This article by Matthew Hodson @Matthew_Hodson first appeared in FS Magazine, a publication of GMFA, here.
I don’t mean to cause alarm but there are more people living with HIV now than any other time in history.
Even in the terrible early years, the newly diagnosed outnumbered the dying, and so the numbers of us who were positive grew. Since treatment became effective the numbers of people dying from HIV (rather than of other causes, but with HIV) plummeted further and so the annual increase in our numbers gets larger.
So by now, with so many of us living with the virus on the gay scene, or on Grindr, Scruff or Recon, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, everyone knows what HIV is all about, right? And we’re all completely cool about it, right?
Sadly, no. Pretty much every person who has disclosed their HIV status will have some nightmare stories about encountering rejection, ignorance or abuse. There’s no need for it. There are enough of us who are living openly with HIV, and who are happy to chat about it, that it shouldn’t be hard for someone who’s uninfected or undiagnosed to get the information they need without causing needless offence.
If you’re nervous that you might say the wrong thing, here are some ground rules:
Don’t ask someone how they ‘got it’. Sure, you may be curious but that’s really personal information. If they want to tell you they probably will. And anyway, in most cases the answer is, “I had sex”.
Don’t assume that they’re promiscuous, stupid or out of control. It’s likely that the majority of new HIV infections take place between people in relationships rather than as a result of wild sex with multiple partners.
Don’t assume that they’re a power-bottom. Yes, you’re more likely to acquire HIV from receptive sex, but gay men with HIV, like most other gay men, are most likely to be sexually versatile.
Don’t assume that you’re morally superior. HIV is a virus. It’s not Santa Claus. It doesn’t care if you’ve been bad or good.
Don’t assume that the person with HIV will feel inferior. Most of us would prefer not to have HIV but weeping and wailing and tearing of hair gets old pretty quickly.
Don’t assume that he wants to talk about it. Even if he’s got a handle like ‘Poz Guy’, if he’s on Grindr he may be looking for a sex. It happens, I understand.
Don’t be a dick about it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that euphemistic expressions like ‘clean’ (when what you mean is ‘not carrying a particular virus’) is a shabby thing to say.
Don’t say things like ‘You deserve to die’. Just don’t.
Now that may sound like a lot of rules but none of them are beyond the capabilities of anyone who knows how to switch on a computer or install an app. If you follow those simple rules you’re probably good to have the conversation, without pissing the other guy off (and potentially exposing yourself to a social media shaming).
And the benefits of having a conversation, either online or in real life, if you feel that you don’t know much about HIV, are potentially huge.
Someone living with HIV is likely to have a good idea of what’s risky and what’s not. They’re going to have a good understanding of the impact of treatment, both in terms of health and life-expectancy and also in terms of transmission.
People with HIV are not to be feared. Most of us who are diagnosed in the UK are undetectable on treatment, which means that the risk of us passing the virus on during sex is very low (and may be zero).
If you’re not comfortable with that assurance, that’s your right. It’s up to you to decide what’s safe enough for you. Gonorrhoea, syphilis, chlamydia and others still get passed on during unprotected sex, so however confident you are about the impact of treatment on HIV transmission there’s no reason to chuck out the condoms.
In London one in eleven gay men have HIV, across all of England and Wales it’s about one in 20 so odds are, unless you’re living a life of splendid isolation, you already know someone with the virus.
The truth is, you are not going to flourish as a gay man in the 21st century unless you know about HIV. Considering the odds are high you’ll be speaking with people with HIV, taking the time to learn a bit about it, think about how to ensure your own safety and how to support your friends living with HIV is time well spent.
About the authior: Matthew is the Chief Executive of GMFA. This article is Matthew’s own opinion and not necessarily the view of GMFA as an organisation.