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Monday, 26 September 2011

To Disclose or Not To Disclose? That is the Question.

I am really open about my status. I accept that it is something that I cannot change about myself. You may even say that I am very comfortable with my status seen as I have used it as a force for change in my life. The fact that I have been HIV positive for under 2 years however still surprises me. It feels like I have had this for much longer and certainly I know many guys out there who have been positive for a damn site longer than me and still have not come to terms with it. I am not comparing my own experiences with them. This would be both patronizing and offensive. We are all different and have our own stories that have lead us to the juncture that we are in life. Mine just happens to have been just the right recipe of events, misdemeanors and situations that have instilled in me a level of acceptance and self-awareness to be able to assimilate HIV into my life in a timely fashion.
Do I see myself as different from those who are HIV negative?

Do I see myself as disabled? A term I was told I should now identify with by a couple of other positive guys near to my diagnosis.
Do I feel any less of a person? Any less sexual? Any less full of life?

And why the Hell should I? I don’t see why I should punish myself for an event in my life which has already happened but essentially has no impact on anybody else other than me. I have not robbed a bank, murdered somebody, sewn drugs in the gut of a dog to smuggle across a boarder or mailed a white powder to a politician. So if what I have, the virus I carry around in my body is a problem for somebody else then tough. That’s not my problem, it’s theirs. If somebody sees me as a lesser person or somebody who needs pity because I am poz then that’s their loss because I really don’t need their pity or ignorance.

However, disclosure is not quite so cut and dry. Coming out as gay is a trauma in itself. Coming to terms with your sexuality and having the courage and conviction to stand up and say to the world “I’m different.” “I like to fuck other guys.” “I bat for the other team.” This, especially during your teens to early adulthood, takes guts. The world is a different place now compared to when I came out back in 1993. In only 18 years it has changed massively! The fact that there are 18 year olds out there doing the same thing now is a scary enough prospect in itself. But 18 years earlier, back in 1975 I don’t even want to think how it must have been for a young adult to come to terms with their sexuality. Growing up during the beginning of the HIV epidemic. Seeing the fear on my mothers face while she made me promise never to put my willy in another mans bottom when I was about 7 years old. Watching the scary adverts. The news stories of hundreds of gay men wasting away in hospitals. The dying celebrities: Kenny Everett; Freddie Mercury. The soap opera stories. The media had us in a grip of utter fear. As a young teenager I had it in my head that if I was to come out as gay then I was going to die of Aids. Effectively, admitting your sexuality back then was like giving yourself a death sentence. HIV was seen as something which will kill you.

In 2011, the perception is quite different. Modern anti-retroviral medications have changed the prognosis for those living with the virus. It is now described as a chronic illness and not a terminal one. As wonderful as this is there is a downside to it.  The fear has subsided. Many guys out there are so complacent about HIV because they don’t see it as something which will kill them. They see those of us living with the virus, getting on with our lives: Happy; Healthy; Grounded. They hear terms like ‘undetectable viral load’ and ‘Joining the poz club’ and ‘I’m only on one pill a day’ and think everything is going to be honky dorey.

I am sorry to have to say this but HIV IS still something which can kill you. Meds are not the ray of sunshine and beacon of hope for everybody. Some people have terrible side effects. Debilitating ones, both psychological and physical and have to go through several combinations before they find one that suits them. Many are not fortunate enough to live in a country where health care is provided free of charge, like here in the UK and HIV medication is not cheap. The pills I am on retail at around £600 per month. A cost which is paid by the taxpayer. You will never be able to be on the organ donor list or give a kidney to a sick family member or have children (unless you go through an expensive semen washing procedure). For those who are not bothered about getting HIV I would seriously think twice about whether you have considered all the ramifications which go with being poz because its not the bed of rose petals some make it out to be. But getting back to the point, Disclosure about your status is a choice. It is also a bit of a pandoras box, much like coming out as gay is. Once you open the box and tell people you can never close it again so it is a very difficult and well considered decision. Do you tell your GP? Your dentist? Your family, Boss, work colleagues? Who do you trust with this information? Will it damage the relationships you have with them? Will it damage your career? Will it affect how others treat you? Who do you have to tell legally? Who should you tell morally? It’s a fucking minefield I tell you. Fortunately for me I attended a newly diagnosed course funded by the Elton John Aids Foundation and run by George House Trust, A HIV charity based in Manchester. This gave me information about disclosure, safe sex, medications, support networks etc. Sadly, courses like this are not available everywhere and many newly diagnosed guys are left in the dark and feeling unsupported.

For me, disclosure was difficult at the beginning. I was so scared of rejection. Scared of what others would think of me and terrified of passing on the virus and being prosecuted. It took me over a year to fully ‘come out’ as Positive, even though I had a biohazard tattoo on the back of my neck after only a few weeks of  being diagnosed (a symbol which identifies a person as being HIV positive). if everybody knows my status then I figure the ball is then in their court how they want to proceed: if they still want sex; a friendship; a relationship etc. There are instances where disclosure is still a grey area though. For example:

You’re in a gay sauna and a guy starts playing with you. These places are usually punctuated with grunts, groans and little in the way of verbal conversation. It is one of their charms one might say. At what point do you say, in a room full of fucking men: “just so you know mate, im poz”????? Some might say, don’t get yourself into this kind of situation in the first place. You try telling that to a drunken man at 4am after a nights clubbing who cant afford a hotel and just wants to kill a few hours till the busses start again. Disclosure is not quite so simple. Some might say that a guy going into a sauna at 4am and having bareback sex is either positive already or ‘asking for it’. But we have all been there. We all get the horn when we are drunk. Inhibitions go out of the window. Safety is something for sober people. Once we don the Beer Goggles anything could happen! The problem here is that this is how the virus is transmitted a lot of the time. Drunken mishaps in a dark corner. So as a positive man, does this make it my sole responsibility to behave accordingly in a sauna? If that guy doesn’t fuck me he’s just gonna go bang some other guy in there. The answer, sadly is yes (and no). Were all adults here and all capable of making decisions for ourselves. It’s how we live with the consequences of those decisions that is the question we all must ask. As I have said in an earlier blog, communication is our biggest weapon against HIV transmission and disclosure is how we communicate our status. We all make mistakes and have mishaps but its how we deal with it after that is the key. But the problem here is that if you do fuck up, telling a guy in the sauna after the event can be pretty catastrophic. Trust me, I know! Having a guy shouting at you for all the hear that you should have told him you was HIV positive before he decided to bareback you, a random anonymous guy in the sauna can be pretty tough. I mean, what the fuck! If he isn’t prepared to accept the risk of any STI, not only HIV then he should not be playing unsafe in a sauna in the first place. But these experiences make you, the positive person, well certainly in my experience, all the more likely to disclose the next time. A wise man I know in town told me a few weeks ago that he treats every man he fucks as if they are HIV positive. From his perspective then he always plays safe and there is no need for discussion of disclosure of status on either side (condom breakage aside). Not everybody has such strength of conviction when it comes to safe sex though.

So in answer to the question of the Blog. For me, disclosure is the only way. It is safeguarding everyone, especially myself, against ridicule, guilt and prosecution. 

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