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Why you can’t expect HIV+ people to always tell you before having sex

Why you can’t expect HIV+ people to always tell you before having sex

Matthew Hodson, Executive Director NAM aidsmap, is also HIV positive himself

Singer Conchita Wurst has shared the knowledge of her HIV status with the world. So has the actor Charlie Sheen.

Fantastic as it is to have fierce, unashamed role models, neither Conchita nor Charlie made a free choice to talk about their status. In both cases, the decision to go public was driven by an ex, threatening to ‘out’ them.

Celebrities living with the virus may face the additional challenge of tabloid exposure but stories of blackmail by a current or former partner, threatening to expose someone’s status to friends or family members, are common.

Such betrayal and exploitation by someone you’ve loved and trusted can be heart-breaking.

Despite this, many people who are not living with HIV expect us to tell every sexual partner that we have, irrespective of any risk of transmission.

This expectation displays a naivety or callousness to the genuine concerns that accompany any disclosure of HIV status.

‘There is still far too much ignorance in our society’

Once you’ve told someone that you have HIV, you can’t ‘un-tell’ them. If you’re not willing or able to be open about your status to everyone, it’s entirely justifiable that you consider very carefully who you tell.

Talking about HIV status, for most of us, is an intensely personal thing.

I still have to deal with the judgement of others: that I must have been stupid, reckless or irresponsible; that I am not a ‘good gay man’. The truth is, we all make mistakes. We do so, whether or not we are punished for them.

Considering that there are about 37 million people living with HIV worldwide, there’s remarkably few of us who are public about it. For a long time, I’ve been preaching the benefits of being open and vocal about HIV.

I believe that through being visible and unashamed, we can make it easier for others living with HIV.

There is still far too much ignorance about HIV in our society. The more of us who are willing to answer questions, address concerns, and challenge the myths and prejudice, the better it will be for those who follow us.

‘It’s just a virus, it’s not a moral judgement’

When I first came out as HIV-positive, I felt like I was taking a great leap into the unknown. For me it has been an overwhelmingly beneficial move. I no longer fear being ‘found out’. I control the information.

No longer do I have to waste my time with people who are not ready to accept it. I refuse to let the judgement of others cause me to think of my status as something to be ashamed of; it’s just a virus, it’s not a moral judgement.

With the effective treatment that is available in the UK, I’m confident that this virus won’t kill me. Treatment has suppressed the virus to undetectable levels so I can’t pass it on to sexual partners.

I’m lucky that I can feel secure in the support of my work, my partner and my family. I recognize that this has made it easier for me to come out of the viral closet than it is for some other people.

‘Talking about HIV shouldn’t be a big deal’

I do not judge others who are not ready to be open about their status. HIV remains a highly stigmatized condition. For so long as people are still routinely judged, rejected or excluded as a result of their status, the benefits of openness will still compete with the security of discretion.

If you believe that all people with HIV should discuss their status with sexual partners, work to ensure that you are creating an environment that will support us to do so.

Understand that our life-expectancy can now be equal to those who do not live with the virus; share the news that when treated successfully we cannot pass the virus on through sex; call out people who attempt to shame us and seize opportunities to challenge HIV stigma.

Above all, demonstrate, through your words and actions, that everyone is safe to talk honestly about HIV, without fear of violence, scorn or blackmail.

Talking about HIV shouldn’t be a big deal. Help to create the environment where it isn’t.

Matthew Hodson is the Executive Director of NAM / aidsmap. Follow Matthew on Twitter at: @Matthew_Hodson.

A version of this article originally appeared in FS Magazine

See also

Major breakthrough: Scientists succeed in destroying HIV-infected cells

Undetectable HIV+ people pose ‘zero’ not ‘minimal’ risk, says charity