Hello, I’m HIV-Positive

Addressing the second coming out and a stigma among gay men. By Josh Kruger

My name is Josh Kruger and I’m HIV-positive. The details of my seroconversion are irrelevant. Whether I was a needle drug user, the son of an HIV-positive mother, less than consistent with my condom use, or a medical professional exposed inadvertently to the virus, at the end of the day, I’m HIV-positive. Regardless of the reason or the background, I am living daily with the same virus other HIV-positive individuals do for many of these same reasons.

That is perhaps the most interesting part about HIV. There is a culpability and a responsibility involved with it that does not exist with other chronic medical conditions. Have you ever asked a diabetic how he got it? Or, perhaps, asked someone with hypertension how long he had it and if he knew who gave it to him? Of course not, and it’s wrong to equate HIV with these conditions just as it’s wrong of me to act as though men should ignore my status and feel absolutely comfortable dating or having sex with me.

From a practical and medical standpoint, HIV is comparable to diabetes, and many would argue it is easier to live with HIV than diabetes – medically. Psychologically and socially, however, HIV is not on par with these and for us to lie to ourselves and our community and ignore the overarching moral and philosophical question surrounding HIV does a great disservice and impedes honest discussion.

This is most apparent in online profiles, the easiest and most accessible way to peer into the id of the modern homosexual. “Clean and want stay that way.” This is a common and rather boringly typical statement in a profile you’d find on any app or website, one I myself thoughtlessly uttered once or twice in the past. But consider for a moment the logical implication of saying this. If being HIV-negative is clean, then conversely, as an HIV-positive man, I am dirty. And, I obviously deserve what I have because had I not acted recklessly or stupidly or taken unnecessary risk, I’d not be saddled with this tarnish and grime flowing through my bloodstream.

Obviously, I did not “want to stay that way” enough, you might think. But regardless of how fastidious about hygiene I may be, regardless of the fact that I volunteer or that I am a good man and a good neighbor or that I vote in every election or that I pay my taxes or that I’m an uncle to a lovely five-year-old boy, I am inherently unclean and therefore untouchable.

With the smug self-satisfaction of, so far, having avoided the virus, one can summarily dismiss and marginalize an entire population of human beings. And it’s happening. Yet, sometimes the negative reaction about being positive comes from the same individual barebacking “other neg guys” and who loves Gay Bingo, but he’ll delete my email without having read it because I’m one of “those.” The other. The unclean, irresponsible black sheep, the drunk uncle at Thanksgiving who has the inconvenient ability to remind people of failure.

I’m entirely too realistic and the issue too profound to think about during the search for sex or dates these days. And, what’s most intriguing is that some men will have sex with me so long as the topic isn’t even broached. Act like HIV does not exist, and the pool of sexual partners – including HIV-negative men – increases ten times over. But mention HIV the least bit in conversation or online, and you’ve become the asexual advocate.

And, no matter how physically strong or robust I am, no matter how healthy or professionally ambitious, once HIV is brought up, I’ll always be a cliché, a sick AIDS case, the walking embodiment of God’s divine judgment (I rather like that one, actually.)

But what’s perhaps most surprising about becoming HIV-positive is the amount of men who suddenly become HIV-positive the minute you are. That is, men in person and online – who for years insisted they were HIV-negative – are now quietly reaching out or implying that, perhaps, they were not as honest as they could be.

Why would they lie or conceal their status? Perhaps it’s the same reason I paused when I was asked to write this. Even now, I’m afraid. What exactly am I afraid of?

Well, I don’t date or have sex with anyone who isn’t aware of my status. Those I truly love in this world were all made aware of it the minute it happened. Legal protections are in place to ensure that I am not hurt financially or professionally because of my status. So, what is the reason I and these other men have such trepidation surrounding public affirmation, this second coming out, so to speak?

Your online profile – the one where you talk about being “clean” – might have something to do with it.

Josh Kruger lives and works in Philadelphia.