Tyler Curry

The HIV Generation Gap

Picture of Tyler Curry (@iamtylercurry) courtesy of  Kevin Chung

 

For the past 30 years, gay men have been stuck in a constant sparring match with HIV. For the first two decades of the epidemic, it seemed that we could never measure up to the brute and brawn of this vile disease. But in the third decade of battle, it appears that we are primed for one of the greatest comebacks of all time. This potential victory comes with great loss. Some of our best men who were a part of the initial rounds were knocked out of the battle far too early. Entire communities were ravaged by this ominous foe, leaving only a few where there were once many still standing. Now, these veteran survivors stand along with many new fighters in the battle, but sometimes there is strife within the differing ranks.

Of course, it is to be expected that those who have been a part of the fight since the beginning will have a deeper connection and sense of ownership with their forever "shadow boxer." As these men tell the tales of a time of more funerals than birthday parties, early meds that made you want to die and the hope of just living another year, maybe two, it hardly seems like we are in the same battle at all.

Men like Peter Staley, Mark S. King and Jack Mackenroth and many others paved the road for people like Chris Richey and Scott McPherson of the Stigma Project and myself to enter the ring with a much lesser foe today. These veteran fighters as well as many others have served as mentors for us. They are patient, forgiving and kind as we stumble around, finding our footing in the world of activism.

But just like in any battle, some of these long-term survivors can sometimes hold a bit of resentment toward those who avoided the worst part of the fight. And this sentiment is quite understandable.

The early days of HIV are comparable to very few other epidemics in modern history. Unlike other health crises, an additional layer of shame and blame were included in the symptoms that accompanied the virus. These people were shunned for more than just the fear of infection and were often left alone to face the certainty of death. For the men and women who somehow outlasted their dismal prognosis, and to the many others who fortuitously avoided infection, the pain of losing so many others to the disease is still palpable.

For some, this pain has hardened into a tear-tinged anger toward younger men who are diagnosed today. It can be easy to view these newbies as privileged morons instead of the unknowing victims of the early years. An angry finger is wagged at the newly diagnosed twentysomething who assumedly threw caution to the wind, because any gay men with half a brain knows exactly how HIV is transmitted.

How could these young men not know? Or is HIV considered so easily managed that the younger generation just doesn’t care anymore? The mere possibility of these questions being true is enough to send some long-term survivors into a chastising tirade, complete with a barrage of scary (and out-of-date) side effects, judgmental labels and a healthy serving of shame...just like they received all those years ago.

Although the emotion behind these actions is understandable, the delivery only serves to perpetuate the fear and silence that only helps to increase transmission rates.

As someone who is newly HIV-positive myself, I can only sympathize with long-term survivors of the disease. I would dare not say I could empathize. I will never know how it must have felt to discover you were carrying a death sentence in your bloodstream. I shudder to even imagine having to see my friends waste away around me or to experience the horrendous side effects that were often worse that the disease itself.

And although modern medicine has eradicated the eminent doom that so many gay men from the early years had to face, the stigma that kept so many quiet about their disease is still alive and well. It is within this stigma that you can find the root to a myriad of psychological issues that lead to young, naïve gay men to become infected today.

I know this all too well. Only a year ago, I was unaware that anyone in my immediate social web was living with HIV. They were all too afraid of the judgment that comes attached to the positive label. It was only after I began to bang my drum and call attention to my status that so many around me revealed that they too were living with the disease.

The drastically different generational experiences with HIV can make it almost feel like we are sometimes on opposite sides of the ring. But whether veteran or novice, there is a common vein of shame and stigma that we feel in the fight of HIV. The fighting style of our opponent has changed, and the new fighters must rely on the survivors of the fight to help us keep up the winning streak.

Our bodies are solid. But we need the veterans to help us new fighters strengthen something else.

Our voices.

 

HIV Victims and Villains: Who Is Really At Fault?

Picture of Tyler Curry (@iamtylercurry) courtesy of  Kevin Chung

 

There is a common assumption among the sexually active homo population that it is the responsibility of HIV-positive men to disclose their status before engaging in bedroom gymnastics. Based on this assumption, a person who doesn’t mention his status before he tries and fails to make a baby with another man silently asserts that he is HIV-negative by default. Even if a person living with HIV is undetectable and protection was used, he would be considered reprehensible, immoral and altogether villainous character if he failed to disclose his scarlet plus sign to his unknowing HIV-negative partner. But when it comes to the laws of responsibility in HIV disclosure, sometimes there is more than one suspect in a crime.  

The Scene of the Crime

The following scenario is based on a true story

Parker is a young, successful and single gay man living with HIV. Nathan is of the same homo vein, but he is HIV-negative. The two met while Parker was at a business conference and Nathan was on vacation with several of his friends. A mojito at the hotel pool quickly led to martinis at the closest gay bar. Dinner was served, flirtation escalated and Nathan ended up back in Parker’s room for a little more than dessert. The fast and frenzied pace of this out-of-town romance caught Parker by surprise and he failed to find the right moment to disclose his HIV status (and Nathan never asked). His viral load was at an undetectable level and they used protection, but his conscience wasn’t satisfied with this threshold of safety. 

The Confession

Parker and Nathan parted ways the next morning with plans to meet up for a drink later in the day.  By six o’clock, the weight of the guilt over not disclosing had Parker in need of more than just a strong pour on his vodka gimlet. He needed to clear the air. 

Parker told Nathan that he was HIV positive. He explained that he was on medication and had an undetectable viral load. He said that since they used a condom, his health was not at risk, but that it was important for Parker to be honest about his status. 

Nathan was visibly shaken and admitted that Parker should have disclosed his status before they had sex. He was concerned because there was a lot of kissing and oral play that took place.  Parker explained the reality of transmission and that Nathan had nothing to worry about, but the damage was done. Nathan felt victimized and he was sitting across from the smoking gun.  Needless to say, the two men didn’t order a second round.

For the jury of public opinion, the judgment of who committed the crime and who was the victim receives a unanimous vote. But before the sentence of shame is handed down to Parker for not disclosing his status, let’s look at who had the motive to commit the crime. 

Parker did want to tell Nathan about his HIV status. As a man who was actively managing his disease with treatment, it was important for him to be up front about being positive, even if there was no health risk involved. However, many people fail to understand that when you become positive, you aren’t handed an operator’s guide on how to handle your new status. The variables of sexual psychology are limitless when concerning dating and HIV. Although he failed to disclose that he was a positive man, he had taken the steps to protect Nathan and himself—both by using a condom and being steadfast in his treatment regime. 

Nathan is a sexually active gay man who, by default, is part of the HIV community. With one out of every five gay males being HIV positive, it is his responsibility to protect his own sexual health.  It’s true—Parker did not disclose that he is HIV positive. But Nathan didn’t disclose that he was HIV negative, nor did he ask to know Parker’s status before the clothes started to come off. In this scenario, Nathan has a motive to stay negative. Therefore, he is also guilty of committing a crime of not disclosing his status and not inquiring about the status of his sexual partner.

This is only one out of many criminal scenarios that many of us find ourselves in when it comes to dating, dirty talk and disclosure. When it comes to sex, there are always two (or more) suspects whose motives should be investigated. And when it comes to protecting each other’s health, the burden is mutually shared and the responsibility is equally divisible, regardless of status.

I always disclose my HIV-positive status because it is in the best interests of my health, not yours.