This is the first of a series of columns that addresses the nature and method of disclosure. Hardly by random lottery, the first scenario under the microscope is disclosure to sexual partners.
At the end of the day, the manner in which you disclose your status is up to you. Counselors and HIV specialists will always have differing approaches as to how this is done, so just choose what’s most comfortable.
As for my own experiences, I’ve had distinct reactions relative to my approaches. Mind you, exceptions abound in every case, but for the most part, the psychological parley that occurs amid disclosure varies vastly as per one’s methods.
Note: It’s been years since I’ve met anyone in a social setting that has resulted in a second date. So most of my dating escapades were initiated through online portals; however, it wasn’t until much later after my diagnosis that I declared my poz status openly (and in bold lettering) on the more traditional dating sites (i.e., OKcupid.com as opposed to manhunt.com).
I courted a 37-year-old gentleman online for a brief period, and we decided to meet up for lunch. We met, talked, flirted, sped through the 20 questions of acquaintance and planned on a second date: dinner at my house.
He came. I made dinner. We talked more. Listened to artsy music to spur discourse. And finally, we kissed. When he expressed his desire to go further (in my private quarters, no less), I said:
“Hey. Definitely. But I need to tell you this: I’m-HIV positive. I know that’s a bit of a bombshell. Nothing we’ve done has put you at risk, and nothing I plan on doing with you for the rest of the evening will. The decision is up to you. If you need time to think, no problem.”
He said nothing. He didn’t even look at me. Instead he got up and left, only saying that he would contact me in the next couple of days.
The very next morning I awoke to a sober and essentially angry e-mail. He said he thought I was wonderful and fascinating and that he would have wanted to get to know me better had I disclosed my status before, if not within the first 20 minutes of meeting. Instead, he said I was a jerk, manipulative and subversive and that I should seriously rethink the way I live my life, and that this wasn’t the start to a good relationship, so it’s over.
Thankfully, I’ve been through some serious shit in my life (aside from my diagnosis) that’s afforded me a tough skin. Mind you, I was hurt; but my self-righteous side completely eclipsed any imminent pain of rejection. My response, then, followed in suit:
“Hey. I had a good time with you, too, last night. And I’m really glad you felt comfortable enough to express your feelings, because it gave me insight into your character that, had I’d been HIV-neg, would’ve taken me longer to detect.”
(Parental, fiery invective cascading from there).
Aside from the fiery invective, my lead-in was spot-on. (Funny enough, a lot of poz people refer to disclosing one’s status as the “jerk test” ... See above).
In all reality, I wouldn’t have gotten along with this guy. In reflection, however, I realized that I could’ve approached my disclosure differently. In my mind, it had nothing to do with my timing (although some may disagree); it had to do with my phrasing. I over-prefaced the implications of my status, filling in any time the guy might have had to process the information (even if he was a jerk).
Folks, all in all, when people encounter things they are afraid of, they’ll typically be deaf to any immediate education or reassurance. They have to overcome the knee-jerk (no pun intended) reaction to those fears before they’re willing to listen. And while you should never, ever feel like you have to bend to anyone because of your status, it’s for compassion and common courtesy that you should give your potential romantic and/or sexual partner the time to respond back courteously, without the prefacing.
Next month, we’ll see how my next approach to disclosure fared with a 22-year-old and many more dates that followed.
We’re all in this together, folks. Let’s get out there and talk about it.
Aaron Stella is the former editor-in-chief of Phillybroadcaster (www.phillybroadcaster.com). Since graduating from Temple University with a bachelor’s in English, he has written for several publications in the city, and now devotes his life to tackling the new challenges of HIV in the 21st century.