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Something you should know
Dating is a fraught business at the best of times but, as Tom Hayes recounts, when it comes to Disclosure Time, you never quite know what to expect.
Recently, I was dating. Should Pope Francis take credit for it, that’s one out of three divine interventions sorted for his canonisation. Anyway, the man was, by all accounts, not very aware when it comes to sexual health, having been in a straight monogamous relationships for years and only coming out of the closet in the last 12 months or so. Add to that being only 25 — and coming from a place where being gay is more on the Alienate People than How to Make Friends side of things — and you have an explosive cocktail. Thank God for all this being balanced out by a great personality. And good looks. That helps, too.
At the end of date three, it was Disclosure Time. What’s that? Disclose beforehand? During the first date? I hear some saying it’s honest, it’s easier; it means they get the whole picture etc. Oh no. Why should you? One date sure isn’t enough time to know what they are made of, so disclosing may be a bit premature. That’s why I keep it for the second or third date. Timing is key. Too early and they might not have got to know you enough to appreciate that HIV doesn’t have to be a barrier to the relationship. Too late and they might resent you for not mentioning it earlier. (However, disclosure before sex is an absolute necessity when seeking a relationship.)
But I digress. So, by date three, I had a pretty good idea of who he was and certain he would not freak out. He didn’t. Of course, not freaking out does not always mean people are OK to date you, but it is still appreciated when they don’t run a mile when you tell them. At first he panicked when hearing how I contracted HIV by someone unaware of their positive status, recalling his own experiences grinding the past few months away and enjoying the freedom of being openly gay. He told me of the not-so-safe things he had done and how, if it had happened to me, it could have already have happened to him.
This was awkward for two reasons: first, the lack of knowledge on the topic of transmission. I tried to reassure him that HIV is quite a weak virus outside of the body, so his chances of being infected whilst playing with a partner’s cum was pretty remote. Second, I was contemplating the life introspection occurring in front of me. Every concern he had, every question he asked seemed less about me or a possible ‘us’ and more about reassuring himself that he was going to be OK. Cue endless questions. On the bright side, at least he cared about sexual health.
That night I went home, alone. I left him there on his bed. Yes, fully clothed, no sex before mar… disclosure, etc. I had answered all his questions. I had told him about my treatment, about life expectancy, about sexual risks or lack thereof. I had done my bit for HIV information, like a slutty school nurse: kissing first to get their attention, teaching whilst they were hooked. Mind, if any school nurse ever did that, make it a male one and send me the address; I’ll shave and pass off for a student again.
But by then he was withdrawn, not his usual happy chap. He had become quiet, distant. I knew one thing for sure: we weren’t going to date anymore. Obviously, I was disappointed. Not sad, not angry, just annoyed that the things that could have been were not given a proper chance. The relationship had reached a dead end, hitting a wall of ignorance and fear — the wall of stigma. I had given him all the tools, all the facts to understand what serodiscordant relationships meant, but it wasn’t enough and I was not going to fight for it. Fights are for much later on in relationships, not date three.
The following day was eerily quiet. No call, no text, nothing. That day hurt more than the previous evening — plain rejection is one thing, unsaid rejection is a much harder pill to swallow. It took another day for him to process the news and we arranged for him to come over for dinner, just a friendly gathering. After two hours of chitchat and manners best described as frigid, it was time to call a spade a spade.
Me: Shall we talk about the elephant in the room?
Him: Yes. Errrr… I don’t think I can do it (i.e., dating me). I’m sorry.
Conversation did carry on, but that was that. Short of a happy ending, it was at least closure. The certainty that it was not going to happen. The honesty to say it out loud. The respect to do it face to face, man to man. This story was no longer about romance; reality had put its stamp all over and, as we know, it can suck sometimes. He was keen to remain friends, however. I was neither for nor against the idea, I would let things happen and see.
A week or so after that crucial night, he messaged me. His words were carefully picked, serious. He had been diagnosed with a somewhat benign STI and since — despite never having sexual contact — we had been physically close, it was possible I had it too. Never had I been so amused at the idea of having been infected by something. The irony levels were up the roof. I knew it, he knew it. The whole situation was hilarious, had it not been terribly cutting at the same time. For he was now in the very position he had rejected me for a few days earlier, and was actually more likely to have passed this on than I could ever had with HIV.
To some extent, I thought it might make him reconsider how quick he had been to take his earlier decision. I didn’t want him to reconsider ‘us’ — that ship had sailed. But I hoped he would see HIV in a different, more common light. After all, he was more likely to get an STI from a random encounter (or even a boyfriend) than he was from getting HIV from someone like me: aware, on treatment and undetectable.
Maybe he did think it through. On a drunken night out recently he talked of “what ifs” and all that jazz. I asked him to read an enlightening article about undetectable viral load. Not for me, but for the ones to come after as he is bound to be in the same situation again. When the time happens, I can only hope that the outcome will be a happier one. One where “what ifs” are replaced with “I know”. No longer “what if something goes wrong”, but “I know we can have sex and still be safe”. At least now the virus is on his radar, no longer a taboo — an unknown condition that can be ignored.
The war on stigma is not over but, everyday, small victories happen. Slowly and quietly. One date at a time.