To Disclose or Not to Disclose
Science reframes the question for our sexual relationships
by John Francis Leonard
The U=U message, as we individually and collectively gain more confidence in it, seems to be evolving. I’ve noticed that many leading advocates and agencies have been suggesting that since there is no danger of passing on HIV when you’re undetectable and under treatment, that automatically disclosing your status might not be absolutely necessary in every situation. (Some advocates point out that nineteen states criminalize non-disclosure when it comes to sex, so any discussion should factor this aspect in.) I’m still of two minds about this, but on a recent trip to New York City, I decided to turn my dating app on and see how things went. I do not disclose my status in my profile, I never have, but I’ve always disclosed it the minute the possibility of sex came up.
My trip was on Thanksgiving week, and I hadn’t anticipated the number of men who’d be out of town for the holiday. Both the bar I went out to and the app itself were very quiet and rustling up a tryst seemed to be as futile as herding cats. I prefer to plan things, and most guys in the city take a five-minute-from-now approach. I didn’t have much luck sealing the deal, but it was very liberating not having an automatic conversation about my status. Would I have gone through with it and not disclosed? I believe I would have, but the situation left me with a lot of doubts. Even on a sex app, there’s always the possibility of a more permanent arrangement taking shape. I’ll be the first to admit that a long-term relationship is always my goal, it’s just the way I’m wired at my age. I admire those who can have sex with no strings, I just find it difficult, if not impossible. I have, however, had success with a FWB (friends with benefits) situation with a couple of local guys that I know well and have for some time.
One of them, I’ll call him Barry here, I’ve known for five years now. I disclosed to him when we first met and we’ve always talked about the facts of transmission when you’re undetectable openly. Some time back, we stopped using a condom, his idea. I reassured him again with all the relevant facts and figures and he seemed comfortable, but changed his mind some months later. As the negative partner, I felt that was his right, but several times since he has requested to penetrate me without a condom. It’s become a little game that he plays, but I think he’s not happy with himself afterwards. We need to discuss this again. I don’t want him doing something he feels is unsafe or irresponsible, even if it isn’t either. Barry means a lot to me both as a friend and a sexual partner, and I want him to feel as good as I do about our physical relationship. Disclosure only begins the conversation with someone who is a regular partner.
So this all leaves me on a fence that I need to get off of. I can’t have it both ways. One positive thing I’m seeing more and more in profiles I see on the apps, especially in New York City, is men open to those who are undetectable. But we’re not totally there yet and I need to make a decision about disclosure. In situations where sex is not imminent, it’s okay to bide my time a little. Our Lady J, the television writer and producer, told me in an interview last year that she never discloses on the first date. She wants to get a feel for a potential partner before telling them something that is so personal, so intimate. That really stuck with me. It’s not just another person’s feelings we must consider, but our own. My ideal situation locally is a man who I can have a sexual relationship with that’s based on a friendship. What kind of friends would we be if I didn’t trust him with information on my status? As far as potential relationships, of course disclosure is a must. Who would want to hide anything from a future partner? I’ll ease into it, of course, but wait too long and it becomes more and more awkward. Now on a future vacation, when an opportunity arises for a quick roll in the hay? I can’t say that I would be totally opposed to not sharing my status. The science is clear, there is no risk, but I would have to judge on a case by case basis. As I write that though, my mind goes back to what if? What if we connect? What if he’s the one and I didn’t disclose, how do I recover from that? It’s the curse of the hopeless romantic.
All my decisions are one thing, if nothing else, highly personal. We each have to negotiate a complex landscape when we’re positive——how and when we let others know about it. This goes for all of our relationships, but is most important when it comes to sex and love. Not so long ago, there was no PrEP and U=U was an unknown concept. If stigma is bad now, it was even worse then. We, and those we engage with, have choices now and as tiresome as it can be, I do feel that we have some responsibility to get the message out about those choices in whatever way we can.
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. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.