HIV-Positive and Unashamed: A Story of Obliterating Stigma and Falling in Love
I am 49 years old. In 2013, at 45, I found out I was HIV-positive. It was one of those moments in life when everything slowed down, when the world felt slightly out of focus.
I can remember sitting there, in the AHF HIV Testing Truck outside of L.A.’s Faultline Bar during beer bust, thinking, How is that possible? I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know how to make sense of the information.
For most of my adult life I was terrified of AIDS. I grew up in and around New York City in a time when gay men were dying from the disease on a regular basis.
In some ways, I was lucky. I seroconverted during the time of antiretrovirals and PrEP. Months after testing positive I was labeled “undetectable,” meaning that thanks to those antiretrovirals and access to good health care, I can no longer transmit the virus.
I found an amazing doctor, Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who spent a lot of time answering my questions and reassuring me that as long as I continued with my meds, I would be able to live a healthy and normal life. HIV stigma did not have to define who I was.
I told my family and my friends, the people closest to me. In those first few weeks I was protected and loved, sheltered. It really did feel like maybe this would have no practical effect over my life.
HIV stigma is real.
“Hey daddy, can I get that toxic load?” The text was sent to me on a gay dating app, followed by a series of pictures of a young guy, face down. His profile said he was disease free and on PrEP.
“Huh?” I replied.
“That toxic load, daddy. I want that poz load.”
I wanted to write back that my load, in fact, was not toxic. And, no, he couldn’t have it. Instead I just blocked him.
“Don’t you think you have a moral obligation to not be on these apps?” another guy once wrote to me.
“You say in your profile you have AIDS.”
“I don’t have AIDS. I’m HIV-positive.”
“You are trying to infect the rest of us. Bitter fucking bitches like you should be shot.”
Another time, after chatting with a guy for a few days on a different app, he texted me, “Wait … do you have AIDS?”
“I don’t have AIDS. I’m poz undetectable.”
“Man, there’s no difference. You’re still sick. Can I get that if I let you suck my dick?”
I tried to explain to him what being undetectable meant, along with what the risks were. HIV stigma is real.
“Yeah, seems too risky, man. Like, what if your spit gets in me? Too bad. You’re super hot. I would have loved to have fucked with you. But I’d be too scared all the time. I’m sorry. I hope you get better.”
One night, while at the bar I work at, a couple was visiting from out of town. They had been flirting with me all night. At one point they came up to me and we began talking. The conversation turned sexual, until one of them asked if I was negative.
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m positive. But I’m super healthy and undetectable.”
“Oh. I mean, maybe we could play with your nipples. That’s safe, right?”
“I refuse to feel ashamed.”
I want to be respectful: We all have the right to choose who we fuck. Even if it means not choosing me because of my HIV status. I try to remember that mostly this isn’t even about me. But it’s still hard not to think there’s something inherently wrong with who I am.
A while back I found myself saving these messages, taking screenshots of them, because I didn’t want to forget there’s a reason why I’m so open about my HIV status and why I write about it so much.
I refuse to feel ashamed. I try to be as loud and open as possible for the guys out there who aren’t as loved and as accepted as I have been. For the guys who believe the messages they get that say there’s something wrong with them.
I remember in my late teens my mother started to take me to the funerals of her friends. The gay men who had surrounded me all my life, who helped babysit me; the men who helped me understand what it meant to be gay; who told me about the parties and orgies they went to on Fire Island; the men who put on music and danced with me in our living room; some of the first men I ever fell in love with, crushing on them so hard I would turn red whenever they came into our house.
I remember going to a party in Bucks County at a sprawling estate on the Delaware River, a house owned by a wealthy artist. We had gone to the funeral of his boyfriend that morning. I remember sitting on the couch, watching those men as they danced and sang, passing bottles of whiskey and joints. I remember as they cried and told each other stories, making promises to each other to be there when it was their turn to go.
I remember my mother crying and swearing she would never go to another funeral again. Which, of course, was a lie.
Making real connections
I met my boyfriend, Noah, back in January, when I decided to leave Los Angeles for London during Trump’s inauguration. Noah is 30 and HIV-negative. When I met him (we had been talking for months on the dating apps), I had assumed he was going to be just a fuck. Some sexy dude I hooked up with as part of my London adventure. The first night we met, he asked me if I wanted to come back to his place to cuddle.
I’m not a fan of cuddling with guys I don’t know, but something about Noah made me say yes. I absolutely wanted to go cuddle with him. And maybe, I figured, if this is what I have to do to get in this guy’s bed, then fine. I’ll do what it takes. I was so jetlagged that, while lying on top of him and making out, I fell asleep.
We spent every day and every night of the next seven days together. I have been back to London six times since January, and he has visited me in L.A.
Early on I used to worry: Will he decide he doesn’t want to be with someone like me, someone who is HIV-positive? Will we always have to wear condoms? Will he begin to resent me? Will he one day decide that he wants to be with someone better, someone younger, someone negative? I found myself fighting these fears in my head, having to remind myself that no matter what was going to happen, I would be OK.
But here’s the thing: these fears, this HIV stigma that I’ve internalized — it’s bullshit. Noah hasn’t left me. He hasn’t pushed me away or told me I disgust him. Instead he holds me, and he kisses me; instead we text every day and talk on Facetime and we fly across the world to see each other. Noah finds ways to remind me that I am special, and that he wants to be with me. We both find ways to remind the other that we are important.
Acknowledging true heroes
Recently, when I came across my screenshots of messages from guys who wanted to tell me how sick and horrible I was because of my HIV status, I began to delete them. Instead I thought back on all the men and all the friends and family, on all the people who didn’t care that I was positive, all the people who loved me, all the guys who kissed me and went on dates with me, all the people who helped me navigate this thing that in one way had such little effect on my life, and in another way meant everything.
I’m done internalizing other people’s shame and HIV stigma. I’m done worrying what other people think of me. It’s not my job to defend myself to assholes who don’t care about science or truth.
But I do think it is my job — my obligation — to keep saying it, over and over again, as loud as possible: I am an HIV-positive man. And I am healthy. And I am happy. My life is good. I do not have to be defined by this. I do not have to allow it to be something ugly in my life. And I do not have to feel ashamed.
Those men who died, all those guys I loved, they are fucking heroes. All the men who put on their profiles that they are positive, bucking HIV stigma — they’re heroes, too. All the men who refuse to feel less than, refuse to feel unworthy, all the men who stand up and say without fear that they are positive — these men are heroes as well.
And Noah, who loves me despite my HIV status — he’s a hero. All the guys who are HIV-negative and on PrEP — heroes. All the guys who are positive and stay on their meds, who use their undetectable status as a barrier against transmission — heroes.
We are fucking heroes, and nobody gets to tell us we aren’t.
Jeff Leavell is a writer living between Los Angeles and Berlin. He specializes in queer social commentary, relationships, sexuality, art and Nightlife. His novel Accidental Warlocks will be released by Lethe Press in May 2018. You can find him at his website or on Instagram.
Featured image courtesy of oneinchpunch via iStock