Craig: People think that since I’m an intelligent gay man who’s part of a high-risk group, I should have known better than to get HIV.  

Denise: Well, I was an HIV outreach worker before I contracted it. I was in the field, telling people about condoms but not always practicing safe sex myself. People would say, “You’re an AIDS educator—what happened?” I contracted it from a person who did workshops on HIV prevention, too. People think education has everything to do with it, but all the education in the world won’t help unless you apply it. It’s the human factor that prevents you from thinking about HIV in the heat of the moment. It’s that whole notion of “It can’t happen to me.”

Craig: So how do you deal with open criticism from people when disclosing? My first reaction is to get defensive or just plain mad. Like everyone, I want to be liked. That’s why I haven’t told my family. But some days, I wake up and want to scream to the world that I’m positive.  

Denise: You’re right. The initial reaction for me when people give me a hard time is anger. I’m angry that people are so behind the times. People often want to set up a barrier so they don’t have to deal with the pain of losing you later on. Or they’re angry that you put yourself at risk and contracted an illness they can’t save you from. You have to get past it by educating them.

Craig: I think some of my friends couldn’t handle any “education.”

Denise: You’re responsible for getting the word out; you’re not responsible for whether people accept it right then and there. After you disclose to someone, find out how much they know about HIV; then tell them how much you know. Say: “I’ve brought something for you to look at if you feel like reading it.”  

Craig: And educate yourself, right? Growing up gay in the ’80s, I thought I knew a lot about the virus until I
contracted it.

Denise: This is a chronic illness that is often manageable with medicine. But because it’s so stigmatized, you begin to feel like “Maybe I did deserve this.” But nobody deserves HIV.

Craig: It took me a long time, but now I’m a little more comfortable saying I got it through unprotected sex. I beat myself up over that for a long time. Do you think that if you had contracted HIV a different way than unprotected sex that people might treat you differently?

Denise: Sex is vilified the most. Even with substance abuse, people think of you as the hopeless addict. With sex, it’s like you brought it on yourself. There is a lot of stigma around being female and positive. The assumption is that you’re promiscuous.

Craig: Yeah, that assumption exists in the gay world, too. It’s as if you sleep around and have unprotected sex
with everybody.

Denise: But people’s initial reaction isn’t their permanent reaction. Many will be OK as long as they know you’re taking care of yourself. Sometimes, people don’t know you’re happy or how you’re managing. Instead of asking how you’re doing, they’d rather lash out. Don’t adhere to one way of responding to their questions. It’s not one-size-fits-all. And a lot of times, you can teach only by example. Show them that even though you’re living with this, you’re living a full life.

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