A startling reminder that HIV isn’t just for gays
How many HIV-positive people do you know? How many of those people AREN’T gay men?
I know straight people living with HIV are out there—and that HIV affects people of every race, age, sex, and gender identity. But they’re just not part of my community—and my experience made me wonder how their exclusion from the HIV community is a problem.
Recently, I had an experience that made me examine some pretty startling assumptions that I—and probably many other people—hold about HIV. Here’s what happened: I met a straight man living with HIV.
He sent me a cryptic message over social media not too long ago. We hadn’t spoken in years, so I was surprised to see a message from him turn up in my inbox. He wanted to speak to me about something confidentially—apparently, I was someone who would understand whatever it as he was going through.
My first thought was that he was going to come out as gay. I always had an inclination that he might be, but who was I to judge or make assumptions? Not a huge deal, beyond the fact that he was married to a woman and had children.
We ended up meeting for a drink at a local dive bar convenient to both of us. After a slightly awkward series of pleasantries, he left me speechless with his big revelation.
“I’m HIV-positive,” he said to me. “I just found out recently.”
Before he could continue, I told him to pause. I ordered bourbon on the rocks for both of us, then downed the entire glass of alcohol in one continuous guzzle—perhaps to ready myself for the inevitable onslaught of questions and ruminations I could feel were coming. He took a few careful sips of his drink, and watched me with ever-so-slight bemusement.
“OK, I’m ready for you to continue,” I said.
I had a million questions for him, but knew it wasn’t the time. I didn’t want this to turn into an interview or an interrogation. I got the idea that he simply had no one else in his personal life that he could talk to about this. So, I let him speak and I simply listened.
He never revealed how he might have contracted HIV, and I didn’t push or prod on the subject. He did tell me that his wife knew about his status and that she was being as supportive as possible. I was shocked that he knew about PrEP and said his wife was considering it.
He also revealed that he had seen a doctor and was starting treatment right away. We reviewed his initial lab results together and discussed what each number meant. He even took it a step further, and discussed what it meant be undetectable and how that could play a role in his sex life.
Honestly, I was in HIV “expert” mode, but still felt the oddness of the situation. I’d never advised a straight man about living with HIV before. I didn’t have any advice about the role that HIV might play in his marriage, or what he should say to his children. I could, however, offer my own situation as a guide, and hoped that my insight and how I navigate my own relationships might still be a help to him.
This wasn’t the first time a friend or acquaintance had come to me after a positive diagnosis. I’ve talked to many friends about what it means to live life as a gay man with HIV. In an odd way—we’re lucky.
From what I’ve seen, the LGBT community has put up a united front to tackle HIV from all sides. We’ve done a fantastic job of advertising PrEP and making sure that people at risk in our community know about it. We’ve got gay-friendly health centers, community groups and other services that specialize in getting help to LGBT people who are newly infected with HIV or have been living with HIV for decades.
When gay friends come to me it’s pretty easy for me to point them in the right direction. And I’m sure it was just as easy for them to access the information once they knew where to find it. But when someone who isn’t out or who identifies as heterosexual needs resources, like my friend did, it’s a bit more difficult. I didn’t think pointing him to LGBT HIV services would be comfortable for him. And I didn’t know of any HIV-related support or health services or groups specific to straight men.
When I was in South Africa, I noticed that all of the HIV resources and information were geared towards black women. It was very rare that I saw anything specifically for gay men, unless it was in a gay nightclub. Even then, the majority of the posters on the bathroom walls were about women and HIV. For gay men in South Africa, the difficulty in finding relevant HIV resources might be as difficult as it is for heterosexual people here in the States.
It made me think, what can we—the LGBT HIV community—do to reach out and change the experience for people outside our community affected by HIV? Asking the question is just the start. What ideas do you have?
David is a nationally recognized HIV advocate and writer who contributes to HIV focused publications including POZ, Plus, Positively Aware and The Body. Additionally, he focuses on travel writing and spends approximately 90% of each month traveling the world on different assignments. To read more of his HIV writing, visit his online portfolio, or follow him on Twitter.