You will read elsewhere on this blog this week about the Supreme Court of Canada hearing of two appeals which we all hope will provide some clarity about the obligation to disclose one's status to one's sexual partners. Clarity, yes, but we also hope that clarity is firmly grounded in science rather than fear.
I thought I would take another approach and talk about my own life. It's funny for me to do that, given my background as a [former] lawyer, but this is one of those times where I think the personal story trumps the intricacies and the intellectual curiosity of legal arguments.
I have two stories to tell. Neither is about being charged, because I haven't been. Both are about disclosing, but not necessarily before (I can hear the gasps from here). My story is about men meeting each other, going to one of their places to have sex and maybe to have that discussion. Strangers who might forever be strangers, as neither intended to have more than that single encounter.
I'm a gay man of a certain age. I started having sex before we knew about HIV and pretty much learned with the rest of my community that using condoms was necessary for certain things. But I also had the advantage of having a broad view of what sexual pleasure could be, so I knew that condoms were not necessary for everything that might give pleasure. I'm also someone who delayed testing far too long (don’t do that!), but both of these stories take place after my positive test.
The first involves someone I believe I met on the street who came home with me. No dating there — just right to it, no-nonsense sex. When we were done, he asked me if I was positive and I said yes. This is where my evening transformed into social work, as he panicked and was angry, but I was strong enough to talk it out with him. I walked him through everything we had done, pointing out how there had been no risk of transmission in any of what we had done. When I got to the end — and I can't say that he was necessarily very happy or reassured, but I was done — I shared my own [controlled] anger out as I told him that if knowing the HIV status of his partner was so important to him, he should ask before doing anything, not after. Buh-bye!
The second was someone I met in the context of an event, so the connection was a little more developed, even if he was from out of town and not someone I knew well. We left our event and, like many tourists to Montréal, he wanted to go to a gay stripper bar and off we went. Drink, drink. drink. We stumbled home to my place in a driving rainstorm and — er — got those wet things off so as not to catch our death of cold. I told him I was positive before we had sex. I didn't have condoms, I don't think, or I just didn't want to do that, so I told him no, and reminded him that I was positive. Three times. We didn't do anything unsafe, and I still can't be sure if my status registered in his mind through all the alcohol.
I could probably have been charged for either of these encounters. In the first, disclosing afterward, and having only my word against his about what we did. In the second, I was left wondering what the limits of my responsibility might be, having reminded him three times about my status. I would again have only my word against his and the legal issue of my responsibility to ensure he understood what I was saying, even though both of us were equally intoxicated.
Since my diagnosis, I, like every other HIV-positive individual I know, have done everything I could to make sure that I didn't transmit this virus to anyone else. I have not, however, always disclosed my status to my partners. It makes me angry to think that I might well have been charged with a criminal offence in either of these situations, and in a world where the lines are unclearly defined, I might also have been convicted.
I firmly believe in my moral responsibility to not transmit HIV. I also believe that we share this responsibility in our society and it is not entirely on my shoulders. To share, we have to talk and negotiate our way through it. It won't be much of a conversation if I am rejected when I open my mouth and accused when I don't.