How many Christmas parties did you attend last season? If you are a gay man in the District, that could be five or more — a weekend.
We are a social people. At one such party at a townhome near Capitol Hill, dozens and dozens of gay men came and went, drifted through rooms with cocktails in hand, exchanged kisses and holiday greetings. I was standing in a circle chatting with some guys, some I knew, others I didn’t. And as one man said his goodbyes and left the party, someone in my little circle turned to us all, leaned in and said, “we dated for a bit. . .but I honestly couldn’t get over his HIV status.”
I was left gobsmacked to say the least. I believe my initial response I mumbled under my breath was something akin to, “what the fuck. . .” Uncool. To talk openly about the health of others is certainly an invasion of their privacy. To talk openly about someone and HIV without their knowledge adds another layer of stigma and shame.
I was left wondering what I should have said and done, other than just standing there blinking. I talked to my friend Julio Fonseca, Program Manager at AIDS United. According to Julio, this sort of situation is sadly not uncommon. Gay men still, after all these years, have yet to adopt a healthy way of discussing, positive or negative, HIV status. As Julio mentioned, “it’s not 1984 anymore.” There’s nothing automatic attached to HIV as there once was. He reminded me that even the federal government has gone on the record to say that undetectable equals untransmittable. He also pointed me to a number of resources on how to talk more effectively about HIV with others. Did you know that the CDC has a whole Start Talking, Stop HIV page that has actual conversation starters that aren’t lame and sterile?
Even if someone isn’t positive, there seems to be a bit of slut-shaming and uneasiness around the use of PrEP. I’ve had a number of women tell me that the way gay men talk about PrEP and HIV prevention is very similar to the way some talked about “the pill” decades ago, that there’s somehow something shameful in taking responsible steps to safeguard one’s personal health. Some women have recounted hearing, “Oh you’re on the pill, I guess that makes you promiscuous, right?” Sub in PrEP for the pill and I’m sure a number of gay men have heard something similar. (Incidentally, one woman said she responded with, “Yes, I am but at least I’m taking care of myself.”)
As the #MeToo movement has exposed, there are many men, then and now, that have acted out of malice and hurt toward women. Also, there are certainly a lot of men out there that didn’t realize their words and actions were wrong. Did the person know that outing another’s HIV status was wrong? Was he acting out of spite? Maybe not. Frankly he probably doesn’t even remember. That’s how casual it all was. But going forward, there has got to be a better way of talking about status. Even at a crowded holiday party.
Brock Thompson is a D.C.-based writer. He contributes regularly to the Blade.