Health and wellness touch everyone’s life differently. This is one person’s story.
When I was 12 years old, I saw the movie “As Is” on cable. The 1986 film centers on a gay couple dealing with AIDS, back when the epidemic was still new. I watched panic-stricken as one of the men found a Kaposi sarcoma (KS) lesion on his lover’s back. That moment of dread signaled the horrors that were to come as a result of the disease.
After the film was over, I hurried into the bathroom and examined my own back out of fear that I too might have a lesion. I had never had sex, and I didn’t call myself gay at that point, but I knew that I liked other boys. I also knew that HIV was something that happened to the men in that film. Men like me.
When I got older and started having sex with men, the fear was always there — like a specter hovering over every sexual encounter. So was stigma. Religion, popular culture, and many in our government were still referring to gay people as “perverts” and “disease spreaders.” Meanwhile, HIV prevention campaigns told us you could stay HIV-negative if you were smart enough, or responsible enough, or good enough.
When I tested positive at the age of 23, I was called “stupid,” “irresponsible,” and “reckless.” It seemed like everyone had an opinion about what I had done wrong to end up HIV-positive. But I didn’t really have time for them. I had to figure out what living with HIV was going to mean for me. A primary concern was my sex life.
A sense of liberation
Soon after testing positive, I experienced something unexpected — a sense of liberation. I had spent over 10 years of my life terrified of getting a disease. But now I had it, and I didn’t have to be afraid anymore. The cloud that had hung over my sex life had finally been lifted.
I was able to pursue pleasure and intimacy in a way that I could’ve never imagined. Sex was just… sex.
Of course, that’s not to say my sex life was without complications. Dating and disclosure was a whole new terrain, but at least I was in control. I knew I wasn’t dirty or bad, and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with having a fulfilling sex life.
Disclosure isn’t just empowering, it can help fight stigma
If you’re HIV-positive and you’re sexually active, it’s very likely that you’ll face some sense of judgment. It’s vital that our response doesn’t reinforce that judgment, and that it doesn’t bolster the stigma and sex-negativity associated with that judgment. Instead, our response should work to dismantle it.
Disclosure can be an awkward and nerve-racking experience, and for me, rarely has it ended in a satisfactory way. People’s fears may be irrational, but they’re also legitimate, as they’ve been reinforced by 30 years of messaging.
So, for me, it was actually much easier — and so much more gratifying — to just stick with other HIV-positive guys. There was something special and almost radical about finding another HIV-positive person to have condomless sex with. We were all members of the same club of “undesirables” who had the audacity to cultivate a sexuality while living with this disease.
And technology makes it so much easier for HIV-positive people to find each other. On dating apps, for example, we can list precisely what we’re looking for, as well as include our HIV status in our profiles. Not only are we able to locate positive people around us, we’re able to get past disclosure right away.
Declaring your status on your profile can be empowering and affirming. Not only does it allow you to take control of the disclosure conversation, being out and open about your status is an excellent way to combat stigma.
Your options are expanding
Over the past 35 years, gay men have grown up in a world where sex and disease were always intimately connected. But the gay community — through advocacy as well as persistence — has succeeded in transcending fear to create a thriving sex-positive culture. And those efforts are continuing.
Following years of advocacy and research efforts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a letter confirming that when you have an undetectable viral load, HIV transmission can’t occur with condomless sex. Known as U=U (“undetectable = untransmittable”), this public affirmation was huge for people living with HIV. It helps reduce HIV-related stigma and can relieve much of the anxiety associated with sex.
The widening use of the HIV prevention pill, also known pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), marks another step forward. The US Preventive Services Task Force has even recommended PrEP for all people at increased risk of contracting HIV.
We live during a time of exciting advancements that are helping tear down the walls of fear that often exist between HIV-positive and HIV-negative people.
You have a right to your own sexuality
Science and the world of HIV continue to change, but one thing remains constant: the fear that newly diagnosed HIV-positive people can have when it comes to sex. It’s very important to remember — and believe — that HIV is nothing to be ashamed of. All human beings have a fundamental right to their own sexuality.
The internet, and even dating apps, can be great resources if you’ve just tested positive. And social media can also be a good way to find other HIV-positive people who have been through the same experience, and to cut through all of the hand-wringing associated with disclosure. The community of people living with HIV, whether virtual or in person, is invaluable to those of us who are positive.
HIV doesn’t mean the end of your sex life. In fact, it can be the beginning of a whole new sexual journey. It forces you to examine what you want and talk about what kind of sex you desire.
Sex, including condomless sex, has meaning and value. No one and nothing can take that away from you unless you let them. So don’t let them. Dare to claim your sexuality as an HIV-positive person and discover just what a great sex life can mean for you.
Alex Garner has been living with HIV for 20 years and is currently the senior health innovation strategist at Hornet, a gay social networking app committed to empowering its users to make informed decisions about their health. Garner has over 20 years of experience working in HIV and community organizing. Prior to Hornet, Garner managed the PrEP education program at NMAC. He was the founding editor at PositiveFrontiers.com, a national HIV magazine for gay men. He also co-wrote and performed in “The Infection Monologues,” a funny and thought-provoking play about the modern HIV experience.