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posted Friday, May 21, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 21
ASK MICHAEL: HIV-positive men are not 'toxic social outcasts'
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ASK MICHAEL: HIV-positive men are not 'toxic social outcasts'

by Michael Raitt - SGN Contributing Writer

Unfortunately, HIV is still a part of our culture. Every day, men in our community, young and old, are finding out they are infected with HIV. With all we know and the messages that have been put out about safer sex, it still happens.

Surprisingly, however, what is also still happening to many of these men is they are feeling like toxic social outcasts because of the out-of-hand rejections they are experiencing from some of their peers. I'm hearing from men in their 20s and 30s about the personal impact their diagnosis has, as well as the cold rebuke they are getting when they disclose their status to dating interests or potential hook-ups. These are not simply, "No thanks. Let's go for coffee, though"; these are shaming lectures and refusals to have any kind of social contact.

I have messages to both groups, both the newly diagnosed and the peers.

First, to the newly diagnosed: An HIV diagnoses will bring up many mixed emotions for most. You may experience any combination of the following: depression, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, or grief. Any time one gets a diagnosis with a disease that has major implications on health, these feelings come up. Shame gets included because our larger culture is still schizophrenic about sex and sexuality and shames people because they "caught this disease through sex."

A common thing that many men report are feelings that now, with their diagnosis, they are damaged goods and no one will ever want to love them. They feel like the hopes and dreams of having that one special man in their lives were just dashed. This is compounded by the rejections they experience when they disclose their status.

Bullshit! Just because you have been diagnosed with HIV doesn't mean you have to kill your dreams of having a loving relationship. You are not damaged goods. You are not destined to live a lonely life now because of this. You have a disease you have to manage. I applaud you for taking the risk and disclosing your status - that is the right thing to do.

Please recognize that there is a huge difference between feeling the sting of rejection - we all hate rejection - and tagging yourself as damaged, flawed, disgusting, or unlovable. These are not accurate adjectives to describe who you are simply because of your HIV status.

What is also true is some of these guys who are rejecting you are rejecting you because they may have their own intimacy issues and that it would have probably been likely that they rejected you down the road anyway. You may have had sex, but that would probably have been all, because some of these guys aren't capable of making meaningful friendships or deeper intimate relationships. Your HIV status makes it an easier thing to do because they justify it as an obvious reason to not get together.

To the peer group: Be aware of the impact and message you are sending to someone you just meet, you like, you are interested in, then out-of-hand reject them and judge them when they disclose their HIV status to you. Yes, you are absolutely within your rights to not engage in sexual activity with someone who is HIV+. No one faults you for that. Being with someone who is HIV+ or not, you always have the right to make choices about your sexual activity that are in your best interests. However, totally and coldly rejecting someone who is HIV+ may have more to do with your own misunderstood fears and shame or intimacy issues than them actually having HIV.

I have never talked to an HIV+ man who was crushed when someone didn't want to have sex with them because of their status (hurt, maybe, but not crushed). They realize this is a possibility. They get crushed when they feel like they are not even worth being friends with because of their HIV status - when guys turn their back and walk away and having nothing to do with them ever again. If you like someone then find you may be hesitant to be intimate with them because of their HIV status, it is okay to say so, and it is also okay to hang out with them and see if a friendship develops. Without HIV, these were great guys! As far as character goes, nothing has changed because of their HIV status. They are still great guys!

To both groups: HIV is a chronic disease you will have to manage. The common argument is that HIV is different because you can infect someone. You can't give someone diabetes, but you can give them HIV. This is true. However, all that is required is another level of vigilance. Understand your body and your disease. Have safer sex. Be in continual contact with your doctor about your health. Then have a healthy, happy, loving relationship. Remember, a great relationship isn't just about sex; it is about who you both are and how you act towards each other.

Judging and rejecting men who are HIV+ is not necessary. This only serves to keep our community fractured and to perpetuate the stereotype that having HIV reflects on these men negatively as people rather than simply looking at these men as having a chronic illness. Do what you need to do to be safe and keep yourselves safe while being open enough to get past a diagnosis to get to know a good guy who could potentially become a good friend.

Michael Raitt, MA LMHC, is a therapist and a contributing writer to the SGN. He writes a bi-monthly column in the SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at askingmichael@comcast.net .

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