Hello darkness, my old friend.
Recently, I was dating. Should Pope Francis take credit for it, that’s one out of three divine interventions sorted for his canonization.
Anyway, the man was, by all accounts, not very aware when it comes to sexual health, having been in a straight monogamous relationships for years and only coming out of the closet in the last year or so. Add to that being only 25 and coming from a place where being gay is more on the Alienate People than How to Make Friends side of things, and you have an explosive cocktail. Thank God for all this being balanced out by a great personality. And good looks. That helps, too.
At the end of date three, it was disclosure time. By then, having stuck to my own guide, I had a pretty good idea of who he was and was certain he would not freak out. He didn’t. Of course, not freaking out does not always mean people are OK to date you, but it is still appreciated when they don’t run a mile – literally, although I didn’t measure it - when you tell them.
He panicked when hearing how I was infected by an unaware carrier, recalling his own experiences grinding the past few months away and enjoying the freedom of being openly gay, finally. He told me of the not-so-safe things he had done and how, if it had happened to me, it could have already happened to him.
This was awkward for two reasons: first, the lack of knowledge on the topic of transmission. I tried to reassure him, HIV after all is quite a weak virus outside of the body, so his chances of being infected whilst playing with a partner’s cum was pretty remote. Second, I was contemplating the life introspection occurring in front of me. Every concern he had, every question he asked seemed less about me or a possible ‘us’ and more about reassuring himself that he was going to be OK. Cue endless questions. On the bright side, at least he cared about sexual health.
That night I went home, alone. I left him there, on his bed. Yes, fully clothed, no sex before mar… disclosure, etc. I had answered all his questions. I had told him about my treatment, about life expectancy, about sexual risks or lack thereof. I had done my bit for HIV information, like a slutty school nurse: kissing first to get their attention, teaching whilst they were hooked. Mind you, if any school nurse ever did that, make it a male one and send me the address, I’ll shave and pass off for a student again.
But by then he was withdrawn, not his usual happy chap. He had become quiet, distant. I knew one thing for sure: we weren’t going to date anymore. Obviously, I was disappointed. Not sad, not angry, just annoyed that the things that could have been were not given a proper chance. The relationship had reached a dead-end, hitting a wall of ignorance and fear; the wall of stigma. I had given all the tools, all the facts to understand what serodiscordant relationships meant in 2014, but it wasn’t enough and I was not going to fight for it. Fights are for much later on in relationships, not date three.
Silence like a cancer grows
The following day was eerily quiet. No call, no text, nothing. That day hurt more than the previous evening: plain rejection is one thing, unsaid rejection a much harder one. It took another day for him to process the news; we arranged for him to come over for dinner, just a friendly gathering. On the day, after two hours of chitchat and manners best described as frigid, it was time to call a spade a spade.
Me: Shall we talk about the elephant in the room?
Him: Yes. Errrr… I don’t think I can do it (ie, dating me.) I’m sorry.
Conversation did carry on, but that was that. Short of a happy ending, it was at least closure. The certainty that it was not going to happen. The honesty to say it out loud. The respect to do it face to face. This story was no longer about romance; reality had put its stamp all over it and, as we know, it can suck sometimes.
He was keen to remain friends, however. I was neither for nor against the idea, I would let things happen and see. The whole thing was about a month ago and we still chat regularly. We go out, we chat, we drink, we do what friends do and not look back on how it all started.
Hear my words that I might teach you
A week or so after that crucial night, he messaged me. His words were carefully picked, serious. He had been diagnosed with a somewhat benign STD and since, despite never having sexual contact, we had been physically close, it was possible I had it too.
Never had I been so amused at the idea of having been infected by something. The irony levels were up the roof. I knew it, he knew it; the whole situation was hilarious, had it not been terribly cutting at the same time. For he was now in the very position he had rejected me for a few days earlier; and was actually more likely to have passed this on than I could ever be with HIV.
To some extent, I thought it might make him reconsider how quick he had been to make his earlier decision. I didn’t want him to reconsider ‘us’, that ship had sailed; but I hoped he would see HIV in a different, more common light. After all, he was more likely to get an STD from a random encounter (or even a boyfriend) than he was from getting HIV from someone like me – aware, on treatment and undetectable.
Maybe he did think it through. On a drunken night out recently he talked of ‘what ifs’ and all that jazz. I asked him to read this enlightening article. Not for me but for the ones to come. As a gay man in London, he is bound to be in the same situation again. When the time happens, I can only hope that the outcome will be a happier one. One where “what ifs” are replaced with “I know”: no longer “what if something goes wrong” but “I know we can have sex and still be safe.”
Take my arms that I might reach you
Tonight, we are going to see Positive, a play about dating with HIV. The virus is now on his radar, no longer a taboo, an unknown condition that can be ignored.
The war on stigma is not over but, everyday, small victories happen. Slowly and quietly – but surely-, I shall keep on fighting.
One date at a time.
This article previously appeared in Tom’s own blog livinghiv.com here.