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Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Grindr for the Healthy and Clean

Firstly, before I continue with my blog can I plug a link to the photo exhibition which I did a shoot for a few weeks ago and mentioned in my last installment:

I hope you can make it along to the exhibition or maybe even take part somehow?

I would like to talk about the power of language. The words that we use define us as individuals. Some of us fucking swear excessively. Some of us, like,  use the same word, like,  in sentences all the time, like,  even when it like has no context, like. Some of us are very obtuse, brash and wield words like a sledgehammer, whilst others are highly diplomatic and conscientious of the impact of what they say.  Words have destroyed businesses, like Gerald Ratner of Ratners High Street Jewelers saying how the decanters they sold were so cheap because they were “crap”.  Words can highlight the sheer stupidity of supposed great men in places of immense power such as George W Bush and his fool me once shame on you fuck up speech. As a result of manipulated and inaccurate words in a scientific paper published in the Lancet in 1998, tens of millions of pounds were spent on litigation cases and thousands of children suffered needlessly from measles and mumps. Yes, words can have dire implications indeed.

The nineteenth century school playground rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” was conjured up to try and minimize the negative impact of name calling and taunting. However, Having suffered from physical, emotional and psychological traumas at various points over the 36 years I have walked the earth I have to say that it is the words, the emotional and psychological assaults and injuries that have caused the most significant scarring. If only I was a stoical as some of those Victorian children eh. The wrong words can lead to depression, self doubt, self loathing, self harm even suicide. We are all aware of Bullying and the impact it can have on individuals and in our modern era of multiple methods of communication, bullying can be inflicted as a multi faceted attack. Facebook, text messages, smartphone applications, emails and phone calls. I have to agree that the pen is very much mightier than the sword, but the keyboard is even mightier! Anyway, enough of this rant, I need to say where it is going.

Something happened to me today. Something which really gets up my nose. I logged into Grindr on my iphone while I was on my tacho Break. Grindr is one of  several social networking app’s for gay men to chat, swap photos and hook up.  The app consists of many different guys profiles which contain a “family safe” photo of choice, basic stats and a brief paragraph of their own choosing.  The app then searches for all the other guys who are logged on or have recently logged on in your vicinity and displays how far away they are from you. It is elegantly simple and effective, in theory. The interesting thing about these kinds of app is that they seem to have evolved their own social etiquettes outside the realms of normal social communication. The fact that you have literally hundreds of guys at your fingertips kind of opens up a limitless opportunity to virtually cruise for gratuitous sex.

Some guys initiate a conversation conventionally with a “hi” or a “how’s it going”. This kind of conversation has the potential to blossom into something interesting. A drawn out tennis game of small talk or become a convoluted waltz of flirtation, platitudes and direct or indirect personal questions and answers. Others start the conversation with single words such as “Hot”, “Fit” “Woof” or “Oink”. These openings are meant to pander to your narcissistic side and elicit a response of thanks and potential reciprocation. This type of direct approach indicates that the guy is less likely to be looking for a chat and more likely to be feeling horny and wanting to empty his balls. Amazing how you can read so much information from the first word of a conversation with a complete random stranger.  Some guys open a conversation by sending you a dirty pic. One of their cock, or arse or of them being fucked or sucking a cock. Personally I find this approach a bit offensive. I mean, as nice as it is to be sent a random photo out of the blue of something filthy, I actually like the art of conversation and am a lot more turned on by what is going on inside a guys head than how big his cock is.

Another opening approach the single word: “Pix?” or “Cockpic?” or “Arsepic?” I find these opening lines both unbelievably rude and seriously immature. Yes I have pics. I have loads. However, I also have manners. I also have a personality. I also have a bit more about me than just a pic of my anatomy. It is not my job to educate these lads on their social skills but sometimes I cant help myself and launch into a tirade of questioning their upbringing and dilution of the genetic pool from their geographical place of origin and if they had managed to obtain a GCSE in English. Most of the time it just goes over their head and they just come back at me with the same question but with a please on the end. “Ok I get you, cockpic please?” At which point I am usually screaming at my phone screen.
There are also the 3 most predictable questions that invariably 95% of guys will always ask:

1.     What you into?
2.     What you looking for?
3.     You Top or Bottom?

These questions are now so predictable that they have almost become a cliché!

 I dunno what I am into. It is different depending on who I am playing with. With some guys I might be into snogging, with others I may be into Piss…. How on earth am I meant to answer this question to a complete stranger? My usual answer is “everything” which throws the ball back into their court.

What am I looking for? Well I am on a gay hook up app on my phone… I can pretty much guarantee that I am looking for the same as 95% of all the other guys logged into grindr at this present moment!

Am I top or Bottom? See the answer to question 1!

Some guys are completely hypocritical. They have a blank photo or one of just their torso or a big toe or their cat or their car or of a sunset or something fluffy and yet they have written on their profile page “No facepic: No chat”. What the fuck? What is this ‘Do as I say not as I do’ bullshit?

There was a bit of an incident several months back when a buddy of mine in Canada had his Grindr profile censored because he stated his HIV status on his profile page. This caused uproar amongst many groups on the internet and created a lot of negative publicity for Grindr. Many guys were outraged. Many emailed Grindr directly, including myself and many guys simultaneously started to put their HIV status onto their profile pages. Personally I never heard anything back from Grindr but I have not heard of any other cases of grindr censoring a profile that is stating the owners status. This kind of discrimination by a large player in the gay dating business like Grindr is seriously unacceptable. Hopefully they realised that it is irresponsible of them to not allow somebody to advertise their status.  Not to mention the fact that, at least here, in the UK, HIV is covered under the disability discrimination act. Being open and honest about your status on such profiles reduces stigma and allows guys to make informed choices about the kind of sex they want to have. I think we are most definitely at a point in the HIV epidemic where we are very aware that secrecy and hiding behind fear is one of the contributing factors to the proliferation of the virus.

One of the features of Grindr is that you can block somebody if you do not like them. This means you can no longer see their profile and they can no longer see yours. This is a handy feature for if you are, for instance, being stalked or a guy doesn’t get the message that you are not interested. To block somebody because of those reasons is perfectly reasonable. However. Some guys use the block button to end a conversation if you don’t quite measure up to their expectations or are not precisely what they are looking for in a shag.

Q. Are you Top?
A. No. I’m vers m8… like to get as good as I give

Q. Are you hung?
A. about 7” uncut

Q. You looking to fuck m8?
A. Not right this minute. Maybe later…

I find this so unbelievably rude. I mean you wouldn’t do this in a bar or a club so what makes it acceptable in an app? However, I am guilty of doing this very thing today. But I think I was justified in my action.

The conversation went something like this:

Him: Are you Top?

Me: I’m Vers

Him: So you like fucking?

Me: I am not averse to it….

Him: Do you fuck bareback?

Me: I prefer to yes

Him: Are you clean?

Me: What do you mean?

Him: Are you healthy?

Me: Oh, Yes, I shower regularly and I go to the gym often

Him: But are you free from disease.

Me: are you?

Him: Yes. As of 2 weeks ago. I didn’t mean to offend.

Me: Yes I am poz and clean (undetectable) and healthy. And yes you have offended me.


I don’t think it would have served any greater purpose to have continued the conversation. Was I right to just end the conversation with a BLOCK? I was so fucking angry! I hate it when people refer to HIV positive people as unclean, unhealthy or diseased. These words are very powerful, deeply offensive and stigmatising! Yes I have a blood bourn virus but it is well managed with medication and I am physically healthier than I have been since I was in high school! Is he free from disease? Yes he may have had a recent full STI screening but is he free from cancer or heart disease or Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s? Ok, I rarely wear deodorant because I personally hate the smell and kinda like the smell of my own manly body odour. However, I shower once or twice or sometimes 3 times a day. I also douche if I think I am gonna be fucked… Cleanliness is quite high on my agenda.

We are free to choose the words that we use when we interact with others. But please be aware of the potentially negative connotations associated with certain words. Freedom of speech is something we hold in high regard. But using language responsibly takes more effort than you might think. 

Thursday, 15 March 2012

30 years: How much have we moved on?

I have recently been to London to do a photo project for the 30th anniversary of HIV being officially recognised. 30 positive people being photographed doing everyday things. 30 things which are poignant moments on their journeys with HIV. Myself, I chose to document my journey to and from the clinic. I was photographed on the top of a bus. The experience of being photographed on an empty top deck of a double decker bus was both exciting and exhilarating. People on other busses and on the street were looking and pointing with curiosity. I will admit, I am more than a bit of a show off. But thinking of what this photo session was for, remembering what it was symbolizing for me did touch a few raw nerves inside. I have been asked to write a short statement to be displayed below my photo in the exhibition. Here is what I have come up with: 

“Something had changed that day on the bus. It was the same driver who had taken me and brought me back, but I was not the same passenger. Over time you learn to accept the virus as just a simple fact of life, but the journey HIV takes you on is one of segregation, guilt, secrecy and depression. But it’s not all bad. My journey is also one of hope, family, community and strength. I am rediscovering myself as a consequence of HIV. I openly share my experiences online.  I volunteer my time to help those elsewhere on their journey and I never again feel I need to hide because of who I am or what I have. I have a wonderful partner, fantastic children and amazing friends. Without these things I would not have made it to where I am on my journey. HIV is something we must fight together, not on our own.”

This journey had been one of great anxiety, and symbolised a great change in my life. On my way to the clinic I had felt the same as everybody else on the bus. On my way back I felt fundamentally different. I was no longer just me. I was now me plus something else. This was the first feeling of alienation that I had experienced from my status change. If I, as a positive person could feel such a strong feeling of difference and change so early on into my life with the virus then is there any wonder there is so much stigma attached to being HIV positive. 

Personally, I had felt uncomfortable and awkward around positive people back in the early 90’s. I had felt fear and anxiety when watching films like Philadelphia and when hearing of the Freddie Mercury’s and Kenny Everetts succumbing to the virus. But I thought I had rationalised my fear in the ensuing decades. I thought I had stopped seeing HIV as something to be scared of. I had educated myself and mixed with many positive people. However, in this instance, I was discovering than being forewarned is not necessarily being forearmed. I had now discovered that the reality of being told you yourself was HIV positive was very different. Nothing could have prepared me for these feelings. My mind was racing and yet, at the same time I felt utterly numb. This was November 2009. This was a time in the history of the epidemic where there was so much hope. There was so much support. There was so much medical knowledge and yet I still felt like I had been given my death sentence. So many people had been through so much. So many had lost their lives. So many had suffered, been shunned, been rejected, been left to die alone. HIV had been wreaking havoc across the planet for over two and a half decades but only now was I truly understanding the stark reality of it. I was now part of that statistic.

This number, 30, the more that I think about it the more upsetting it is. For over 30 years people have been dying from this virus. For over 30 years people have been living in fear of social stigma. Living in fear of rejection. Living in fear of prosecution. In the UK, HIV is now seen as a chronic illness. Something that is treatable. I am more likely to die of lung cancer or terminal boredom from atrocious daytime TV or from fast food fuelled hardening of the arteries than I am from HIV. The mortal implications of HIV in the west have waned now. We are more impacted by the social and psychological impacts of living with the virus. This fact is because of medical technology. The marvels of modern medical science are keeping us alive. Keeping us with our loved ones. But they are also keeping the pockets of large pharmaceutical companies very well lined. HIV is big business! 

Don’t get me wrong. I am not ungrateful. I think that modern treatments for HIV are amazing! They are serving to not only prolong the lives of those living with the virus but also halt any further spread of it. Treatment is now seen and is being adopted as a very credible and effective strategy in the fight against the spread of HIV. You see, if your on medication (MEDS) then it works by stopping the virus from being able to replicate inside your body. After a short period, usually several months, your body cleans up all the free virus in your blood stream. This is not a cure! Effectively you still have the virus hiding inside your body, but there is little or no free virus floating about inside you. This has 2 major consequences. Firstly, you are no longer under constant attack by the virus and so your immune system is no longer stressed. Secondly, you have no virus to be passed on, making you effectively non-infective. The term as an infection control strategy is called TAP (Treatment as prevention). Here in the UK, treatment is free. Technically you will have to wait until you have had HIV for a while before meds are offered but in theory you should be able to ask to go onto meds as soon as you are told you are HIV positive.  It is a big decision as you will be on meds for the rest of your life, taking a pill (s) every day, but the sooner you begin the less long term damage there is to your immune system and the less likely you are to pass on the virus. 

Sadly, this is only the situation in a handful of countries. HIV treatment is not freely available everywhere and in many places across the globe it is still very much a terminal disease. There are still places where I cannot visit because of my status. There are still places where HIV is seen with revulsion and hatred and fear. Here in England we are taught to accept and not judge. To overcome difference and segregation and bigotry. We pride ourselves on this. But this has only arisen as a result of our developed government, health service, educational standards, secularism and welfare state. It is easy for us to have our perceptions blurred by the bubble of our own making, looking out onto a world of suffering, hunger and disadvantage. I would like to think that in the next 30 years HIV will be a thing of the past. An episode in our history which we have leant many lessons from: medical, moral and social. But going off the way I felt when I found out about my HIV. Going off how HIV is still affecting disadvantaged parts of the world. Going off the relative price of HIV medication and the current state of the worlds economy. Going off the promotion of criminalisation of HIV in European countries such as Sweden and Norway. Going off how new cases of HIV in the UK are increasing in numbers year on year I cant help but feel that things are going to get worse before they get better.