Disclosing one’s HIV status, if you’ve seroconverted, is among the hardest things many people will ever be called or expected to do. In the worlds of preventative care, advocacy and HIV treatment, disclosure seems to be a no-brainer. It is expected and prescribed as the one, true way to control the HIV epidemic…for those who are HIV neutral or do not know their status. This narrative, that it is best for “everyone” if poz people disclose their status (to family, friends, prospective partners and casual/anonymous flings), is as common and central in the LGBTQ community as the belief that Jesus is son of God is to those professing Christianity. To say otherwise is not only pure heresy, but a certain call for “self-imposed” isolation and stigma. However, is disclosure really best for everyone? And if so, are poz folks included in this protected, beloved community?
While the United States continues to criminalize HIV non-disclosure in most states (regardless of whether transmission occurs or not), our neighbors to the north have taken a markedly different approach as of late. A few months ago, the highest court in Canada decided that there was no longer a need for blanket criminalization of non-disclosure of one’s HIV status. Hewing close to the latest scientific data, the Canadians decided that HIV disclosure was only warranted in the event that unprotected sex occurred. HIV positive individuals in Canada, under this new legal regime, would no longer be prosecuted for not disclosing their status before having sex with HIV-negative folks (or those simply unaware of their own status) provided that they used a condom. While the leading experts in HIV research in Canada and around the world pressed for a ruling that would provide legal protections from prosecution and forced disclosure for HIV+ folks with undetectable viral loads, this ruling was applauded as a major step in the right direction. Stigma resulting from criminalization and outdated data are widely known to have a negative effect on HIV treatment, prevention and survival. The Canadian ruling reasoned that the miniscule risk of HIV transmission during safe(r) sex was the responsibility of both parties, not solely the individual aware of their status. This ruling also affirmed a right to privacy, provided it did not endanger the health of others, for all individuals regardless of HIV status. In my opinion, this is a huge step in the right direction.
In my opinion, the greatest way to show that we are “greater than AIDS” (as well as HIV) is to remove the stigma implicit in the scarlet letters of criminalization and forced disclosure when an individual is either undetectable or practicing safe(r) sex. If we are to continue this narrative of being a beloved, queer community of color we must all share the struggles and beauty of HIV survivance together. We must claim a mantra of community and personal responsibility for the stigmas surrounding HIV, continued transmission, adherence, criminalization and survival. We can do this by realizing that HIV awareness and prevention is not the job of HIV positive people. Much like any stigmatized or minoritized group, poz folk live each day as uncompensated professors to those of us who fear their existence and/or wish to study their survival tactics. We should assume that everyone is HIV positive and practice sexual health strategies accordingly. We must learn to love through, past and with HIV. If we do not, it will be the death of us all.
So when is the right time to disclose? Or is disclosure even necessary? For me, disclosure becomes necessary when I’m seeking to give or receive love and/or support or in the event that I choose to engage in high risk (unprotected/high viral-load sex). Otherwise, I generally don’t inquire about my prospective gentleman caller’s physical health status. (much like I don’t ask about his credit history, the times he’s been to a therapist or if he’s ever been arrested). I assume he is positive. I (we) wrap it up or acknowledge our risks and enjoy every iota of passion and pleasure that the human body can produce. We are all free (and must) make our own decisions about our sexual health and the risks that we choose to encounter. However, we are fooling ourselves if we believe that our attempts at serosorting are protecting us from HIV. In fact, our push toward further stigmatization and sexual-cultural isolation will likely lead to higher rates of HIV in our sexual, familial and platonic networks. If we are to be serious about the survival of our communities and our the protection of our individual sexual health, we must realize that HIV can no longer be a (sexual) death sentence. Queer up, wrap/PrEP it up or otherwise manage your risks, be HIV neutral and leave your (misguided) stigma at home.
This was originally published on my tumblr on February 23, 2013.