Polish Porn Actor And Escort Kayden Gray Strips Away Pretense and Shame to Deliver a Hardcore Point About Living with HIV
by Dann Dulin
Being an escort and a porn actor are not generally viewed as the most socially acceptable professions. Add to that the status of being HIV-positive and you have the Triple Threat of stigma.
Kayden Gray is such a person. A worldwide star in adult entertainment, nine months after his March 2013 debut, he was diagnosed with HIV. Raised a Catholic boy (now atheist) with small town values from Jarocin, Poland, Kayden decided to reveal his HIV status on YouTube — front and center.
In the impactful video, shot in May 2017, the thirty-four old Gray (the stage name inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray) is straightforward and emotionally centered. He reveals that he was infected after having unprotected sex with multiple guys at a party. (For the record, Kayden only performs anally in the front of the cameras wearing a condom.) “After my diagnosis, I felt disgusted, unlovable, and thought my life would end,” he says, emphasizing that his porn career did not contribute to his being infected. “The worst part is the judgment and the cruelty of people from my own community. …This doesn’t help. We are all in this (together).”
Kayden concludes, “It gets better…Stay together.” The burden had been so heavy that it took a very public admission to finally come to terms with the diagnosis. By his honestly and grace, Kayden inspires others to reveal their status, if appropriate.
He was diagnosed within two weeks after exposure. In a few weeks, his viral load dropped from 2.1 million units (per mil of blood) to 195,000 units. He then went on ART (Anti-Retroviral Treatment) and began to feel better. After several months on medication his viral load became undetectable and he returned to work.
Today sometimes he may fall ill, but it’s due only to his “lifestyle choices.” He continues his daily regimen of Truvada and raltegravir.
Prior to his move to London in 2007, Kayden attended university in Poland, studying English philology. In London, he took musical theater classes, where he also developed an interest in filmmaking. He used to write, sing, and produce his own songs under the moniker, Voytek. In 2010, he made an album, Lollipop, which can be seen on YouTube. (He was also an extra in the film, Absolutely Fabulous.)
Kayden became interested in adult entertainment when someone approached him who was affiliated with a British studio. He took six months to ponder on the offer then applied to Lucas Entertainment, where in early 2013 he shot his first film. As luck would have it, the production company immediately paired him with popular personalities and soon Kayden became a big name himself.
Currently, Kayden is Advocacy Director at Impulse Group, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting healthy sexual and mental practices. Jose Ramos, who witnessed his friend suffer and die of AIDS-related causes, founded it. Gray robustly touts them for aiding in his recovery and public discourse.
Kayden didn’t reveal his diagnosis to his family until several years later, having told his mum a few days before he went public. Though he comes from a dysfunctional family, their strong love for one another has surpassed that. “I saw things I never should have seen and today I’m very much aware my family has been the direct source of some of my most deeply-rooted issues that I still struggle with,” he notes. Though his parents prided themselves on being different, it didn’t translate into their acceptance of him. He grew up feeling like he had disappointed them. For a time they didn’t communicate, but recently Kayden has reconnected with them. “I do owe my mum a great deal,” he says, “especially my dark crude sense of humor — that often serves me as a shield.”
When did you first hear the words HIV or AIDS?
I first heard them in a derogatory form when I was a kid. I didn’t know what it meant but I’d heard older kids shout it at a local homeless guy, who may have suffered from drug/alcohol dependency. I remember I ended up jumping on the bandwagon and using those words myself, oblivious to the weight they carried.
Were you educated about AIDS in school?
My school sex ed back in Poland, and back in the previous millennium, consisted of some general info on conception and contraception, a glance over sexually transmitted diseases, and a continuous unspoken reassurance that sex wasn’t something we should be interested in, let alone something we should be having. I even remember my favorite primary school biology teacher telling the class she wouldn’t recommend masturbation, seemingly unaware that some of us had already been sexually active. It’s no surprise that ten years later I was an ignorant twenty-three year old living in London who didn’t know how to tackle his sexual health issues.
What happened at that age?
I had a burning feeling so I went to the local GUM (Genito Urinary Medicine) clinic. It turned out to be nothing more than an abrasion that I needed cream for. I remember being devastated by the whole experience. I got a very cold shoulder from some of the staff there. I felt like I was being punished for my choices, and was advised to stick to having one sexual partner. Today, because I live elsewhere, I use the 56 Dean Street Clinic. There, people go out of their way to be kind to you and provide you with comfort. (Kayden thinks.) The crazy thing is, back in Poland things are even less progressive to this day.
When did you first get tested?
The first time I ever decided to have a sexual health screen was in 2008. I was twenty-three and new to the UK. After having sex with someone I was dating, I started feeling a lot of discomfort in my bum. I knew so little about sexual health I remember thinking, ‘I have AIDS. I’m going to die.’ These days I sometimes can’t believe I would reach that conclusion so easily, but then I remember the background I come from.
Did they mention condoms at all back in your Poland school?
Yes they did teach those basics about wearing condoms. The problem was that no one taught me about the reality of sex. Porn did that job, surreal as it often is. Sex was a taboo (in Poland). As a result I didn’t have the confidence to buy condoms until I was in my late teens, which was about eith to ten years after I started having sex.
What symptoms did you expérience that landed you at a médical facility?
I’d been very unwell and lost about 8kg (nearly 18 pounds) in body mass. I was already expecting the worst scenario, as I tried to find out what was wrong. The first clue I may be positive was an equivocal test result I received during a visit to the Bloomsbury clinic on Warren Street (London). They were very kind to me and, if I hadn’t been in denial, I probably would have realized they were preparing me for the eventuality.
How did the news come to you?
The actual confirmation came over the phone about five days later. I was alone. I text my best friend (the news). I remember sitting on my bed, stunned, unable to comprehend the reality unraveling in front of me. All I could think of was HIV — a great unknown for me. What I knew though was it was going to be tough, and that my life as I knew it was over.
A very common reaction.
It was probably the loneliest I’ve ever felt. I only knew one other person who was HIV-positive and I remembered seeing his tears and desperation when he found out. I thought no more sex, no more love. I wondered, ’Why am I even surprised… I’m a dirty faggot whore and this is where it got me.’ The following day I got extremely depressed and for a long time avoided intimacy. I think I cried for six months. (He pauses.) Today I realize how wrong I was for loathing myself for becoming positive. I also see how unnecessary some of what I went through was. If I hadn’t been so ignorant about HIV at the time, it would have been a lot easier for me to accept my status. But then again if I hadn’t gone through it, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today. I mean I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m ecstatic to have HIV, but I definitely see the silver lining.
What do you find is the most challenging thing to be positive?
The stigma. Having to go against other people’s ignorant views on the subject, especially those who mean well. A good example of that would be a phrase I’ve heard hundreds of times which, although always said in good faith, makes me quiver: “It’s not a death sentence anymore.” Yes, it’s been true for twenty years, but hearing the word “death” in casual conversation inevitably puts the image in my head. For those who can’t relate, imagine someone who just discovered Google — created 1997 — and is telling you about it.
What has been the best thing about being positive?
Probably the sensitivity I developed along the way. Living with HIV may have made me more wary of people and resulted in my being marginalized by the society, but it certainly made me wiser and more compassionate towards others, to the point where I’m starting to understand why people behave the way they do in the face of this virus.
How do you deal with depression?
Generally breaking cycles is what helps. Like doing new things, going places, meeting people. Music, cinema and other sources of inspiration seem to eliminate depression for me too. Little things like making my bed when I get up or going to the gym early also help — small accomplishments at the start of the day. Last year I also started going to therapy. At the moment I feel like I may have dug out more than I can process. I don’t know what to do with it all . . . but I’ll figure it out. Pacing oneself is definitely a good idea when you’re doing therapy.
Tell me about dating. How do you get dates?
In the past I was very shy so I would mainly go on dating websites and apps. These days it varies. I tend to socialize and enjoy it more.
When do you tell your dates your status?
These days a lot of the guys I meet already know my status, which saves me from having to tell them. If they don’t know or it’s unclear, I usually bring it up when I first meet them.
How do you tell them?
A lot of what I do these days is related directly or indirectly to HIV so I have plenty of hooks I can use, if I want to tell someone. But it’s not always easy and sometimes I just won’t share it at all. I’m undetectable which means I don’t pose a threat to anyone’s wellbeing, and so disclosure is completely optional.
Any advice to those who are newly diagnosed about dating?
Dating post-diagnosis can be tricky. Don’t rush. (I nod vehemently.) Remember you’re still the same person but at the same time don’t ignore the fact you have HIV. From my experience it doesn’t lead anywhere. This may not work for many people, because of their personal circumstances or general HIV politics where they live, but if you think you can handle talking about it and you feel safe to, I’ve learnt it’s better to do it before having sex — even with clients, would you believe?! Being open is risky but worth it. It helps eradicate stigma one on one. That and you don’t have to deal with the potential post-coitus HIV panic. That can be a real circus!
Have you “lost” dates due to being positive?
I have. A few times. I dated someone once for three weeks who never saw me again after I told him. I was crushed, but I understand why. He was very young and it wasn’t until his dick had been inside me (no protection) that I told him. I was nearly undetectable then but he didn’t know what that meant. Neither did his mother. His G.P. didn’t exactly seem qualified to handle the situation either.
I can only imagine how terrified he must have been. Back then I was still scared (about telling others). It took me three weeks to work up to it. That was a slip-up on my part. (He clears his throat.) I regularly lose clients because of HIV, too.
This kid didn’t know what any of this meant?! Can you address HIV within your generation, and younger, especially since the carry one of the highest rates of infection?
It’s true. I think one of the main issues we are facing is that socially discussions about sexual health is still taboo, even in countries as developed as the UK. Less so than in the past but the progress is too slow. With sex being such a personal subject, we need more open conversations, where we’re not talked . You can school someone on condom use and tell them “Don’t do drugs,” but that doesn’t mean they’ll listen.
I really think people need to be inspired to care about themselves. They also need to be given easily digestible information that clarifies sexual health for them and it has to be done through channels they’re interested in, in a way < they> can relate to.
That makes sense.
Entertainment (both adult and other) may look like a trivial solution to some but I’ve been growing more and more convinced that, if used efficiently, it can serve as an excellent medium between services and education and the people who need them. This right here is why the Impulse Group fits me like a glove, and is likely to feel the same for many other people. As for future generations, I believe sexual education needs to become more thorough and inclusive.
Volunteering at Impulse Group I assume boosts your self-esteem.
It certainly does—and not just in a superficial way. I know how isolating and cruel the scene can be. I’ve certainly been a target of it myself, and not only by people whom have misconceptions about me related to what I do. Being scrutinized often made me feel like a social recluse. These days I’m still very much a lone wolf but being part of the group I now have an opportunity to work alongside some incredible, likeminded people who see me for who I am. The spirit of acceptance, inclusiveness, and community lying at the very foundation of our group has turned out to be just what I needed to disengage from self-destruction and accept the things that are unusual about me, including my HIV status.
Previously I was terrified to talk HIV. Now I don’t seem to shut up. The London branch of Impulse is still very young. We’re growing and are always happy to hear from potential volunteers through our social media. Look for Impulse London on FaceBook, Instagram, or Twitter.
Where does you sense of charity come from?
I was a small, campy, fragile Polish kid who was bullied. I grew up to be a gay HIV- positive porn actor/escort with a history of depression, anxiety, social phobia, and drug use. I think it would be strange if I didn’t care. I know what it’s like to be different. I know what it’s like to feel unsafe, and wish you were someone else because people around you seem to hate who you are. I guess I still could have turned out different. After all it’s often hurt people who hurt others. Maybe I was just lucky to have experienced enough kindness and love to not lose faith in people. I know the difference that can make to someone’s life. If I’m going to be something to someone, I want to be that.
Any thoughts about those who are presently struggling with their diagnosis?
Just a quick word, yes. I know firsthand that HIV comes with a certain vulnerability, which can make you a target of shaming and cruelty. The whole thing can be made even worse by things like politics, culture, or just simple human ignorance. Whenever you feel ashamed or inferior because of your status, I’d like you to remember that HIV is just a virus. It really is. It… doesn’t…. denote… human… value. It doesn’t define who you are in the slightest. And yes, there are people who disagree, but they’re either scared of what they can’t understand or they’re projecting their own issues onto you. Don’t let those people dictate how you see yourself. You have nothing to be ashamed of. In other words: Fuck ‘em. Be you.
What’s best thing about being a porn actor?
It’s a platform I can build on.
Name some of your favorite films.
The Devil Wears Prada, Requiem For A Dream, The Help, and Shortbus.
Who do you look up to?
Chelsea Handler, David Attenborough, Seth Macfarlane, Brian Cox. I love the way those people’s minds work and the vibes they project into the world.
Reveal something about yourself that most of us would find surprising.
Promise not to tell anyone? …I used to be married to a girl.
What book are you currently reading?
This may sound bad but… I hate reading books! I can never focus long enough. I’m a slow reader and I often read out loud, eventually realizing I’ve been paying no attention to the words that come out of my mouth. It’s rarely a relaxing experience. That’s why I’m currently one chapter into each of the four books I’m “reading’ — The Secret Diary Of A London Call Girl, The Shack, Grindr Survivr, and The Meaning Of Matthew.
Sum yourself up in one word.
My mum did that pretty well when she named me, “Wojciech.”
What does it mean?
Traditionally it means — “He who rejoices in battle.”
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U.