonard

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Photo by Alina Oswald

Soon after I began writing for A&U last year, my editor informed me that I would also be, partly, responsible for promoting my own and the magazine’s work via social media. For a long time I’d stayed well clear of it—Facebook in particular was anathema to me. He suggested Twitter as an alternative and, while hesitant at first, I was soon like a duck to water. Through it, I can easily promote my pieces as they go online. It’s been a wonderful tool and the feedback and support I’ve gotten both for my work and my incessant Tweeting on politics has been rewarding. Occasionally with politics, an aggressive conservative has something nasty to share with me, but I soon block them. I have no interest in engaging with trolls; I find it pointless.

I was recently surprised when an initially positive exchange about one of my columns turned negative, nothing rude or aggressive mind you, but it left me feeling very unsettled. Admittedly, I could have handled it better in the end, but I had good reason to be offended and insulted. In my April column, I talk about a new guy I’d been seeing and the fact that in the end, it is ultimately his choice whether we use a condom or not. I preface this with an important detail or two, however. I reiterate for him and the readers that, according to the best science, Undetectable=Untransmittable. I’ve made it clear in more than one piece that, with someone who I’m seeing regularly and am interested in for the long haul, I would like to be able to engage in sex without a condom if he’s fine with that. This doesn’t apply to casual encounters; I just don’t have those any longer. But if I did, I think the same theory is sound as long as the fact that HIV is hardly the only STD is not forgotten.

This column was retweeted by readers more than once. As I always try to do, I DM everyone who does RT it and thank them for their support. It’s started some great conversations and given me great feedback on my work. One person however was different. He thanked me for pointing out how important communication is between men and their sexual partners, but it went south from there. The first thing that irked me was his need to quickly point out that he and his “long-term partner” were both negative and committed to each other. As if the distinctions of being both negative and in a relationship made him, what? “Superior” to me? But, I swallowed that, I’ve heard it pointed out so many times as a badge of honor, especially online, that I may have been taking offense where none was intended. So, I read on.

He went on to compliment me again on my “well written” article. Then, quickly he got to his point. He felt that my desire to have my partner forgo a condom was tantamount to “granting them a death wish.” And besides that although medications may be available, “they don’t come cheap.” Now, as a fourteen-year long-term survivor of HIV and someone who bore witness to some of the worst years of the plague, I was deeply offended. Even worse, I was feeling patronized! For fourteen years, every month, I stand at a cash register with my heart in my throat watching the actual cost of my medications tally and crossing my fingers that there won’t be yet another glitch with the two insurance plans that cover them. You’re telling me that they don’t come cheap? To add insult to injury, you’re telling someone who watched countless friends die that AIDS is deadly? And to be clear, AIDS is no longer a death sentence unless you’re not being treated. And what is the biggest deterrent to people getting tested and into treatment? Shame and stigma, both of which I was being subjected to in this exchange.

He made a point in the exchange, which went back and forth for a bit, that he wasn’t judging me. It did not feel that way, however. He was insistent that there was no conclusive proof that Undetectable=Untransmittable—he claimed that a simple online search would bear him out. Well, there are years of research saying it is and a simple online search will also tell you that there’s no proof of global warming and that millions of undocumented immigrants committed voter fraud in the last election. We went back and forth with no one budging until I’d had enough. I finally blocked him.

Perhaps I should have been more compelling in my argument but I have a definite threshold when I feel someone is clearly ignorant of facts. I thought carefully about this piece before I wrote it. It’s been almost a month since that exchange and, yes, maybe I could have been more persuasive. But there’s one thing I won’t do and where I draw the line. I won’t be marginalized, I won’t be patronized, and I won’t be made to feel ashamed—not any longer.


John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.