The founding editor of Positive Frontiers wants an honest conversation about living with HIV.
Receiving the news that you are HIV positive is life changing. Some people experience profound fear and shame upon hearing the news, but they don't have to. Let's stop scaring negative men about the "woes and wariness of living with HIV" and instead have an honest conversation about the complexities, good and bad, that accompany living with HIV.
HIV is not like serving a prison sentence and HIV-positive individuals don't exist as walking prevention messages. It's time to stop cultivating fear in HIV-negative people and instead provide spaces where both positive and negative men can live authentic lives and determine for themselves what is best for their health and wellness.
These are six life changes that come with a diagnosis:
1. Never getting another HIV test again. This might seem rather mundane, but it's a biggie. For so many gay men, the experience of getting an HIV test is still filled with anxiety and fear. One reason may be that prevention messages have been telling people that HIV is like a prison sentence. I still recall the handwringing I experienced when waiting for my results. Now there is a sense of liberation knowing I'll never have to go through that again.
2. Growing old. Sure, many of us aren't looking forward to wrinkles and gray hairs, but living a normal life expectancy while HIV positive is something few of us allowed ourselves to imagine. The scientific advancements in HIV make it possible for us to grow older and stay healthier so that we confront the numerous structural issues that prevent everyone in our community from enjoying the benefits of good health.
3. Dating dynamics. Dating is hard for everyone, mainly because we fear rejection. People face rejection in dating due to all sorts of things—skin color, gender expression, waist size. HIV status is another item to add to that list. But it presents an opportunity for HIV-positive individuals to have a better sense of who we are and what sort of people we want to date or hook up with. Thanks to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and Treatment as Prevention there has never been a better time to date with HIV. The viral divide is slowly being bridged and negative and positive men are connecting to find pleasure and intimacy like never before.
4. Doctor visits. Engagement in care is a great thing and for many of us it means only having to go to the doctor two or three times a year. It's a good idea for sexually active gay men to see their provider every three months anyhow for screening of sexually transmitted infections. Cultivating a relationship with a provider and engaging in treatment and preventative care is not a burden. It's an opportunity for wellness.
5. Freedom from anxiety. Fear and anxiety have been commonplace in gay male sexuality for over 30 years. For many of us, HIV has lurked around every corner—the ominous monster we fear after each hook up or when we acquire a persistent cough. Once you are HIV positive you no longer have to constantly fear getting it because you've got it. It's that simple. After diagnosis I was able to confront the real and tangible challenges that come with HIV instead of trying desperately to deal with the abstract and abject fear of catching it.
6. Realizing that sometimes HIV is, in fact, "no big deal" and that's OK. We are constantly expected to remind gay men, young gay men in particular, that HIV is a "big deal." The truth is, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't. We must allow space to say that out loud. HIV-positive people live complex lives and often we contend with competing priorities. There are some days when HIV doesn't even make the top 10 list and that's great. Taking my nightly HIV meds has become as benign and routine as brushing my teeth. Isn't that the goal of a chronic and manageable illness—to live free of the constant threat and worry of this "very big deal"?
It's a statistical reality that some gay men, in particular gay men of color, will test HIV positive. Instead of sentencing HIV-positive people to a life of woe, we can work to support them as they build a life of empowerment and authenticity.