This article by Kristian Johns @guy_interruptd first appeared in FS Magazine, a publication of GMFA, here. Republished with permission.
Of all the places you would think about having the “Yes, my boyfriend is HIV-positive” conversation, I’m betting my other half would tell you that doing it while sitting on the toilet is one of the weirdest.
The text had come from his sister. He was thankfully just finishing up. It was a good thing too, because the phone rang not a minute after the text came through.
There’s an often-used phrase: ‘My blood ran cold’. I’ve never really experienced it until now. But at that moment, it was like someone was flushing my veins with icy water. My heart bloomed large in my chest; large enough to take my breath away, and I could only stand there gaping at my stupidity.
I’d told her. Without meaning to. Fucking social media.
Ironically, it was this column that ‘outed’ me. After coming out at work (again, through sharing this column on Facebook and Twitter), and having an overwhelmingly positive reaction, I began sharing my regular columns without a thought. After all, my colleagues all know now, right? It’s all out in the open.
Wrong. Because there were still some people who didn’t know: namely my boyfriend’s family. I forgot to restrict them from seeing the posts.
Mark and I have been together over three years now. My HIV has never been an issue for us. He knew I was positive before we’d even gone on our first date, so it was all on the table from the start. We never meant to keep it from his family for this long, but he wanted them to get to know who I am as a person, without seeing a ‘disease’ first. And to be honest, that’s what I wanted too.
Thing is, when you’ve had HIV as long as I have, it defines you less and less. I’m so much more than a chronic condition, and as time has gone on, it became less about keeping something from them, and more that it was something they really didn’t need to know. I don’t share with everyone I meet that I wear contact lenses, even though they’re pretty important for me to be able to see properly, and likewise, I didn’t need to tell them about something that only really affects Mark and me. But let’s face it – there’s a lot less stigma about short-sightedness than there is about HIV.
It’s weird. There are people who don’t even know me, who know that I’m HIV-positive through my advocacy work and writing, which is all very public. You’d think that might make me feel vulnerable, but it doesn’t. I honestly couldn’t give a monkeys about the opinion of strangers. What DOES make me feel vulnerable is someone finding out I’m positive when I’ve deliberately kept it from them. Why? Because their opinion matters.
And even though HIV defines me less as the years go on, no matter how much time passes, there’s still a small part of me that – I’m embarrassed to say – is ashamed of it. When someone who matters finds out, I just feel like a fraud. Like I’ve kept something dirty and shameful from them. Sitting there on the bed listening to my fella talking to his sister (“No, I don’t have it. No, he’s really healthy, and the medication makes him barely infectious. No, we’re really careful. I promise you I’m not at risk. Yes, I knew from the start...”) I just felt like a disease. Like someone had scratched at the shininess of my outsides and discovered all this…ugliness underneath. It felt like shit, and I had nobody else to blame but myself. How could I have been so stupid?
The conversation came to a close – for the time being anyway. And I’ve got to hand it to my boyfriend – he handled it beautifully. They’ve had a couple of conversations since, and it seems his sister is surprisingly clued up. A lot better than my own sister in fact, who, when I was diagnosed thirteen years ago, asked me “Are you HIV-positive or have you just got the virus?” (she’s obviously read a lot more on the subject since then).
It begs the question that, in worrying that his sister would jump to conclusions – does she think I’ve put Mark at risk? Will she still let me hug the kids? Are they in the process of smashing every plate I’ve ever used, or every mug I’ve ever drunk from? – I was guilty of jumping to conclusions myself, and almost making unfair assumptions about her.
This weekend, Mark’s sister and her family came over to see us in our new place, the first time I’d seen them since they found out. Yes, I was apprehensive, but I needn’t have been. The kids descended on me like Tasmanian devils, and she gave me a long, hard hug, as did her husband. We didn’t need words; her smile told me all I needed to know. It was nice. It felt normal.
Fear’s a funny thing isn’t it? It can cloud our perception of the world and the people around us until it becomes all-consuming. But my fears were unfounded. No matter what shame I might still carry, or the fear I had about her reaction, her smile when she saw me proved only one thing: Those who give a shit don’t matter, and those who matter don’t give a shit.
About the author: Kristian Johns is an author and former editor. When he’s not raising awareness of HIV issues, his sole mission in life is to convince his boyfriend to let him have a dog.
How to disclose being HIV-positive
Before you tell anyone you’re HIV-positive, it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re ready to do so, and that you understand why you want to tell them. Think about what you want in return, and be prepared for a whole range of reactions – good and bad. Think about when would be the right time to tell someone. Do you feel you need or want to tell someone – is it the right time for you? On the other hand, is it the right time for them? If they’re rushing out of the door, or busy with something else, then it’s probably not the best time. Make sure that they have the time to listen to you and also time to let it sink in. It may also be a good idea to choose to tell people in surroundings that are familiar and that you feel comfortable with. This may help to keep you calm and relaxed, especially if you are unsure about the reaction you’re going to get. Remember that you haven’t changed – you’re just giving someone a new piece of information about yourself. Be very clear where you are coming from, and it may help to explain to someone why you are telling them about having HIV. If someone finds what you’re telling them difficult to deal with, it will probably make it easier for them if you give them an idea about what you want them to do with this new information. It may also help you to get the support from people that you need. For example, you could say:
“I’ve got some news – I’ve been diagnosed with HIV and I’d like some support from you”
“I’m positive and I’m telling you because you’re important to me.”
“I’m positive and I’m telling you because I’d rather know now if you can’t handle it.”
“I’m HIV-positive and I’d rather you knew that before we had sex.”
It’s important to be clear with whoever you are telling whether or not you want them to keep the news to themselves. If there are people you would like them to talk to, or people you wouldn’t mind them talking to, be clear with them who these people are.
Whatever and whenever you decide to tell someone, if you need some more advice before you do then you can always ask to speak to a health advisor at your clinic, or you could talk to a professional counsellor.
This article was taken from FS magazine issue 144. To read the DIGITAL VERSION: Click here.