TheBody.com, probably one of the best resources for HIV related news and stories in the United States and, logically, the world, reports today on an incredible story of love between a heterosexual couple, Peter and Kathy McLloyd, who share the same love for each other but who are serodiscordant; that is, Peter is HIV+ and Kathy is HIV-.
This story is incredibly compelling, important to tell, and demonstrates that HIV is more than I tend to focus on. More specifically, HIV cares not a whit about your sexuality, your race, or your heart. Rather, it cares only about whether or not your bloodstream is accessible. Indeed, this stark fact is often why I make the case that personal behavior in relation to HIV is irrelevant; the fact that this virus will touch someone who accidentally gets pricked with a needle in a medical procedure and leave someone who barebacks routinely untouched is testament to the fact that personal behavior has nothing to do with HIV’s “purpose” and everything to do with random happenstance. Yet, I came away from the story feeling stronger than I already did about the fact that I do not feel confident I will ever be able to engage in a mixed-status relationship.
As a gay man, I have spent years navigating the LGBT community in a sexual and social sense. Failing miserably at two long term relationships, I tend to take a more cynical view of my ability to ever engage in the type of love demonstrated by my parents, a heterosexual couple celebrating their 36th year of being a single unit this year. And, while there are days they seemingly want to murder one another, the love they demonstrate for one another has made itself manifest in the deep concern my father had during my mother’s breast cancer battle, the devastation my mother felt during my father’s brain surgery in the 1990s after a stroke-like event, and the fact that, regardless of how early it is, my father makes my mother a cup of tea religiously to greet her before the sun rises.
Yet, the fact that I have an apparent personal disability relating to romance is compounded by the reality that I also have a virus laying dormant in my bone marrow or bloodstream lying in wait for the opportunity to kill me and infect others. On a personal level, this means that I make taking my medication priority number one in my life, and that I experience a set of unique issues that the HIV- community knows nothing about.
Every three months, I get six to eight vials of blood taken for analysis. About a week after my blood is drawn, I pore over approximately a dozen pages detailing exactly what is going on in my body chemically, how much testosterone I’m lacking thanks to HIV’s bizarre effect on male hormones, what my CD4 count is, and how paralyzed HIV currently is thanks to Gilead’s once-a-day pill Complera. The two biggest numbers, my CD4 count, the immune system cells that HIV attacks ferociously and without care to my life, and HIV viral load, the physical number of HIV particles flowing through my veins, give me particular pause when assessing my overall health and, potentially, longevity. And, each time I go through this analysis, I’m waiting for the, wholly unlikely and statistically impossible, scenario where I’ll stop responding to treatment, where HIV will have adapted to the antiretroviral medicine I take, and where I’ll begin to promptly die.
Of course, this scenario never happens, I’m healthier than most HIV- men, and I present no threat whatsoever to the HIV- community thanks to my medication preventing HIV transmission. But, I also present no threat to the HIV- community because of one detail of my personal behavior: I will not date or knowingly have sex with someone who is definitively HIV negative.
Now, the idea of someone being definitively HIV negative is, frankly, laughable in the LGBT community. These publicly “clean” folks, who according to the hysteria propagated by the seemingly perennial shock and awe pieces done on barebacking don’t even practice the outdated drivel they preach regarding using condoms, are the ones infecting others with HIV. Most of them aren’t even aware that they have HIV. And, the ones that do take a bizarre position rooted in stigma and backward thinking about sexual behavior and health: they’d rather secretly whisper about their status, declare publicly that they’re HIV- (they’re not), and they’d smugly cross their arms and roll their eyes at my distaste for their hypocrisy. That is, the only people walking around who can say, without a shred of irony or doubt, they have no statistic likelihood of transmitting HIV are the celibate, a non-existent group in an adult society, or the HIV+ who are on medication.
Let me say that again: the only people who are not at threat of transmitting HIV are people who are HIV+ and adhere to their HIV medication over 96% of the time.
I was once talking with a friend of mine I lost to the warmth of Florida about this unhinged hypocrisy rife throughout some segments of the LGBT community. He dismissed it, too; such stupidity and obvious failure to grasp reality was undeserving of any thinking person’s time. Even so, he reached the inevitable conclusion that I did. More specifically, he brought up the fact that, since his HIV diagnosis, he had been healthier and “cleaner” than compared to his entire adult life up to that point. Therefore, he made the decision to withdraw from the reckless thoughtlessness that is the rabble of these “clean” folks and, instead, to focus on dating and having sex with those openly HIV+. Years of experience have taught me that his focus is, regrettably to some and dishearteningly limiting to my personal pool of potential boyfriends, the right one.
Now, I make a few caveats here. First, I state that I will not have sex or date someone who is definitively HIV-. Therefore, anyone I encounter in a bathhouse, a bareback sex party, or on any website where I indicate that I do not have sex with a condom and that I’m HIV+, is automatically outside of this group. Logically, you cannot definitively state you’re HIV- if you engage in bareback sex of any way, shape, or form, and you certainly cannot definitively state you’re HIV- if you are having sex with HIV+ folks who do not explicitly disclose the minute details of their personal health management that I’ve discussed here (for instance, adhering to triple, or greater, combination therapy over 96% of the time.) In addition, you cannot definitively state you’re HIV- in the same breath you then take before going down on whoever you just picked up at Woody’s drunkenly.
Disingenuously, and ridiculously wrought with logical fallacy, “clean” folks totally ignore the statistical risk that syphilis, hepatitis, worms (yes, worms), genital warts, chlamydia, and gonorrhea actually do pose in so-called “safe” sex environments. Taking this into account, I’d much rather serosort my partners and stick to those I know are generally healthy and actually monitoring their health: the openly HIV+.
Secondly, there exist a healthy number of good, well-meaning men who, despite the potential for an infinitesimally rare blip in my medication’s ability to clamp down HIV, will nonetheless accept this risk, as any reasonable person would. In fact, these people are right insofar as if you’re going to engage in bareback sex, an HIV+ man adherent to his medication is the safest bet possible you can make in relation to sexual behavior and risk of HIV transmission. After all, it’s not us who are infecting the HIV-; it’s the, consciously or unconsciously, deceptively “clean” folks running around infecting others. Scientifically, we who are HIV+ and adherent to medication are statistically unable to pass on HIV to others.
Notwithstanding this mature and forward-thinking approach, that is, assessing risk and accepting it as part of being an adult with an active sex life, these HIV- men who are sincerely HIV+ friendly in relation to sex and dating have, in my experience, an inability to truly enjoy the activity they purport to like.
No matter how much scientific evidence and statistical analysis counters our inherent terror at HIV, as gay men, we’re still ultimately afraid of contracting HIV. Thanks to years and years of hysteria propagated by well-meaning but ultimately counterproductive HIV prevention efforts, including by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis when hysteria was necessary to stop people from literally dying, the idea that HIV is a de facto terrorist organization in the LGBT community is a hard one to shake. I recall specifically men who were fine with accepting a blow job but wouldn’t touch me otherwise; a nervous HIV- ally who shook like a leaf while we made out; and, the dozens of bottoms I’ve encountered who are stuck in a cycle of affirming to engage in condom-based sex, who get high, who then walk around the bathhouse nude, who take whatever anyone gives them, and who, upon sobering up, resolve to never do it again only to repeat the cycle the next weekend. The fact that these gentlemen require crystal methamphetamine or alcohol to lower their inhibitions is testament to the fact that the anxiety and irrational terror experienced toward HIV is probably one of the strongest pieces of evidence in favor of what I’m writing here right now. And, in each one of these cases, I know that my sexual partners are doing something simply to get off; they aren’t interested in me, they have no desire to talk for a few hours before sex (a favorite hobby of mine), they view talking about HIV as a mood killer rather than a mood enhancer (whereas I get ridiculously turned on by a man who takes charge of his health, is confident in his sexual prowess, and lets HIV take a backseat to his overall attractiveness by asserting plainly he’s on medication and healthy.
Specifically, I remember picking up on a code in a social setting by simply affirming to a fellow HIV+ man, “Well, aren’t you healthy looking?” He knew what I meant, I knew what I meant, and we promptly had sex for several hours.)
So, I’m clean and want to stay that way. That means I’m HIV+ looking for another HIV+ man. Of course, this limits my options. But, I would have it no other way, for to me to truly love another man, to truly enjoy sex with him, and to appreciate the sum total of his assets as another human being, I must also understand that he and I share a commonality, a reality and self-honesty that many in the purportedly HIV- LGBT community seem unable to grasp or confront. And, while it is unfair for me to tar the entire HIV- community with the murky stigma only a few have presented to me, I am too respectful of my time and effort to squander anymore of my life on the well-meaning, but ultimately unfulfilling, efforts of HIV+ friendly partners. Logically, this means I’m a hypocrite, for I am expressing the same intolerance toward the HIV- community that I express routine disgust with in relation to HIV.
Then again, nobody said being human meant being ideologically coherent. If it did, I think we homo sapiens would be woefully boring.
This article previously appeared on Josh’s own blog here.