Just*in Time: Language Matters

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Photo by Jessica Bolton

Language matters. It can promote prejudice and misinformation; it shapes our thinking about who and what has value in this world. Logging into a dating/hook-up app, like Grindr, is no excuse to log off of your brain or heart. Typos are excusable—stigma is not!

So here are seven things that get the “thumbs down” emoji in these virtual communications.

“I’m sorry.”
When someone says they are sorry I have HIV, I think, “Did we fuck or something?” Why are they sorry? Well, first think about it. They are sorry that you were infected, which is all well and good I suppose. But then take this opportunity to educate to say, “Don’t be sorry for me, but be strong with me.” A lot of people with this reaction aren’t really educated on what it means to live with HIV. Ask them if they know what the term “undetectable” means or what “PrEP” is. If they do not know, educate them.

“You have HIV—thanks for telling me.”
Most online MSM dating apps, such as Grindr, come with an option in the profile to put what your HIV status is. So, if they ask me, it tells me that the other person didn’t read my profile and didn’t really care to. All they did was look at my picture and tried to hook up with me. I find that being upfront with my status also helps either facilitate discussion around sexual parameters, and/or it weeds out persons that I probably would not like to be sexual with or vice versa, which of course is fine by me.
“Are you trying to spread your disease, or something?”

The response (at least the one that I use) is, “No, I’m not.” I wouldn’t wish the medical or doctor appointments and medication expenses on anyone. Having HIV is not easy; one can get used to the pills, appointments, and expenses but why would anyone want that? I myself am undetectable and many people do not know what undetectable is and don’t know that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have themselves said that the risk of someone that has a sustained, undetectable viral load transmitting HIV is none. Also there are several more STI besides HIV and I wouldn’t want to spread any of them. Plus, I wouldn’t want to risk my body to co-infection and then infect someone with two sexually transmitted infections at the same time, for example.

“Your partner has HIV, too?”
Now there is one thing about being open about your status online but another thing when someone asks about your partner’s or spouse’s HIV status. This is nobody’s business. My response to this question would be to say, “This is really too personal to tell you and really it’s his business to tell.”

“If you’re partnered/married, why are you on here?”
People are on social dating apps to hook up, date, or just to talk to others in the area to hopefully build a network of friends. But, let’s address this question. We have to understand that there are different types of relationships and not everyone practices monogamy. If you see someone is talking to you who is partnered/married and you do not agree with it, just say, “I’m not interested in hooking up with a partnered/married person” and move on. Also, on the flipside, the person who is partnered/married has to understand that some people are not interested in partnered/married people.

“I’m not going on PrEP so sorry it’s condoms or we are not fucking.”
Granted there are other STIs we all have to watch for, especially individuals on PrEP who do not use condoms, but we should support all who are empowered to protect themselves. We must consider that there will be individuals who will only strictly want to use condoms and individuals who do not and are on PrEP. I, for one, know there is a different feeling when having sex with and without a condom. But, besides that, we simply have to accept that some people only use PrEP and some prefer condoms. My response to this would be, “Ohh okay well good luck” or “I could use condoms as well.”

“I can’t hook up with you. I’m negative and I plan on staying that way.”
Whenever I encounter this attitude, I usually respond with saying, “I hope you do as well.” I personally would never “spread” my virus to anyone. When you are upfront with your HIV status you may encounter this. Some people will refuse to have sex with you whether they are on PrEP or use condoms. But the response I have is used to support them in staying negative. You can also use this opportunity to educate them on HIV prophylaxis.

People will try to shame you because of your HIV status, but do not let them. Take the high road and do not go down the path of negativity. The more negative energy you put into your life, the more negative outputs you will have. Granted you can respond to any of the seven things any way you want—turning the other cheek, blocking and not responding at all work just as well.


Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Presently, he is working toward his doctorate in public health. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].