Ah, Valentine’s Day. For positives, sex and romance—in Februaryor any other month—means confronting the risky business of disclosingtheir serostatus. Or not. A large University of California SanFrancisco study published in the June 2003 issue of the American Journal of Public Healthreported that 37 percent of gay/bi men, 13 percent of straight men and10 percent of women had casual sex without disclosing their HIV status.Casual meaning sex with someone other than a primary partner (I personally like sex with someone else’s primary partner).
Given those numbers—and the fact that you could land in the big house for not disclosing (see “Jailbait” )—POZ invited me, Michael Alvear, gay sex columnist and author of Men Are Pigs, But We Love Bacon,to interrogate HIVers of all orientations, as well as psychologists,researchers and community experts. Why do some tell and others don’t?Must you always? What should you wear? Full disclosure: I’m negative.So why am I so interested in talking serostatus? Because the subjectpains, liberates, complicates and terrifies many of my readers.
Positives taught me that disclosure depends on who you are (husband hunter? slut?) and how you define romance(back room? altar?). But all had this in common: a willingness to sharetheir hot ’n’ heavy disclosure conquests as well as their agonizinghumiliations.
When it comes to fast love, the HIVers I met fell into three camps. The first practice what you could call don’t ask, don’t tell.Esteban*, a 42-year-old Miamian, has so much sex he should strap aSerta Perfect Sleeper on his back whenever he steps out, but thisLatino lover never discloses to casual partners—and never asks them to,either. “I just make sure we have safe sex,” he says. “What’s thedifference between having safe sex with a negative guy and having safesex with me?” Russell Roberts, a straight African American from LosAngeles, subscribes to Esteban’s philosophy. He never used to revealhis status to the ladies he picked up in bars (he’s currently taken).“As long as I used a condom,” he says, “nobody needed to know mybusiness.” Colin, a white New Yorker in recovery, doesn’t disclose whenhe has oral sex—and remembers his barebacking days with regret. “Iwould say to guys ‘Are you sure?’ If they said yes, I could live withthat.”
Experts say men like Esteban, Russell and Colin don’tdisclose for one simple reason: They may be ho’s—but they don’t want toget the old heave-ho. “It’s not about being sneaky,” says Esteban. “It’s about protecting yourself from rejection.”
“Rejection can make HIVers feel devastated or go into extremedepression—especially when they believe they haven’t had an opportunityto discuss their status,” says disclosure researcher Julie Serovich,PhD, who adds that getting dissed can cause backlash. “[HIVers] think,‘Why should I take the disclosure initiative?’”
And people aren’t just avoiding emotional vulnerability.“What is merely awkward for a negative person to bring up is dangerousfor the positive person,” says Brad Thomason, a psychologist at NewYork’s Center of HIV Educational Studies and Training (CHEST), who hasseen patients who’ve been physically assaulted after disclosing.
What happens when neggies do bring up HIV? It can force don’task, don’t tell types to take another tack. “I met this guy at a bar,and after we made out and groped each other, he said, ‘You’re diseasefree, right?’” recalls Chris, a New Yorker who normally doesn’tdisclose to casual partners. “I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I’m notdisease free. I’m HIV positive.’ It was incredibly awkward—we were ineach other’s arms. There’s no nice segue to get out of that.” Badneggie etiquette is one reason psychotherapist Michael Shernoff, whohas treated hundreds of HIVers, says “own up to your status if you’reconfronted. That will disarm the attack.”
Nyrobi Moss, who educates positive women for SisterLove inAtlanta, says ladies with HIV may have problems, but nosy negative guysisn’t one of them. “Men don’t care who you been with—they just want tobe with you,” she laughs.
Do Ask, Do Tell
While disclosing to a fling can be awkward, many feelobligated. Rick Howington will spend hours dancing, chatting andcharming a gym dandy—then sabotage all his hard, sweaty work.“Ethically, I don’t see any other way,” says this Atlanta white boy.“If the person I got it from had warned me, I might never have beeninfected.” Rick embodies what Serovich describes in her research as the“responsibility factor.” Serovich has found that most HIVers who dodisclose “hold the conviction that disclosure is the responsible thingto do to protect others.”
I should add that Rick doesn’t disclose in the bar. He doesit en route to his silver Honda Accord. “I don’t wait till we’re homebecause I don’t want them to feel trapped,” he says. “But I also don’ttell them in the bar—that’s where the fun happened.”
Mark, a 37-year-old gay African American from Detroit, hasanother reason to tell all. “Many a long-term relationship starts witha one-night stand,” he says. “If something develops out of that sexualencounter, like a relationship, a lot of trust issues would come up andruin a potential romance.” What if the guy bails? “I don’t take itpersonally because I know they’re not rejecting me, they’re rejectingthe virus,” he says. Says Serovich, “There are people who can say,‘There are other guys in the bar—this one’s a loser.’”
Mark almost always gets his man even after disclosing, and sodoes Tim Chittenden, 29, a white, gay ex-Marine in Columbus, Ohio. ButTim doesn’t just tell—he also asks. “If I disclose and they say, ‘Nobig deal,’ I usually stop and ask, ‘Are you positive or negative?’ Theyalmost always turn out to be positive. So I’ll say, ‘At what point wereyou going to volunteer the information?’” Psychologist Thomason saysthat “just goes to show you how terrified people can be aboutdisclosing.” Which is why Tim drops the subject along with his pants.“I usually end the awkwardness,” he says, “by screwing them into themattress springs.”
But do ask, do tell doesn’t always go so well. A guy oncedisclosed to a neggie friend of mine at a bar, then, sensingawkwardness, said, “Tell you what: I’ve gotta go to the bathroom. If Icome back and you’re still here I know you’re cool with it. If you’renot, no hard feelings.” When he came back, my pal was gone. Which justgoes to show you, class doesn’t always get ass. Nonetheless I like thebathroom bit, as does Walt Odets, a clinical psychologist and author ofthe landmark In The Shadow of the Epidemic. “He reduced the discomfort for both parties,” he says.
Some HIVers will actually let the “evidence” do the talking,using what Robert Klitzman, MD, and Ronald Bayer, PhD, call “codedcommunication” in their new book, Mortal Secrets: Truth and Lies in the Age of AIDS.(It’s chock-full of provocative tales from HIVers.) Gary, one of theinterviewees, says, “You walk into my apartment, and there are medicinebottles all over the place. I mean, it’s not hard to figure out.”Another handy piece of evidence HIVers use? Why, POZ magazine, of course.
If you’re going to disclose to strangers, experts say, do itcasually. Like Mark from Detroit, who reveals his status “as if I’mordering at McDonald’s.” Thomason adds, “The more secure you are with[disclosing], the more comfortable they’re going to be with it.” Ifyou’re not secure with disclosing but feel you ought to, MichaelMancilla, co-author of the sex guide Love in the Time of HIV, suggests you “think of it as sharing or revealing rather than disclosure. By reframing the idea in your mind you’ll reframe it in theirs.” (Check out Mancilla’s website, www.hivandrelationships.com, which has a large section about disclosure).
I personally never underestimate the power of a cheesy line(I’d be unemployed—and celibate—without it): Two hydrogen atoms meet.One says, “I’ve lost my electron.” The other says, “Are you sure?” Thefirst replies, “Yes, I’m positive.”
Shelley Frey, a 26-year-old working in the Los AngelesCounty Fire Department, has another casual-partner strategy: Shedoesn’t have them. “It’s hard enough to disclose to someone you love,”she says. “I can’t bear the thought of being rejected by someone Ibarely know.” Shelley’s far from unusual. That University ofCalifornia San Francisco HIVer study I cited above also showed that 39percent of heterosexual men, 35 percent of straight women and 28percent of all gay/bi men are abstinent until they find that specialsomeone.
Kevin Chembleski, 34, a straight guy from L.A., didn’t havesex for a year after seroconverting and still avoids casual sex. “Itold a woman I didn’t know very well. She freaked. She kept saying, ‘Ican’t believe I was about to have sex with you!’” he says. For JonathanHammond, 25, it boils down to a simple equation: “You learn what’sworth a T cell and what’s not. For me, the drama in my head isn’t worththe trauma on my body.”
That sounds noble and good and Joan of Arcadia, butyou can’t feed “skin hunger” with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Saysauthor Mancilla, “You have to define a fulfilling sexual life foryourself. For some it’s lots of casual sex; for others it’ll mean theopposite. But you can’t let yourself be immobilized by fear.”
Sex, sex, sex—doesn’t anyone date before hopping in the sack anymore? The answer is an ear-splitting yesfor many HIVers who unload their status over candlelit Chianti or longwalks in the park. But disclosing in the first flush of love can be aheartbreaker. Deneen Robinson, 37, an African-American lesbian educatorat Georgia’s Black AIDS Institute, always tells on the first date,despite some Twilight Zone responses. Once, before identifyingas a lesbian, she met a man who fell instantly in love with her. Hespent $500 in airfare to visit—then hopped the first plane back whenshe disclosed. His parting words? “If I touch you, I might give it tomy daughter.” Deneen slid to the floor. “I cried like a baby. I calledmy mom and told her I felt like I was the worst thing since the BubonicPlague.” Men.
Bart, 18, a freshman at Arizona University, logs a few moreromantic evenings than Deneen. Bart’s policy sprang from a searingmemory. Last year, when he was a senior in high school, his teacherasked, “Who would refuse to date someone with HIV?” Twenty-nine of the30 students raised their hands—including Bart. “I didn’t know I wasinfected,” he says. “Looking back, I’m horrified. I was saying even Iwouldn’t date me.” Bart wants to be considered marriage—notradioactive—material, so until the time is right, he’d rather omit thanadmit. “If I tell them after a few dates they won’t go, ‘Ew, ew, ew!’”he says. “They’ll go, ‘Oh, it’s Bart.’ They’ll see me as what I amrather than what I have.” Another reason for Bart’s hesitancy may behis recent diagnosis. Many newbies keep their status quiet untilthey’ve marshaled their positive power.
Horny ol’ Esteban dated a “keeper” several times before telling him he was positive. The rejection still stings: “I’m not dating anyone I have to bury.”Esteban burst into tears. “I felt like damaged goods,” he recalls. “Butthen I got mad. I realized I should have said to him, ‘Couples don’tdie simultaneously, you ass. Positive or negative, somebody’s buryingsomebody.’”
Despite the emotional roulette, psychologist Odets endorses theFirst Date Strategy. “Overall, I’d say it’s less problematic,” he says.“The longer the relationship goes on, the harder disclosure becomes—forboth partners.” First, third or twelfth date, you’ve got to follow yourgut. Sometimes you get a Meg Ryan moment: Steve, a white 36 year oldfrom Dallas, disclosed to a guy he dated twice and the dreamboatreplied, “Fine, but what are you cooking me for breakfast in themorning?”
You could also get a Woody Allen moment: Disclosing to a neg guy or gal who isn’tscared off can be as anxiety provoking as disclosing to one whois—because the conversation ain’t over: “Once people disclose, it’sjust not talked about. It becomes the elephant in the room,” sayspsychotherapist Shernoff. “But there’s a lot of work to be done for[serostatus] not to be the defining dynamic. You need to have anongoing conversation, whether it’s discussing viral load tests orwatching Angels in America together.”
If there’s one disclosure strategy that nearly everyone trashes,it’s waiting months into a relationship to tell all. Sheryl Johnson,54, a straight African American who got HIV from a guy on the “downlow,” dated a man for eight months—without having sex—beforedisclosing. His reaction stunned her. “If you’d told me after we hadsex,” he said, “I would’ve been able to cope better.” Sheryl wasconfused. “Sex would have made it easier for me to stay,” he explained.He told Sheryl he needed a cigarette and grabbed his jacket. She heardthe car start—and never saw him again. Sheryl recovered by channelingher pain into poetry. That jibes with Moss of SisterLove’s advice thatwomen do “self exploration and work on their self esteem” so they canhandle these situations, and tell men “what’s what.”
But HIVers can split, too. Mark from Detroit tells a storyabout Stan, a guy who came to his HIV support group because he didn’thave the nerve to disclose to his lover, even though the two had beenliving together for months. Stan was so afraid of his partner’sreaction that he broke it off. Some time later, Stan’s lover walkedinto the same HIV support group, thinking he’d been “divorced” becauseStan suspected him of being positive. The ass-kicking end ofthe story? These two ex-lovers found out about each other’s positivestatus when they showed up at the same meeting. Relationships can’twithstand such secrecy—and neither can your health. One of Moss’clients won’t tell her long-term man she’s positive because “he’ll putme out the house,” Moss says. “I’m working on her to tell somebody. Shelooks tired all the time. It’s not the meds. It’s the emotionalstrain.”
Accentuating the Positive
Many HIVers are making sure their next Valentine is a member ofthe club. Disclosing to someone who’s been there, done that canincrease the likelihood of him or her doing you. Ft. Lauderdaleresident Jake loves bathhouses, orgies and sex parties. With fewexceptions, he won’t have sex with negative guys because he doesn’twant to use condoms. “I have a life-threatening virus in my body,” hesays, “and I choose not to unleash it on anyone else. I’m EdwardScissorhands trying not to stab someone.”
It’s been seven years since white, 43-year-old New Yorker Anthonysaid the words “I’m HIV positive.” He meets sex partners online, wherehis profile broadcasts his status. Anthony likes to get banged like ascreen door in a hurricane, and he feels he can’t do that with anegative guy. “I don’t care what anybody says, you’re just not going tohave good sex with a negative. There is always some boundary, some linethat can’t be crossed.” For some that “boundary” is latex. “As long asAIDS is manageable,” says Luis, also from New York City, “why wear arubber?” STDs and infection with another strain of HIV do come tomind—but we hear ya.
Russell Roberts, meanwhile, thinks he’ll date only positivewomen if he and his current girlfriend break up. “I don’t want to gothrough that again,” he says. “I don’t know how she’s going to react orwho she’ll tell.”
Psychotherapist Shernoff doesn’t see anything wrong withbeing “viral-centric.” He says it’s “much like the choice negativesmake when they say no to positives.” Psychologist Thomason agrees butsays it’s “a shame—people miss out on the possibility of wonderfulrelationships.” It disturbs doc Odets, too. “First, gay people wereseparated from straight people for being gay,” he said, “and now we’reseparated from each other for being positive. It just goes to show youhow emotionally destructive HIV can be.”
So how can I tie up the Pandora’s box of disclosure in a neatlittle bow, whether you’re swinging single or happily attached? Advicefrom Buddha is in order (and isn’t it always?). Asked how he braved hiscritics’ insults and anger, Buddha replied, “If someone offers you agift and you decline it, to whom does the gift belong?” I’m lesscontemplative. If someone blows a load of rejection your way, I say,spit, don’t swallow.
*Some names have been changed
Disclosure isn’t always a choice
Twenty-four states have passed HIV-specific laws regardingdisclosure, creating what Scott Burris, Beasley School of Law prof andco-principal of the HIV Criminal Law and Policy Project, calls “a crazyquilt of laws.” To make matters worse, “some states that don’t havedisclosure laws have prosecuted under general laws like aggravatedassault or reckless endangerment,” says Hayley Gorenberg, Director ofLambda Legal’s AIDS project.
About the only thing the 24 state laws have in common, says Burris,is the threshold for prosecution: Exposing someone else—you don’t haveto transmit the virus to land in jail.
In these states, “as long as you know you have HIV, you can bearrested for having sex and not disclosing—whether you intended toinfect someone or not,” Burris says. California is the only state witha “specific intent” clause. But the laws are “drastically unenforced.”Since 1986 his group has recorded 211 prosecutions and 142 convictions(mean sentence: six years).
What to do if you get in a, um, sticky disclosure situation?“Consult a lawyer,” says Gorenberg. “You need to speak with someone whohas specific knowledge of laws in the state.”
Learn more about your state’s laws at www.hivcriminallaw.org.