When David told me that he was HIV positive I cried for two days. He was the first man that I ever loved back when I was 19. We’d been seeing each other for about a month (yes, love came much more easily back then), and he told me about his status just as we were about to fuck for the first time. No doubt I was crying because I cared about him and I naively understood HIV to be a death sentence. I was also crying because up until then I didn't fully understand the reality of the virus and how it affected the gay population, my people. It was no longer something that I just read in a book or seen on television—it had become very real.
Before David, I’d had sex with a couple of guys and was always very paranoid about HIV. I was prone to cold sores and cankers so I was always careful when it came to oral. I think I did a good job at educating myself about sexual health and understood that the main way to contract HIV was through unprotected anal sex, not oral, but it didn't seem to stop me from becoming a nervous wreck after each early encounter. It was hard to shake those images I’d see in movies about the Aids plague.
After I was done crying, I told David that it didn’t matter. I’d always admired Ben and Michael’s serodiscordant relationship on Queer as Folk, which helped in my acceptance of the situation, but it was more than just that. I decided that I wasn't about let fear get in the way of the love and so it didn’t.
The following week I visited the sexual health clinic in Kitchener, where I was living at the time, and explained to the nurse that I was dating someone who was HIV positive. “How can I stay safe?” I asked. She explained that the best way to remain negative is the same as always: by wearing a condom. It was as simple as that. This is before PrEP.
I unfortunately have friends that openly serosort claiming that it’s their right to have sex with whomever they choose. It’s an expression of fear, I think. I’ve always personally felt that as a members of the gay population, we’re in this together when it comes to HIV. How could I possibly reject someone within my own community after everything we've been through? Especially now, when we understand that being HIV positive but undetectable means that you can’t pass the virus onto others. Rejecting someone, knowing this, is plain ignorant in my opinion.
David insisted that we meet with his doctor together, who explained that he was undetectable. That was about 15 years ago, long before we fully understood what that means for possible transmission. David was going to live a long and healthy life, his doctor explained, which was a very different narrative than what I was imagining about HIV before we started dating. This was the new reality of the virus.
We’d had a few scares during the year we were together, more when I had cankers and didn’t realize it until after the sex. It took me time to overcome that paranoia. Also, one time when I was having trouble coming, I masturbated to the point where I chaffed my penis and started bleeding. I hadn't realized it until after we both came, which freaked me out but that entire time that we'd dated, I remained negative. He’s had a series of relationships before and after that too, and those partners are still negative as well.
David and I broke up after a year because of some jealousy issues, but we’ve remained close friends until today. I’ve watched him continue to date others but sadly about 40% of the guys he meets reject him because of his status, which in turn creates a stigma. It has been said that this stigma makes the situation worst within our community. Because of it some are too afraid to even get tested for fear that they are positive, and if they’re not being tested or treated, then the virus continues spread, particularly because we know that most positive men on treatment aren’t transmitting the virus.
So yes, a lot has changed in the 15 years since David and I had met. Today we’ve embraced this idea of treatment for HIV as prevention or “TasP,” in reducing HIV transmission rates, and we also have PrEP. PrEP not only reduces the risk of transmission by over 99%, but it completely eliminates the stigma and fear surrounding the virus. It’s important to note that this new reality of HIV has been realized because of those fearless LGBT folks who, during the more adverse and difficult times, stuck together and didn’t just think selfishly out of fear but bonded over love and compassion. They truly understood that we’re all in this together and did something about it.
Mike's work has appeared in Instinct, The Gay and Lesbian Review and Daily Xtra. His first novel, Paris Demands, is out now by Lethe Press
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