During a scene in the 2008 film “Milk,” the gay activist and politician Harvey Milk insisted that every gay person working on his campaign who had not yet disclosed their sexuality to their family do so immediately.
It’s a terrible moment wherein a well-meaning leader forces his beliefs onto a group of his followers without considering their particular consequences.
I am an advocate for HIV disclosure. Much like Milk, I divulge personal information publicly in order to fight stigma. But, unlike him, I don’t believe that anyone else should do so, unless they decide to for themselves. In fact, during one’s day-to-day life, there is rarely a reason for a person’s sexuality or HIV status to surface. For instance, it is none of your employer’s business — in fact, it is illegal for them to ask. Not even your parents are entitled to that information if you’re unprepared to discuss it with them.
I have a friend who, despite telling his mother everything about his life — including the latest dress he ruined after a messy sexual experience — refuses to speak to her about his seropositive status. This is because he fears that it is the one thing that will change her opinion of him. Whether he is incorrect about that or not, he is right to hold onto this information until he feels comfortable with sharing it.
Soft power advocacy
Among my friends, I am known as someone who “overdiscloses.” It’s not uncommon for me to casually share my seropositive status with strangers at Christmas parties, during lectures, or while moderating panels because, as I frequently say, “I want you to know that this is how living with HIV can look — that the virus is nothing to be ashamed of and that the person in front of you, whom you hold in high esteem and are shaking hands with, is living with this infection.”
It’s unnecessary for me to do this, but I choose to put myself out there as a form of soft power advocacy. I am aware of the privilege I wield as a culture critic and as the staff writer of TheBody. As a result of that authority and influence, people are often prepared to like me as soon as they meet me.
Though disclosing my status with people who do not need to know it might commodify me as “the HIV guy” in their eyes, I believe that by doing so, I am challenging the pervasive poverty-porn portrayal of people living with HIV (PLWH) and helping those who might feel a certain type of way about our community to dispel their false — and often judgmental — notions.
Just as importantly, by sharing my experience, I am standing up as a possibility model for PLWH who may not feel so great about themselves. I once felt this way. I believed that seroconverting was something that only happened to people who didn’t plan properly. I was also not so secretly jealous of my friends who never tested positive for any major sexually transmitted infections (STIs) despite their slutty sexcapades. I was angry that I’d avoided certain types of experiences out of fear of HIV — only to end up testing positive for it anyway.
While those feelings were real, once I acknowledged that I was still the same person and that my opportunities had not diminished, I began to accept my status and to advocate for anyone who had ever been told that they were bad because of something that had happened to them.
And let’s be clear — it doesn’t matter what led to your diagnosis with HIV. As the social culture dynamo King of Reads brilliantly states, “Nobody gave me HIV, child. Nobody gave me anything, sis. I contracted a virus that I am maintaining every day when I take my medicine.”
Maintaining one’s health should be what matters
So, whether you seroconverted after having sex for the first or the 100th time, during a sexual assault, while using drugs recreationally, while you were in a committed relationship, or while taking raw loads in the back of your local sex club — none of us deserves HIV, nor should anyone be judged for living with it. Just as importantly, you don’t owe anyone an explanation regarding how you seroconverted unless you choose to tell them.
As King of Reads reminds us, maintaining one’s health should be what matters. However, because of backward laws that were often passed without consideration for health science, disclosing one’s HIV status is legally required in many states before engaging in sex with another person — but only for the person who is living with HIV. Yes, in violation of basic common sense and equal rights, people who are seronegative are not required to discuss their HIV status.
In some states, this double standard for PLWH includes oral sex, even though we know that spit does not transmit. This, despite the fact that, as the HIV activist Nina Martinez puts it, “Both consenting parties to sexual activity can prevent HIV transmission, no matter what is or is not said between them.”
Given the reality that PLWH can be virally suppressed through treatment with antiretroviral therapy (ART) and therefore incapable of transmitting, that people who are seronegative can use pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent transmission from occurring, and that condoms and lube can also act as preventative measures, I don’t think that focusing on one’s HIV status should be the point of a conversation about sex. For me, that discussion has always been led with, “Do I want to have sex with this person?”
While discussing status has always been my habit, even when I was seronegative, I hate that our country forces one community of people to divulge their private information without considering how doing so will affect their lives. Because while I care about people who are seronegative, my primary concern will always be protecting people who are seropositive. Because we are more vulnerable — and the laws that govern our status have been written in such a way as to prey upon us.
Despite this reality, it is essential that we recall that in our daily lives, our HIV status is no one’s business and that even when it comes to dating, that information is earned — not a person’s right to know.
This will be the case even in the future when we (hopefully) reach a state where HIV is regarded in the same way as cancer — as something shitty that happens, but that doesn’t reduce one’s worth. And that is the most important thing to hold onto: Whether you never speak of your status or choose to blare it to the world with a bullhorn like I do, it does not determine how wonderful you are.