A few weeks ago I spent the afternoon with friends. It was a bright sunny day in London, the first/last one for a while so, you know, any excuse to meet up around the barbecue, really. After much cider and beer and wine and gin and vodka and the occasional bit of nondescript food, people were merry. Past midnight most people started to leave. Six or seven of us remained, undeterred. The hard-core alcoholics.
Of those, two went to the kitchen. After a while, we wondered what chat was so important that they had to withdraw there, on the other side of the house, for half an hour, shushing quickly as soon as anyone was approaching the room to grab alcoh… something in the fridge. So, of course, we were curious. All but one of us.
With a friend asleep on my left shoulder and the others chatting away and not giving a care in the world, the one on my right said to me:
“You should talk to (the one in the kitchen)”
“Oh… Do you mean he and I… in common…?”
He nodded. Just like that, he had disclosed that friend’s newly diagnosed HIV-positive status to me.
“I told him about you, too. I thought it would help him to know.”
Aaaaaaaand, my status too. Well, thanks for that. No surprise here, since that same friend had already disclosed my status to others in the past. Still, some notice would be nice.
If you think nobody knows, think again.
Having had HIV for nearly five years, I have lost track of who knows and who doesn’t. The easy thing might be to go full disclosure, but, as previously mentioned, I don’t feel the need to do so. As a result, I often wonder “does SHE know? I can’t remember if I told her. I think I did. But what if I didn’t? It’ll ruin her day.”
On diagnosis day, disclosure was very easy: call boyfriend, flatmate, good friend in town, best friend abroad; done. Simple case of two who NEED to know and two who I want to share it with.
For a while I figured these would be the only people to know. I thought: this is such important, personal, private information; one wouldn’t share it with anyone else.
Or would they?
A few weeks later, my then boyfriend revealed he had shared the news with his best friend, asking her advice on how to deal with it and whether continuing to date me was possible/safe/right/I-don’t-really-know-I-wasn’t-there.
That relationship ended six months later. After a while I was back to dating, with the added layer of disclosure. I started seeing someone from my social group. He did not know about my status when I disclosed. A few weeks later, however, he told me he had discussed it with his flatmate (also a friend of mine) because he ‘already knew’.
The weakest snowball-link
Turns out ‘the good friend in town’ had told his boyfriend, who was best friend with said flatmate. As incestuous gossiping friend groups go, I thought we were fine; turned out we were just as bad as some of the people we would mock for having too much drama in their lives.
Except we didn’t do the drama: I agreed to never mention that I knew (that he knew and how he had learnt it), because doing that would expose my friend for being too chatty and his boyfriend for breaking a vow of confidence. To this day, none of them are aware of the passing of the information and how it reached my ears, but I learnt a valuable lesson: telling someone equates to telling ‘some’ ones. From five people I had disclosed to, now seven were in the know. It had only been a few months.
In case that wasn’t clear, ‘good friend in town’ and disclose-everyone’s-status-at-BBQ are one and only. Scrap that bit I wrote about how one would not think of just sharing that kind of information; different people are wired differently. The trick is to accept it and move on. It is, after all, me who told him in the first place. I am the one who started spreading the news. So if I wanted to blame someone, it could only be myself.
A secret shared is no longer one.
Friends talking your private life away are one thing. But there are many, many more ways my status has been known to others; and I have known people’s status.
A few weeks ago, I was distributing condoms during Pride for a health charity. I was going my merry way, asking people if they wanted some for the day (read: night!). I approached a couple of men and as he heard my opening statement, one of them turned around to face me. I knew that face! A friend of a friend. Not someone I had met before: yet I knew his name, what he did for a living, where he lived and, more importantly, his HIV-positive status.
How? Well, having a good memory did help. I had gathered that information over the years – in an automatic ‘file under X’ kind of way, not a ‘let’s stalk that guy’ one. Name and job from our common friend, ages ago. Where he lives because he was showing up in my area on Grindr. His status because I had seen him on an HIV chatroom in the past. Did he remember seeing me there too? It wasn’t obvious when he said he wouldn’t need condoms for the night and I had to refrain from any innuendo, in case his friend didn’t know about his status. And believe you me, stopping that line from going past my lips was a challenge!
Over time, through online dating, looking at profiles on HIV-targeted websites, HIV chatrooms, HIV ads or simply people stating POZ as their tribes on Grindr or some comments on Twitter, my brain has stored away faces and names under two groups: known HIV+ status / unknown status. And, subconsciously or not, everyone I have ever talked to on these website, shared my face with on twitter or dated me or known someone who did, all of these people may well know my HIV status, and the status of dozen others. Without necessarily having ever met.
Information is currency. Its value is yours to decide.
I still don’t think I need to “come out”. I like to surprise people individually when the drama is low, you see. I’m also too much of a fan of inside jokes with people aware of my status in the presence of those who aren’t. It does make for comedic moments and confused faces. Such fun!
Still, it can be intimidating to know that people I have never met and may never know could be aware of something I have yet to share with long term friends. But over time, I have found that the trick is not to care. In the words of Frozen: LET IT GO. How liberating. The worry is no longer. Do not fret, you are still alive.
Some people will gossip, tell their mates; rumours may start. Shit happens. Just embrace it. Roll in it like a dog on heat. You’ve seen them do it. They love it. A good wash afterwards and they’re as good as new. It doesn’t bother them in the slightest that they were uncontrollably covering themselves in shit moments ago.
We’re not dogs, of course, but what a life! Mind, I’d love to sleep all day, be fed on a regularly basis and taken to the park to shit on slides. Then again, I’m not a toddler either.
Secrets are a thing of the past, in times before everyone had their (naked) picture on the web, à la Jennifer Lawrence. Unless we’re willing to disconnect from all networks, should they be online or social ones, we’re bound to find that more people ‘know’ than we thought did.
And that’s fine. With friends or strangers, just as it goes when disclosing to dates, reactions to the news are worth a thousand words: those bothered by it can slowly fade away; the others are keepers!
But let’s not fool ourselves here, chances are they won’t even care. Get over it.
This article previously appeared in Tom’s own blog LivingHIV.com here.