I’ve been HIV-positive for over 21 years. I was 23 years old at the time, and within two months of finding out, I wrote an article for a local LGBT magazine. The piece detailed how I, a gay Chicano youth who had worked in HIV prevention, now found myself HIV-positive.
Some responded with kindness and support. Many others responded with blame and judgment, calling me “reckless,” “irresponsible,” “stupid” and “a bad example” for my community. This was my original HIV ‘coming out’ experience, and on National Coming Out Day it’s what I think of.
Coming out as HIV-positive is an ongoing process, just like coming out as LGBTQ. I came out publicly as positive because I couldn’t imagine being any other way. I’d worked hard to come out as gay just three years before, and I refused to hide something that was so significant, personally and politically. I also understood the power of affirmatively declaring I was HIV-positive. Others had done it before me, and while that made it much easier for me to do the same, coming out as poz was still not very common.
In fact, I came out as HIV-positive before the advent of protease inhibitors and the antiretroviral cocktail. HIV was still a death sentence. Being openly HIV-positive at that time also meant alerting people to the fact that you might die soon, and that can drastically change how they interact with you.
Fortunately, HIV treatment has radically improved, and now if someone is on medication and achieves an undetectable viral load, they can live a normal lifespan. Additionally, being undetectable makes it virtually impossible to transmit the virus.
Science has changed and the world has changed, but people and human nature have not. Coming out as HIV-positive can leave you vulnerable from a legal standpoint. In over 30 states and in numerous countries around the world, HIV is criminalized. To come out as HIV-positive means accepting the possibility that the law might work against you.
And yet, people living with HIV continue to come out precisely because the laws are unjust and as a means of changing policy and combating stigma. Fortunately there have been some changes, such as California recently reforming its HIV laws, but there’s still much work to be done.
Gay men don’t have a great track record when it comes to HIV-related stigma. We still see it on gay dating apps; it’s rife in the comments section of HIV-related articles; and it can often be heard in conversations among gay men at bars, parties and elsewhere.
The single greatest thing we can do to combat stigma is to come out as HIV-positive. Coming out allows others to see us for who are and to better understand the complex ways HIV impacts all of our lives.
But, most importantly, coming out shows that we will not be ruled by fear.
HIV is nothing to be ashamed of, and when we affirmatively declare that we are positive, we send a message to our community and the world that we will not be afraid — of judgment, derision or even unjust laws.
The ability to openly express your status on gay social networking apps like Hornet continues to change how gay men relate to one another around HIV. It’s a demonstration that there are poz men in online spaces who are part of our community.
We’re sexually active human beings who are looking to hookup, date and chat. Being ‘out’ in the online space also allows other HIV-positive men to find one another and make a connection. Those connections become all the more important to men who are newly diagnosed or who have chosen not to come out. Being out about HIV can also mean standing out so that others are able to find you.
I’m not a scientist. I can’t develop a vaccine or cure, but I do have the power to combat stigma. We all have that power. We simply must decide to wield it.