OPINION | Let’s Internalise Love: On not rejecting HIV+ guys

The recent backlash against Charlie Tredway, the newly crowned Mr. Gay New Zealand, over his positive HIV status and sexual practices highlight the continual need to discuss HIV stigma.

Despite his negotiations of condomless anal sex with partner/s (and despite his openness about his HIV positive undetectable status), Tredway has faced bullying from commentators who seem to be approximately 15 years behind on HIV science, but apparently claim the moral high ground on what constitutes ‘safe sex’.

Regardless of the efficacy of an undetectable viral load, which has been most powerfully upheld by the PARTNER study, and by international HIV/AIDS organisations, there seems to be very little respect for Tredway and partner/s’ capacity to negotiate their sex and relationships.

While the stigma Tredway faces in his highly publicised position (as Mr. Gay New Zealand) may seem pretty extreme, it is not dissimilar to the multiplicitous experiences of HIV stigma faced by everyday gay men.

Home in Perth I receive a text from Jack*, a friend living with HIV, containing screenshots from a Grindr conversation from Craig*. Jack and Craig hooked up last week and fucked with condoms (amongst some groping, frottage, and oral). It was great fun.

Craig was bragging to some friends last night about his hot trick, Jack, and showed them some photos. Craig’s friends pointed out that Jack is HIV positive, something that Craig did not know. The next day, Craig has sent a barrage of abusive messages to Jack, accusing him of lying and putting Craig at risk. In Western Australia disclosure of HIV status prior to sex is not required, however ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent transmission, such as the use of condoms, are required.

From a legal perspective, Jack has done all of the correct things – and if he thought things were going to get more serious with Craig, he was planning to disclose his HIV status (although this can end badly too). If it’s just sex, Jack doesn’t want to go through the stress of disclosing to someone, and he knows he’s not putting his partners at risk, because on top of using condoms he has an undetectable viral load.

Jack is upset – this isn’t the first time this has happened. Craig is convinced that he now “has AIDS” and Jack is on the phone to me, teary-eyed and frustrated. “Maybe I should just put it on my profile.” Jack tells me. That can be a really scary thing to do. Our mutual friend Kane* lists that he is HIV positive on Grindr, using the [+U] symbol in his display name and listing ‘Positive, undetectable’ on his profile under the newly implemented ‘HIV status’ option on Grindr.

Kane has sent me screenshots where guys on Grindr have sent him random messages such as “stop spreading HIV to everyone, you’re a sick fuck” and he’s even been accused of ‘lying’ about his status when it comes up during text conversation when exchanging pics and discussing sexual practice, despite it already being listed on his profile.

When I sit down for a coffee with Kane, he tells me that he can’t help but feel that since he started listing his HIV positive status on Grindr, guys aren’t talking to him or replying to his messages.

“It could be that… but I go through plenty of phases where I feel like no one is messaging me too! You’re being too hard on yourself, sometimes guys message back, and sometimes they don’t. It’s not necessarily your HIV status.” I tell him – I’m a little bit optimistic, and a lot naive and privileged as a HIV negative man.

Jack has told me before that in workshops for people living with HIV, they try to work through their internalised stigma towards HIV. That is, working through your own underlying beliefs about how people living with HIV ought to be viewed.

Sometimes people just aren’t into you because they’re not attracted to you, but when you’re HIV positive you can get this sense of perceived stigma where you can’t tell if someone is rejecting you because of lack of attraction, or because you’re HIV positive. If you believe the latter, is it because deep down you think that someone living with HIV is not worth talking to?

This isn’t news to Kane, but knowing it doesn’t make it any easier. At some point I can sense in his voice that he doesn’t feel like anyone will ever love him, let alone have a few dates or casual sex with him. He wants to be open about his HIV status so that he can be honest about himself, so that he can stand above the stigma, and so that other HIV positive guys in the community can feel the courage to disclose as well.

But he’s sick of countering myths, he’s sick of explaining the difference between HIV and AIDS, he’s sick of defending his right to have a pleasurable sex life, and he’s sick of educating when he could be cruising. He’s sick – but not because of a virus – because of a community that seems so far behind.

I want to hug Kane and Jack and tell them that things are going to be OK, that they will find love and sex and adoration and that human comfort we all need. But when I receive a message on Grindr that night from some guy I’ve been chatting to who asks me “if I’m clean” I can’t help but feel a little bit pessimistic.

HIV stigma hurts our community. A conservative estimate of seroprevalence (proportion of people living with HIV) in Perth is 4.2% of MSM (men who have sex with men). That’s just over 1 in 25 guys.

This might seem alarming but the good news is that guys who know that they are HIV positive and are on treatment usually end up being non-infectious with a sustained undetectable viral load. This means that even if you don’t use condoms for anal sex the risk is thought to be negligible.

PrEP and PEP aren’t even clinically recommended if your only sexual partner is HIV positive with an undetectable viral load. Furthermore, if you only limit your partners to guys who say that they are negative (or think that they are negative), and engage in condomless anal sex on that basis, you are putting yourself at a higher risk.

A person is most infectious in the first few months of acquiring HIV, which is possibly where they might also show up as ‘negative’ due to the window period of a HIV antibody/antigen test. There is a folklore wisdom that suggests that sex with a HIV positive guy with an undetectable viral load is safer – it’s true.

I call upon my fellow HIV negative guys to learn about HIV. To read up about stigma and disclosure. To think through your assumptions about HIV. To get tested. If you meet Mr. Right and he turns out to be HIV positive, he’s still Mr. Right.

You can live a long and happy life together or just have a few casual fucks. There’s an abundance of resources online to educate yourself about HIV. If you feel scared about HIV, go to the WA AIDS Council and talk to someone.

Think about going on PrEP if you think you’re at risk of acquiring HIV or you want to alleviate the fear. If someone discloses their HIV status to you, respect their privacy. Jack and Kane deserve better from us HIV-negative guys. They are our brothers and our stigma against HIV hurts us as much as it hurts them.

Let’s stand with Mr. Tredway and embrace a new era of HIV prevention while breaking down the cycle of discrimination.

Anthony K J Smith

* Names have been changed. Any resemblance is a coincidence.

Updated 5/1/17 @ 11:28am – Added links to source material.

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