Defined by HIV

(Programming note/content warning: this entry is about HIV/AIDS, and some readers may find the content more offputting than usual.)

Given the perverse afflictions I have exhaustively documented on this blog, it would be easy to conclude that my sexuality is defined by same-sex attraction. I don’t think this is true. I feel my sexuality is defined by HIV, and in particular the plague years of 1981-1996.

It’s fair to say that the plague years did not affect me directly. Had I been ten years older I might have been in the midst of it, but my adolescence touched on the tail end; I was not anything close to sexually active then. But the newspapers (remember newspapers?) ran lots of stories/fearmongering about the plague, and our sex ed classes implicitly or explicitly drove home the message that if we ever had sex with anybody ever we would get pregnant or get a disease. I remember one Health Studies class where our teacher told us that condoms did not do much good because they covered only penises, and in order to be safe we would need full-body coverage. (Little did I know that latex fetishes were a thing. I would be surprised if that teacher had one, though.) School sex-ed was not exactly abstinence only, and as far as I remember homosexuality was not explicitly condemned (because its existence was not even acknowledged), but the messages were harsh enough to scare me away from sex for years, and maybe for life. Although I was guilty of occasional fantasy at the time (and in later years more than occasional masturbation) I had no realistic intentions of actually sleeping with anybody. And why would I? Did I want to contract HIV?

Whether these hypothetical sex partners were male or female did not matter. Even lesbians were told to use dental dams religiously. I am fairly confident that by that time we knew that HIV was not transmitted via touch, but there continued to be fear (and newspaper stories) around dental work and kissing.

I think most people got out from beneath that shadow, which is why they are leading fabulous lives. I never have.

As I started reading more about homosexuality and gay culture, the shadow of HIV grew darker and darker. I am fascinated by the period between Stonewall and the plague years. They seem like a golden age to me, and not just because I am into 70s disco. For years I vacillated between envy for the sexual experimentation of the time and bitter judgement. Didn’t that generation know what all of these concurrent sex partners would lead to? Didn’t they see the plague coming? The answer, of course, is “no”. I dislike when people conflate the abundant casual sex of the era with “love”, and I think that abundant casual sex has its drawbacks (emotional callousness, anyone?) but I no longer think the casual sex was malevolent. I am not immune to the spirit of my times either. If I had been born 10 or 20 years earlier, I would very likely be dead of AIDS now.

Because I have not been personally touched, I have no right in allowing the plague years to define me, but they do. Mostly I feel a combination of horror and sadness and bitterness. I feel horror and sadness when I think of what people of the time had to live through, of watching their friends and loved ones sicken and die, or worrying who was next, of being terrified of this virus and its presumed death sentence. As it stands I am paralyzed by anxiety; I do not know how I would have gotten through. Maybe I would have done what some other survivors did: drop all associations with the LBGTQ community and resign myself to singleness and celibacy and loneliness. Some people leapt into the fray via activismn and hospice care. I would not have been one of them. I have never shown such bravery, and I doubt I would have been any braver in those circumstances.

My feelings of bitterness are even more self-centred. HIV/AIDS robbed me of a generation (maybe two generations) of elders. Putting aside my attractions to older men, I feel that I have been robbed of the wisdom and support members of those generations could have offered.

As years have gone by the conversation around HIV has shifted, and I have been left behind. First we talked about serosorting, and then there was a backlash against serosorting. I remember when people started actively advocating for barebacking, which horrified me. Now the anti-stigmatization pendulum is in full swing, and people who are reluctant to sleep with HIV+ people are seen as ignorant at best and bigoted at worst. We are endlessly lectured that sleeping with HIV+ people who are on meds and have undetectable viral loads is safer than sleeping with people who claim to be negative but may just be unaware of their status. I am the target for this social shaming campaign. And on some level I get it. The stigma is real, and it’s awful to read accounts from HIV+ bloggers who get rejected for disclosing their status. But the argument that I am a bigot just makes me dig in my heels, and the assertions that people who say they are negative are riskier than poz people makes me want to refrain from sex altogether. Being unloveable (and unfuckable) I have not had to face the decision of whether to have sex with an HIV+ partner, and as selfish as it is, I feel fortunate never having been put in that situation.

We used to talk about limiting concurrent partners, about limiting riskier sex behaviours, on insisting on condoms and safer sex practices. Now we talk about HIV being a chronic disease and not a death sentence, about Truvada (which is super-expensive, if you haven’t noticed), and how being uncomfortable with sleeping with HIV+ men is completely unreasonable. And I’m not on board. I have been left behind.

I don’t want to contract HIV. Chronic condition or not, being HIV+ seems like an enormous hassle. It seems as if managing the condition requires discipline, responsibility and finances I don’t have. Fortunately, I do not think that there are many people out there who want to see me infected.

And as our efforts transition from paranoia to anti-stigmatization, the elephant remains in the room. As HIV has become more managable, our sexual mores and habits are reverting to those golden days of the 1970s. Casual sex is acceptable again. Having multiple concurrent partners is seen as progressive, as polyamory slowly gains social acceptance. None of us wants to say it out loud, but I think many of us (especially those of us who were shaped by the plague years) worry that there might be another plague sooner or later, and that it will spread just as quickly as HIV did. Nobody wants this to happen, but the fear that it might gnaws deep within me.

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6 thoughts on “Defined by HIV

  1. I’m one of the survivors. For me, the “golden age” was a lot of fun but it was followed by a period of intense fear and loss. I do not feel you that people who refuse sleep with me because I’m HIV+ are bigots. I respect their decision. I may not agree with their choice but there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t change other people. I can only change how I react to them.

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  2. I recall when I visited a friend in hospital in those early days. He was the second person in Ottawa to be diagnosed with AIDS. We had to suit up – almost like hazmat outfits – to go and see him. He was in isolation, god only know what comfort we were in our gowns, masks, gloves etc to the man who lie dying in front of us. Though we were all fearful I can’t even begin to imagine the fear he must have felt.

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