Words by Peter | Photo © Dan Hall/GMFA

I don’t care if I never have sex with an HIV-negative guy ever again. This isn’t meant as some sort of inverted prejudice; I would never be so stupid as to turn someone down because of his HIV status. I just think it needs saying. 

The narrative around HIV stigma, in the gay arena at least, seems to hinge on sexual rejection. I really don’t think this is quite the problem. For me, a negative guy is not bringing something special to the table. Quite the reverse. He’s likely to turn up with a whole bag full of problems.

Sexual freedom means that you can refuse sex from anyone for any reason, and you don’t need to justify yourself. In my time, I have been turned down because I am too short, too old, too young, because my cock isn’t big enough, because I claim to be a versatile top (apparently, that means ‘bottom’, not that it excuses anything), because I am English and because I am ‘too fit’ (you really can’t win). If I am turned down because of my HIV status, that is just another fragment of nonsense in a long line of self-defeating drivel. I respect someone’s right to make that choice. I don’t have to respect him for making that choice.

I realise there are those who will argue that avoiding HIV-positive people is a safer sex strategy rather than a preference, but I’m not at all convinced. The ridiculous thing about sero-sorting is that it seems well-designed to isolate the uninfected from the uninfectious while leaving the undiagnosed blamelessly to cause utter havoc. It’s not harm reduction, it’s fear reduction. This is all very well, but dealing with irrational fear is a non-trivial matter and most of us were strongly conditioned to be afraid of people with HIV. A friend inadvertently expressed this very well when he said: “I wish people would stop telling me they are positive; I’m still going to have sex with them, but it just means I end up worrying about it for weeks afterwards.” You can’t rationalise your way out of that. He actually thinks it’s quite selfish of them to disclose because it just passes the concern to him.

No, the problem is not that I get turned down, it is the way it comes about. I have learned not to make the first move. Worse, I have been conditioned to avoid offers, and to believe that no approach I make regarding my status is satisfactory. I am a villain if I fail to disclose without first being asked, I am an irresponsible slut if I am open about it. I am instantly judged for getting HIV by not using a condom, on the assumption that condoms are 100% effective, by someone who knows nothing about what happened to me and wouldn’t believe me if I told him, and who then decides condoms aren’t safe enough for him now that he knows my status. If I dare to say my viral load has been undetectable for over 10 years, I am accused of promoting bareback sex (without ever having suggested it), an accusation not generally levelled at all the ‘responsible’ people telling everyone they are negative. Then my medical privacy is blown out of the water by someone who thinks it is his civic duty to gossip about me.

Does this all sound paranoid? Of course it does, because that is exactly what it is. Things are rarely as bad as I have described. But they can be, and that is where the devil lies. All these little disappointments and unkindnesses get internalised. No one needs to reject me. I ruled myself out about two seconds after he first looked at me.

More profoundly, it leaves me with the sense that I am fundamentally a bad person and that there is nothing I can do to redeem myself. Each new sexual acquaintance becomes a potential source of judgement and humiliation. Dates are more difficult than casual meets. Friends suggest I just stick to meeting only other positive guys. Even if I thought this was sensible, the sero-status closet door is so firmly closed that the necessary conversations and disclosures rarely happen.

I’m just as guilty as others; who can be expected to make the first step towards openness when the consequences can be so unpleasant? Look online at one of those apps that helps you to share your status to ‘find like-minded individuals’ and, for all the reasons previously stated, you’ll find scant few; everyone is negative or nothing. Last time I looked, I saw about 30 positive people in the whole of London. That doesn’t even slightly tally with medical statistics. Saying that you are positive can lead you to be abused or to receive nothing but requests to put your own health at risk. I would be very happy, keen indeed, to stay well away from anybody who has a problem with me being HIV-positive. Part of the problem with discouraging people from openly saying they are not interested in positive guys is that it becomes very difficult to know who to avoid until it is too late.

There’s a lot to be said for just swallowing my pills, making sure I harm nobody, keeping my mouth shut and not letting people get to know me too well. I was very upfront about my sexuality for years when being openly gay was a huge detriment to my career, my choice of friends and my general sense of safety; I’m not prepared to do it all over again.