Soapbox: Jack Mackenroth

Designer-turned-activist Jack Mackenroth is never one to shy away from the media spotlight. But unlike basically any other reality star you could name, he’s actually doing some good with it! An outspoken HIV activist and educator, Jack’s taking over our Health, Fitness & Wellness Issue Soapbox and getting real on HIV stigma.

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HIV stigma needs to end now. The quiet judgment within the gay community is often passive but sly and cunning. For a community that has grown up feeling “less than,” we certainly have no trouble segregating within our ranks. So stigma needs to end. Yesterday. Not just because nondiscrimination is the right thing to do, but also because serosorting actually has the reverse effect many hope to achieve. 

Let me explain. Serosorting is a practice by which negative guys try to weed out HIV-positive partners by only dating men who claim to be negative. In the apps and websites that seem to have replaced actual human interaction, posting “DDF (drug and disease free) UB2” or “Neg only” is commonplace. Whether they mean to or not, men who do this are adding to the zeitgeist of discrimination and doing themselves a huge disservice in the process. 

To be fair, HIV-positive men also serosort, but our motivation is different. As a man who has lived with HIV for 24 years, I have found it less complicated to date HIV-positive men. Explaining my situation and the risks involved can get exhausting. However, I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations in an article that’s attempting to refute generally accepted beliefs. Kudos to the many HIV-negative men I have met who are well educated and have absolutely no issues with dating poz men. And despite efforts to the contrary, all my long-term boyfriends have been negative. Go figure.

The only people who can be absolutely certain of their HIV status are HIV-positive men and the small group of men who have very recently tested negative and have not engaged in any risky behavior in the surrounding months. (i.e., unicorns).

This is certainly not to say you shouldn’t inquire about status or discuss sexual history in a sexual or dating scenario. Just know that a negative disclosure holds little weight and may actually give a false sense of security. Does the fact that a guy cites his last negative test make it seem more official? If I’m a horny HIV-positive man, do you trust me to tell the truth? I would argue that for some people the practice of serosorting encourages lying and avoidance and keeps people from getting tested. 

I would even go so far as to say that, aside from virgins and the Amish, undetectable HIV-positive guys are quite possibly your safest bet in terms of sexually transmitted diseases. An HIV-positive person typically visits the doctor at least once every four months. We get our blood work and STD screenings on a regular basis. We know better than anyone what’s going on in our bodies. And as multiple studies have shown, with adherence to medicine, we can achieve undetectable status, which makes the virus virtually impossible to transmit. 

So, hypothetically we could get the HIV transmission rate to zero—or at least get much closer to it. If everyone got tested and every HIV-positive person got on treatment that kept their virus at an undetectable level, we would dramatically decrease transmission rates. But there is a giant stigma in the way that keeps people from getting tested, keeps people from telling their partners and keeps people from getting those meds that could change everything. 

For some people, serosorting may be a new concept but I can assure you it’s been around as long as the AIDS virus. For others, even discussing other factors that can reduce transmission risk, such as undetectable viral load and PrEP, is immediately attacked and dismissed by those stuck in the “condoms only” mind-set. They immediately think one is anti-condom and might even try to shame anyone who even dares mention any alternate risk-reduction modalities. Condoms are effective and necessary, but we need to attack the transmission rates with all available ammunition.

The CDC estimates that one in five gay men in major cities is HIV positive and that half of them don’t know it. So there go your odds of truly finding “neg only” partners. And those odds are only getting worse since transmission rates have not declined. So we need to change the game. Rather than judge those who are positive, we need to celebrate knowing our status regardless of what it may be. If you’re negative, by all means declare your negative status. It’s something to be valued and protected. But please don’t let other people’s status affect the way you interact with them. And know that until we cease to judge our poz brothers—no matter how subtly—they will continue to hide, deny and internalize shame. And if you are positive, own it and be proactive. With early treatment you can protect yourself and others. Let go of the blame and shame. The stigma only hurts us all. If we all know facts and treat everyone with the same respect, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t all be “poz friendly.” 

Art by Dave Arkle