Being an out-and-proud pozzie on the net means I get a fair bit of e-mail from people asking all sorts of embarrassing questions about my life. Luckily, I don’t mind being asked embarrassing questions, in fact I kind of enjoy it. I thought I’d reproduce a few of the more obvious ones here to get us started; If you think I’ve missed something, e-mail me.
How long have you been HIV-positive?
I’m fairly sure I was infected around 1985; 1986 at the latest, 1983 at the earliest. But I wasn’t diagnosed until 1991 — that’s when I had my first HIV test.
Why didn’t you get tested sooner?
The HIV test first became available in Australia in 1985, and I saw a doctor in ’85 or ’86 to discuss getting tested. He advised me not to, because in those days things were very scary for people with HIV and this particular doctor (I think he’s dead now) told me that if my HIV test came back positive, he would have to give my name to the government, who he thought would probably round up all the positive gay men and lock them up. And in any case, he pointed out, there was no treatment (in those days) so a positive test would just make me worry.
I took his advice and so didn’t get tested for a few more years.
How did you get infected with HIV?
Well, I can’t be entirely sure … it was a long time ago, you understand. I might have got it from a blood transfusion, or in some freak cocksucking incident, or by holding hands at the church social … but most likely I reckon I got it from getting fucked without a condom, something I did with alarming frequency in those halcyon days.
Without a condom? Surely you jest!
No, it’s the truth, I admit it. Although I am not so old that I remember the glory days of gay abandon in the 1970s, I came out at a time when safe sex hadn’t been invented, and when it did come along, it took me a while to change my habits, by which time I suspect the seeds of my downfall had been sown.
Do you know who you got it from?
It’s impossible to know for sure, but I’m pretty certain I know who it was.
Tell us! Tell us!
I don’t think so.
How do you feel about this person who infected you?
Well, I certainly don’t feel bad about him, if that’s what you mean. In fact, I miss him. He was a sweet and gentle man and he’s been dead for a decade and a half. I certainly couldn’t bear any grudges about my seroconversion – he was just as badly-informed back then as I was, and it takes two to tango.
I mention this because I do hear from people from time to time who have maybe just been infected, or maybe had a near miss, and are looking for someone to blame. It’s a scenario I’ve witnessed many times over the years, and while I understand the motivation, I don’t think blame is a helpful concept. While there are probably people out there who are deliberately, irresponsibly, spreading HIV, they’re not the type of people you’re likely to find yourself in bed with.
The concept of shared responsibility is meant to be a two-way street: we are all responsible for caring for ourselves and for respecting each other and the choices we make.
I did _____ with a _____ last night and the _____ put _____ in my _____. Now I’m worried. Can you get it from doing _____?
If you’re asking me this question after doing the deed, you’ve got the cart before the horse. If you want to protect yourself and your loved ones from HIV and other viral nasties, you need to get informed before you have sex. Knowledge is power: get some.
Seriously, if you’re in Australia (and some other countires) and you really have done something that might have put you at risk of contracting HIV, you can get a treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) which can help, but you have to act fast: ideally within 24 hours and no more than 72 hours. PEP involves taking four weeks of anti-HIV drugs; it’s not very pleasant but it works. In NSW, call 1800-PEP-NOW or go to the Emergency department of your nearest hospital. In Victoria, call (03) 9276 6081 or go to the Emergency department of the Alfred Hospital. In Queensland, go to your nearest sexual health clinic (look in the Government services section of the phone book under ‘sexual’ or call your local public hospital). In other states, contact your AIDS Council or public hospital and ask.
I read on the Internet that HIV is a harmless virus and that AIDS doesn’t exist. What do you have to say about that?
Don’t ask me, ask my dead friends.
There’s something terrifically attractive about the HIV-is-harmless lie being peddled by the likes of Peter Duesburg and Thabo Mbeki. Of course we wish HIV didn’t exist, because we’re scared fucking shitless by it. HIV exists, believe me: the bitch is in my bloodstream and I can feel her there.
Duesburg and his discredited cronies reckon that anti-HIV medications, not HIV, are what cause AIDS. This explains why no-one ever dies of AIDS in the developing world where treatments are impossible to get and why here in the affluent West we are dropping like flies. Unfortunately, South African President Thabo Mbeki, a keen user of the Internet (hi Thabo!) has been sucked into believing this crap and has used it as an excuse to deny treatment to the people he is supposed to represent. Six hundred South Africans die every day because of his gullibility.
What’s it like being HIV-positive? Is it hard?
I don’t really know the answer to this – I’ve been positive for such a long time I don’t have anything to measure it against. Certainly it’s hard having to deal with health problems from time to time, and it’s hard having to take medications which cause unpleasant side effects, but I’ve been pretty lucky with my health so I can’t really complain.
I don’t spend much time dwelling on illness and death, especially now that that death seems indefinitely postponed; in fact I think I’m quite lucky to have gone through this experience as it has made me aware of and accepting of my mortality, and humble in the face of it. That’s an essential lesson that many people never learn.
What’s really hard is having lost so many friends, lovers and acquaintances over the years.
Do you worry about dying?
No, I don’t worry about dying but I worry about dying soon and about not living in the meantime.
HIV makes you very intimately aware of the fact of your mortality, and I often think about my death, which is different to worrying about it. With luck it’s something I won’t have to face for a while yet, but when I do I’d like to be ready for it and, if I can be just a bit provocative, I’m actually looking forward to it. Death is part of the cycle of life; most of us live in a fantasy based on the idea that we’ll live forever, and I think that’s a great loss. Everyone should think about their death from time to time, and make themselves ready for it when it comes, expectedly or not. Even you.
Remember, everyone dies, but not everyone lives.
If you could have your time over again, what would you do differently?
Nothing. I’m pretty happy with the way things have turned out for me. I’d still rather not have HIV, but being positive has taught me a great deal, and I don’t know how my life would have turned out if I’d been on another path, so, no, I wouldn’t change a thing, except perhaps to spend more time with Daren before he died.
Do you always practice safe sex?
Well, yes and no. I do have unprotected sex with my partner and with other HIV-positive boys from time-to-time, but I don’t consider that unsafe. It’s an important distinction.
So, you’re into barebacking?
I’m not ‘into’ barebacking – that suggests I get off on the idea of unprotected sex. I just see it as a fact of being positive, that I can do that with other poz men without endangering anybody. I don’t like using condoms (who does?).
Isn’t that a bit irresponsible? Don’t you have a responsibility to protect others from HIV?
My responsibility isn’t to protect others; it’s to respect them.
That means I respect the choices others make for themselves and I respect myself by not being involved in other people’s madness.
Unfortunately life is not straightforward. Every sexual encounter, no matter whether it’s ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ carries some risk. It’s a difficult landscape to navigate, so I reckon that everyone needs a map. Be informed, assess the risks involved and choose a level of risk that is comfortable for yourself. If you’re HIV-negative, that means you should practice safe sex. If you’re HIV-positive, the options are a little more flexible – you can call it an advantage, you can call it meagre compensation, you don’t have to give it a name.
Aren’t you worried about reinfection/superinfection?
Yeah, a bit. Not a lot though. The whole reinfection thing is a bit of a storm in a teacup, I think. Despite years of detailed research, there’s only ever been a handful of proven, peer-reviewed, published cases, and the evidence that superinfection could have seriously negative health consequences is flimsy, to say the least. There will be more, I have no doubt, but if superinfection presented a significant risk, people would be failing treatment, getting sick and dropping off the perch all around me. And they’re not.
This probably doesn’t sound very scientific but in so many cases the real experience of people living with HIV often preempts scientific validity by years. Positive people have spent more than two decades figuring out how to live with HIV, and for the most part we have succeeded in that. We’re still learning, but we learn well.
That said, there are other bugs that positive people risk catching if they play without protection – maladies from syphilis to LGV to hepatitis C have been making inroads into our community over the last few years, and none of these are pleasant to acquire.
How do you handle disclosure of your HIV status?
This is one of the trickiest questions for any person with HIV: should you tell a prospective partner of your status, and when is the best time to do that? I’m quite comfortable talking about this stuff, so I generally get it out of the way early. I’m in favour of disclosure for positive people, because it enables better choices to be made, but I’m also aware that not everybody lives in the progressive, enlightened universe that I inhabit, so I also believe in the right to keep this private if you choose.
Do you ever get turned down because you’re positive?
No. But I sometimes turn down negative guys because they’re negative.
Do you prefer to have sex with positive guys?
Yes. It’s hard not to be a little anxious about the possibility of infection when the other guy’s negative, even when you’re taking all the appropriate precautions. So it’s easier with someone I know is already positive; I don’t have to worry about that. Besides, positive men are so goddamned sexy!
Will you have sex with me?
Maybe. Buy me a beer and I’ll think about it.