Let’s Talk About Sex: having the conversation about HIV status

A college professor in his early 40s, Jeff has been in therapy with me on and off for ten years. [I’ve changed his name and occupation to preserve confidentiality.] I’ve seen him through the ups and downs of a couple of relationships and a struggle with substance abuse. He’s currently single and reasonably happy with that. Like many gay men, when he’s in a relationship Jeff often has a hard time juggling his partner’s desire for together-time with his own desire for alone-time. (Gay men are far from alone in this. The great lesbian folksinger Ferron nailed the phenomenon in a couplet from her song, “Our Purpose Here”: “It’s a woman’s dream, this autonomy/Where the lines connect but the point stays free….”) Yet the freedom of being single rubs up against loneliness, the sheer pleasure of companionship.

Lately we’ve spent time exploring a split that he notices in his interactions with other men. He has no problem getting slutty with guys he meets on Grindr or Manhunt. But when he meets a guy that he likes and might consider dating, he suddenly becomes weirdly reserved, reluctant to show his sexual self. Some of that may be the residue of a Catholic upbringing; girls aren’t the only ones who internalize the Madonna/whore dichotomy. When he found himself repeating that pattern with another guy recently, a light bulb went off: Jeff realized that he drags his heels when it comes to having sex with a Nice Guy He’s Dating because he’s HIV-positive and he dreads having The Disclosure Conversation. With his characteristic bluntness, he says, “If I’m blowing a guy, I feel like I don’t have to tell him because I’m not putting him in any danger, and chances are I’m never going to see him again. But if it’s someone I might want to date, then I feel like I have to be honest. But then it’s scarier because I have more to lose if he can’t handle it and walks away.”

Now Jeff is an extremely outgoing guy and an unusually assured public speaker. He has no problem speaking, often without notes, to his classes and at professional conferences. Yet the prospect of having the intimate conversation about HIV-status with a guy he’s dating fills him with terror and, more to the point, shame. His friend Daniel, one of the few in his social circle who is also HIV-positive, has developed over time a matter-of-fact attitude about telling people in his life that he’s healthy-poz-undetectable. Jeff is not there yet. In his blackest moods, he considers himself to be “a filthy, diseased creature.” Mind you, that’s not how he views other people with HIV. And no one else has ever judged him that way. The people in his life that he has told have been kind and supportive without exception. And yet he struggles with the sense of being “damaged goods.” This is something probably every single person has wrestled with at some point after being told they’re HIV-positive. What about you? How have you coped with this personal/social dilemma?

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I thought about Jeff when a Facebook friend shared a moving essay that appeared on Buzzfeed.com called “My Virus, My Husband, and Me.” Author Michael Broder, a long-term survivor of HIV, writes with honesty and some humor about the evolution of his feelings and practice around disclosing his HIV status. Check it out and let me know what you think. He references a “Puppet Service Announcement” about HIV awareness that was created by the cast of the Broadway musical Avenue Q and that aired on RuPaul’s Drag Race. You can view that video online here.

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