The Positive Wars: HIV & The Rising Tide of Viral Apartheid

“Masc, chill bro iso freaky, clean ddf dude for those long, all night sessions”


Position: Top/Vers, Drugs: Occasionally, Drink: Often, Condoms: N/A, Status: Negative as of 10/3/2012, Into: 1 on 1 sex, Threesome/Group, Fetish


Those of us living or hiding within the community have all seen these ads. There has been much ado about our problematic culture of masculinity-jockeying, femme-shaming, body-shaming and seronegativity (stigma against those that are HIV positive and know their status) and for good reason. These compounded stigmas not only divide us sexually and culturally, but also compound our risk factors for mortality, complicate already present STI’s and STD’s and disarm our abilities to fight health and love issues we already have. There has been much written about this here, so I’ll leave it alone.

positive neutral

A wonderful new phenomenon–the ability to be undetectable–is upon us and granting a new lease on life, sexual freedom and self worth to many HIV Survivors. This is truly wonderful news. The term undetectable refers to the amount of HIV in one’s bloodstream and the attendant diminished (or non-existent) ability of a second party to acquire HIV through sexual or (possibly) other physical contacts. This is often achieved after 3-6 months of responsible, timely treatment. When one is undetectable, or virally suppressed, the risk of HIV acquisition from sexual contact approaches or arrives at zero according to numerous studies and data. In other, much rarer cases and data, folks treated early on (within ten weeks) become undetectable without prolonged use of medication, amounting to what many have called a functional cure.

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At first brush this is good news. Well, by any measure this is good news. As information about being undetectable and/or non-transmittable has hit the gay/bi/queer/trans communities–as well as info about preventive medication like the one-a-day pill PrEP for HIV negative folks–folks have become more accepting (sexually and socially) of HIV Survivors who are undetectable. Many of these Survivors have crossed the “Viral Threshold” from the derogatory “dirty” to the almost “clean.” This no doubt offers a certain amount of cultural, social and sexual capital long denied to HIV Survivors–despite the fact that those who are survivors undoubtedly have taken steps to know their status, maintain great health and keep it all together–undoubtedly sexy attributes and actions in my opinion. But while some survivors have been seen as clean-ish, others have been left in the dust.

HIV Neutral

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Audre Lorde

Those who are not HIV negative–or unaware of their status–face struggles unbeknownst to the general populace such as: undying stigma, myths, criminalization of consensual non-risky sex, in-access to medication and life insurance and employment discrimination. Side Note: 75% of MSM w/online profiles who have never been tested, say they are HIV-. For those that are not undetectable, or have dual health concerns to deal with (HPV, Hep C ect) these stigmas and concerns are not only compounded but inescapable. The fact they have not become undetectable often operates as some signifier of an inherent undesirability and/or hypersexuality. These stigmas are particularly heightened for low income folks and queer/bi/same-gender-loving/dl/gay/trans men of color. The worse offenders are often those who are undetectable. In efforts to distance themselves from ingrained/imputed stigmas, undetectable folks sometimes use their new status as a way of differentiating themselves from the others–those that aren’t taking care of themselves and are simultaneously “putting others at risk.” This is an understandable defense mechanism, however, we must all learn to tackle HIV stigma with new tools that neither wound us, nor those who have been imputed with the stigma/markings we wish to disassociate with. We must recall that HIV and AIDS are not characteristics, mindsets, ideologies, sexual desires, politics or religions…they are simply health conditions and varying degrees of obstacles to survival and thriving. We must recognizes that our fears function as a type of apartheid, building a wall between “us” and “them.” This has the effect of walling folks off from access to particular sociopolitical and cultural resources, as well as the love that we all need to thrive in a world inclined to cripple.


“Contrary to what we may have been taught to think, unnecessary and unchosen suffering wounds us but need not scar us for life. It does mark us. What we allow the mark of our suffering to become is in our own hands.” bell hooks

Therefore, our role as HIV negative folks and HIV Survivors–whether detectable or undetectable–is to continue the work of providing access to humanization for all, not in spite of our respective viral loads, but with an acknowledgement of them. In our fight against racism we learned early that colorblind policies–policies that ignore the struggle of differences–do not work, it would therefore be foolish to try similar policies in regard to our statuses. Let us be real about the situation struggle of survival, our abilities to thrive and how those livelihoods are enhanced or complicated by particular laws, policies, cultural norms/belief systems and internal stigmas and fears. Love knows no status. It is our minds that create, maintain and demand the walls of viral, sexual and racial apartheids. It is incumbent upon us, those invested in a radical, critical ethics of love, to tear down these walls and build foundations of redemption, humanization, liberation(s) and freedom from lashing.

“…We are coming home. It is not enough to tell us that one was a brilliant poet, scientist, educator, or rebel. Whom did he love? It makes a difference. I can’t become a whole man simply on what is fed to me: watered-down versions of Black life in America. I need the ass-splitting truth to be told, so I will have something pure to emulate, a reason to remain loyal.” Essex Hemphill

For images or info about being HIV Neutral, check out the Stigma Project. For more info on data on HIV check The Body. For additional news on policies and HIV criminalization check out the The Center for HIV Law & Policy.

.                       Ending HIV:AIDShiv neutral 2

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