Whether we’re searching for a relationship, companionship, or a casual fling, probably the biggest obstacle we face as poz individuals is other people’s fear. So often, someone’s fear of HIV/AIDS causes them to shut down before they really give us a chance. I myself, in any encounter, believe in full disclosure well before things get serious in any way. I can’t even begin to count the number of conversations that have ended online, rather abruptly, after I fill someone in on my status.
Years ago, when they expressed their fear, I too often went on the defensive, delivering a pedantic lecture about the realities of transmission as well as their judgment of me. Well, what I too often saw as judgment was simply fear. In men younger than myself, it was probably the fact that they didn’t understand completely and instead of filling them in on some simple facts, I judged in return, rather harshly at times. In men my own age and older, the fear had more of a basis in the history of the plague that they themselves had probably lost loved ones to. Still, I feel that part of the problem was a lack of education. The concept of safe sex is hardly new, and with what we today know about treatment and the risk of transmission, there is no reason to really avoid intimacy with a poz woman or man. It can really be exhausting having to explain these facts to people who aren’t aware of them, however, and that conversation hardly lends itself to romance.
I’ve mellowed a bit over time, but I still find myself occasionally telling off a man on an app who hits me up with a compliment or hello but who does something like spelling out in his profile his rejection of anyone who’s positive. We’ve all seen that odious phrase “drug and disease free” on the apps and the dating websites. Sometimes, it is as simple as listing “HIV–” under your preferences. It all stings and, if we choose to remember it, comes from a place of fear and a lack of real knowledge. Can I call myself an advocate if my own reaction is one of anger and judgment?
There’s a great guy in my life that I see a few times a year when he travels to my city on business. I’ve known Paul for years now. We initially hooked up online about four years ago. At the time I was hesitant; I was burnt out on one-night stands and looking for something more substantial. I just couldn’t achieve sexual gratification with someone with whom I didn’t have a level of intimacy established. I took a chance and found an immediate connection with Paul. I felt comfortable with him from the start and we were a great match sexually. Paul is a little different than the men I usually end up involved with. He was married for twenty-five years and is the father of three grown children. I wouldn’t call Paul gay; he’s more of a bisexual who, after a marriage that ended badly, has now decided to limit his experiences to other men. He grew up a conservative Catholic in the Middle East and is out to no one other than his daughter, who found out about his attraction to men accidentally.
After our first encounter, Paul returned home to California and we remained in touch. Looking back now, we were both a little smitten at first; then something happened that almost ended our relationship. I mentioned something about my status assuming that I had already told him. It came as quite a shock to him, and, while he never got angry, he was quite upset. We spent a lot of time on the phone during which I reassured him that there was no danger; we had used a condom and been safe. I also tried to explain U=U to him, but that was beyond his grasp at the moment. He was still a relative newcomer to the gay world and he couldn’t think beyond his fear. Over time I managed to reassure him and we have remained intimate. We’re friends who have sex and share affection with each other and both of us enjoy it that way. There’s no talk of love, no thought of a future and as long as we both remain single we enjoy each other’s company when he’s in town for business or to see family.
But for Paul, the fear remains. He’s in town right now and is my guest as usual. Just the other morning after a night of great sex, I had to reassure him agin that we weren’t doing anything unsafe and that regardless, sex with me was safe. I’m regularly tested for other STIs and remain undetectable. Paul is a good and decent man who’s always been good to me and I never mind explaining all of this to him, again. He didn’t come of age in the gay world and yes, to him, AIDS is a disease he only thinks of in relation to gay men. He is a man who was faithful to one person in a long marriage and it’s not something he had to worry about, but he worries now.
Maybe, just maybe, I can apply some of this patience to some of the other men I interact with, men who are also afraid. If I want to be an advocate and to do more to educate others, a little patience might be called for. I can’t expect tolerance and understanding when I am so quick to judge in return. I’ll have to come from a place of understanding and tolerance if I want to call myself a true advocate and educator.
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 fifteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.