By Jake Myers, MFT
Jake is a therapist at the Gay Therapy Center. He sees clients at the Hollywood Center in Los Angeles, and worldwide by phone and Skype.
You’re on cloud nine. He’s hot. The chemistry is right. The conversation flows. There’s nothing about him that annoys you. It’s so rare to find a mate with that perfect mix that you wonder what the catch is. Then – wham! – he tells you he’s HIV-positive.
Many guys who aren’t HIV-positive can’t get past the stigma surrounding HIV. And many poz guys know too well that fateful text later in the night–“Hey man, it’s just not gonna be a fit.” But without being able to talk through things, it’s easy to let overwhelm, uncertainty, and bias color the chance for love (or hot sex).
I work with people on both sides of the issue – newly diagnosed and those concerned about becoming positive – to work through the fears and misunderstandings around HIV so that they can live fully and freely, without fear, judgment, or low self-worth.
Here are some tips on how to talk to that guy after he drops the HIV bombshell…
Be honest and authentic about your feelings.
Your first instinct might be to close up. Don’t. Guys with HIV have most likely had to go through this conversation before, and they can handle it. It’s much worse to pretend you’re not having a reaction and then reject someone later without a real, honest dialogue. It’s okay to be freaked out or have concerns, questions, fears, disappointments, et cetera. Talking about them and being heard can help you move past them.
You don’t have to dance around the details. Although it can seem like a very personal issue, it’s important for you to get out all of your questions and concerns, so that you can move through some of your fears of the unknown. For example, ask him what his health status is. Is he undetectable? What does that mean exactly? How long has he been positive? By not shying away from those topics, you are relaying a message that you are open and willing to learn more, and things will feel less overwhelming. The truth is that he’s really not any different than a negative guy but you should explore the issues with him.
Don’t assume he wants to date someone negative.
Believe it or not, you’re not the only one who gets to decide if he wants to be in a sero-discordant relationship (a relationship where both partners have a different HIV statuses). Many poz guys prefer to only date someone else with the same status, to avoid the fear of transmitting it to someone they love and dealing with those emotional repercussions. Or they may not be up for negotiation around safe sex. Both you and your partner get to decide what works for each of you.
Talk about exactly how protection could look.
There are many ways to still have a healthy, safe sex life when one member of a couple has HIV. Different layers of protection include: the positive partner being undetectable, the negative partner being on PrEP; condoms; not having anal intercourse. A discussion about what each person would be comfortable with is essential. If you’re not on the same page, instead of immediately jumping to judgment or rejection, ask why. It’s important for both you to understand each other.
Be aware of HIV stigma.
Pay attention to your reaction and try to be conscious of any pre-conceived negative judgment that you have around HIV. Some people still believe that only a slut or someone who is self-hating would be careless enough to get HIV. That just isn’t true, and comes from a place of prejudice. Having HIV doesn’t define a person, and may not even say anything about them at all. If you feel yourself going into a place of judgment, just acknowledge it as a first step to letting it go.