The first guy I ever turned down on Grindr for having HIV, my patient zero if you will, is all kinds of hot: hot in the face, hot in the body and hotheaded. In May, he asked me to come over and make out. We chatted a little bit more, he told me about his status and I slipped out of the conversation, just like that. Randomly in July, I noticed him at a movie theater: On Grindr and online, people lie with pictures all the time, choosing ones that distort their appearance in a captured second, but I was able to pick Miguel right out of a crowd. His picture is a symbol of habitual honesty, maybe, but also because he’s so attractive, he has no reason to lie.
“This always happens: someone will feel bad and then they’ll see me out and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, you’re so fucking hot,'” Miguel told me while we waited for our table outside of a Chelsea brunch spot one Saturday in early July after I reconnected and asked him to talk to me.
Miguel told me that being turned down for sex because he’s HIV-positive is something that happens “all the time,” and that “almost every time, the minute someone gets to know me, their mind changes.” Exposure to a gay friend often converts homophobes swiftly; the same can be said of an HIV-positive guy meeting others who are fearful. It’s somewhat reassuring that that’s all it takes in many cases, but it also underlines the exponential burden put upon positive guys. They are either in a constant state of proving themselves socially or they are sitting on a secret.
As a gay man in New York with an active, multiple-partner sex life, the chances are that I have hooked up with an HIV-positive guy or five and didn’t know it. Maybe I didn’t know it because he didn’t know it. Maybe I didn’t know it because he was a liar. Maybe I didn’t ask.
Granted, I generally play it safe, keeping fluid exchange at a minimum, using condoms, opting for oral over anal almost every time, and especially with strangers. (Although, as we are coming to realize, oral sex maybe isn’t as safe as we’d like it to be). Even with that in mind, getting tested is never less than horrifying, no matter how regularly I do it. There have been times, especially after suffering from a weird flu-like bug that no one else around me seemed to contract, that I have been sure that I would test positive.
I haven’t yet. I think I’m HIV negative, but since the virus can take three months to show up in blood, I can’t really be sure. In fact, none of us who are sexually active can be sure – except for those who are HIV positive.
Therein lies the hypocrisy in turning down a potential hookup who a) knows his status, and b) is honest about it in favor of one who doesn’t or is lying about it. That kind of discrimination is motivated by fear of the known while taking an agnostic approach to the unknown. It’s especially foolhardy considering that guys who know they are HIV-positive tend to be healthier and with lower viral loads than guys who don’t know they have it and are going untreated. The kind of optimism that assumes someone’s word is as good as a hard copy of a test result is potentially life-altering.
And yet, I’ve turned down guys who are open about their positive status. I watched the onset of AIDS in the ‘80s through the confused eyes of a child. I had it drilled into me that this was a disease to stay far, far away from. I also know better than to sleep with someone who announces himself as HIV positive. Or knew. Now I’m not exactly sure what to think. I feel guilty and scared, but not necessarily in that order.
One of the first things we talked about was what complicates the situation the most: The widely held idea (at least among the HIV-positive guys I talked to for this story) that antiretroviral medication, which reduces the amount of HIV in a person’s blood to undetectable levels, is a contagion cure-all. That is to say that many people believe that it is virtually impossible for guys who identify as “poz but undetectable” to transmit HIV to a sex partner.
“I feel a little bit discriminated against just because if someone is taking care of themselves, there’s no risk on it, unless you have cuts or you’re bleeding,” Giovanni said. “But even then, you have to have a high viral load. If your status is undetectable, it’s very rare that someone else can catch from sucking.”
Giovanni contracted HIV about three years ago from his boyfriend who lied to him about his status: His partner said he was negative, they repeatedly had bareback sex, it turned out his partner was positive and it destroyed their relationship. “I blame myself,” he told me. His regard of personal responsibility is also present in his current philosophy regarding disclosure. If he’s not asked directly, he doesn’t open up about his HIV status.
“There are people that never ask me about my status, so I just go and assume that they have it,” he told me. “If you don’t ask me, I assume something’s wrong with you.”
I found this point of view disturbing, but most of what else Giovanni said was endearing. He told me that he empathizes with the people who are too scared to hook up with him and who turn him down: “I was there before it happened to me…I know how a person feels. When someone says you’re positive, your world changes.”
And so does the world of the person who has it. “It’s not hard to find somebody that accepts me the way that I am, but I don’t know…” he trailed off.
Before he left, I gave Giovanni a big hug. We were intimate and raw and we never took our clothes off. We talked about staying in touch and getting together again soon but it never ended up happening.