For many, being HIV positive, especially in those early months and years of diagnosis can bring about a sense of isolation. Emotional, physical and sexual isolation which seems to come as a natural state, subconsciously manifested as a mechanism of further damage limitation. After all, nobody likes to be rejected. Nobody likes to be ostracised. Nobody likes the feeling of being polluted or damaged and nobody likes to be gossiped about. The upshot however is that being part of the gay community, all of these things are even more poignant. The gay scene especially thrives on sexual liberation, promiscuity, idle gossip and social jockeying. So as a result it is understandable that we go through this state.
Nobody likes to be seen to have failed or fallen from whatever pedestals they have been precariously balancing on. So the answer, in the short to medium and in some cases long term is to hide away, pretend you’re busy with something else: Too busy to go out; too busy to play; too busy for coffee; too busy to date; too busy to get on with your life! (I’m not even going to go into the way HIV can affect how you see yourself sexually in this blog. I think that needs an entry of its own!)
I can hear the cogs turning inside the heads of so many guys out there. Beating themselves up with the burden of responsibility of a virus which majority of them picked up by having fun and living care free.
If you are not coming into contact with others then you can’t pass on the virus.
You can’t cause any harm.
You can’t infect.
If you’re not coming into contact with others then you don’t have to talk about it.
You can’t be rejected
Yes, it is our responsibility, as positive individuals to not spread infection and further the virus. I totally understand and appreciate this. But do you know what? It is not just our responsibility. That responsibility lies with everybody, both positive and negative. We are all in control of our own lives and capable of making decisions for ourselves. I chose to have sex with people who I knew were HIV positive. Does this make me a bad person for my irresponsibility? Does this make me a good person for not discriminating based on a risk? I think it just makes me a person. Whatever our motives for making a decision, they are our own and nobody has the right to judge us based on those decisions, but, the point I’m making here is that HIV should be seen as a issue for everybody and not just for those who have it.
By the way, I used the word infection earlier on purpose. I personally hate it being used in conjunction with HIV as for me it is a very dirty word, conjuring up images of green puss and weeping wounds and full hospital waiting rooms. The words we use in relation to our lives are very empowering, enabling and directive. I try to use neutral and positive language as much as possible as I feel there is enough negativity in the world already. Although grammatically correct, I don’t believe people are ‘infected’ with HIV. I believe it is something we acquire. This also shifts the finger of blame from the person who passed it on. (Of course in some cases HIV is deliberately passed on either through rape, bug chasing or maliciousness etc. I am not talking about those cases here). HIV is after all a virus. A little package of nucleic acid coding which has the sole purpose of replicating itself and disseminating to as many hosts as possible. Do we blame others when we get a cold or the flu or a wart? I don’t think so.
So anyway, I would like to throw a couple of terms into the mix here. Poz and SeroSorting. Poz, firstly because its easier to type, but also because it is a modern identifier for members of the HIV positive community. Labeling and pigeon holing are normalised functions of society. Many of us like to think that we fit and in many cases aspire to fit into certain niche’s: Bear; Twink; Geek; Gym Bunny; Middle class; Pig; Politician etc. Many target groups are reclaiming negative labels as positive and enabling words. Lots of gay men now use Queer as a powerful and highly used label. Spaz, a word used to describe those with a disability has been reclaimed by a wheelchair manufacturer as the name for one of its products. The Poz community is diverse in background and rich in culture, class and race but is united by this one thing, being Poz.
Some will have heard of SeroSorting but I’m guessing many will not. It is a tool to enable Poz people to move on with their lives. I am not sure how prolific this has become in the heterosexual community, but in the gay community I know SeroSorting is becoming a popular option to help an individual get his head around some of the issues I raised earlier. Sero is in reverence to the serum of our blood and sorting is pretty self explanatory. Effectively this means that guys choose only to have sex with others of the same HIV status as themselves. Now this may sound like exclusivity but HIV negative people have been doing just that since the beginning of the epidemic. The problem with Negative partners doing it is that there is a period after the last time you had unsafe sex where a HIV test will remain negative even if you have been infected. For those of us who are Poz this is not a worry anymore as we already have the virus! We are all responsible for our own sexual health, whether Poz or HIV negative so whether you choose to practice safe sex in conjunction with SeroSorting is entirely up to you, Personally I hate condoms, but that is my choince. However, there is still a risk of acquiring other sti’s and, though not recorded or documented very much, the possibility of HIV superinfection also exists. This is where you acquire a secondary strain of the virus and could have serious implications (Incidence of HIV Superinfection following primary infection, Smith et al 2004).
Where SeroSorting works however is that it removes the fear of passing on the virus to a negative partner. For many Poz guys, especially newly diagnosed ones, this fear is overwhelming. At my own diagnosis I was told I was HIV positive and in the same breath, the healthcare support worker pointed to a page in a booklet and told me that I Would be prosecuted if I gave it to anybody else! As inappropriate, un-empathic and psychologically damaging that was to me at the time, it did cause me to SeroSort to mitigate this risk.
A second positive impact of SeroSorting is that it brings you closer to the Poz community. This helps to alleviate the feelings of isolation because you are mixing and socializing with other Poz guys. There are around 65,000 people diagnosed with HIV living in the UK alone with up to 25% more undiagnosed (though I don’t know what the proportion of these people are gay…). That’s a lot of people to talk to about their and your experiences, coping strategies, lifestyle changes etc and potentially a lot of people you can fuck too!!!! Of course your location is a big factor too. If you live in a small welsh mining village then the likelihood of you finding other Poz guys, that you want to have sex with, are greatly reduced compared to say, somebody living in central London or Manchester. But that’s the joy of the internet, which im guessing you have access too as you are reading this. Finding other Poz guys is very easy online. There are many websites out there. Some focused on sex, some on friendship, some on a mixture of the two. Not being open about your status is not necessarily a barrier either. There are things you can say in your profile, clues and hints you can put in which allude to your status but don’t necessarily give the game away. Personally I just say point blank on all my profiles that I am HIV positive and choose never to have safe sex. This puts the ball in the other guys court and, from experience weeds out majority of conversations that are not going to lead anywhere. But I know this approach is not for everyone and that I am a pretty brazen kind of guy. But its not just about the sex is it? Openness and honesty, with yourself and others cultures a inner core of confidence and will help remove stigma: if were all talking openly about it what is there to stigmatise?
I keep thinking I need to finish these things off with some thought or dramatic moral conclusion, but really, do I? I don’t want each entry to end like an episode of Star Trek, with the Bridge crew all sharing a joke and grinning like idiots.