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Saying it straight
I often get asked what it’s like to be living as a heterosexual male with HIV. And of course there are the inevitable questions. Have you been with a man? Was the woman from Africa? Have you injected drugs? In short: no, no and no. I had sex without a condom, got unlucky, and caught HIV.
I spent the first few weeks in denial. This couldn’t happen to me — I was straight! Yes, I had unprotected sex, but only a couple of times. I refused to accept that I could catch HIV. I guess there is no real education about HIV in the straight world.
I decided to go on meds early as that was my way of having some control over the virus. Taking that first pill was a massive deal, but now I don’t even think about it. Within a month I was kicking the virus into check, with my CD4 going up and an undetectable viral load.
Back in 2012 I thought my world had ended, but now I see a future again where I can achieve all of my dreams and there is nothing that can hold me back. Yes, I have this little virus living inside of me but it lives on my terms and conditions, and doesn’t control me anymore. In some ways [HIV] has made my life richer and has made me a better person.
I’m a white straight man. I have amassed more than my share of unearned privilege in our society, so I’m not going to take on the role of the marginalised one. At the same time, yes — it IS harder for us. Support groups almost never exist. We also don’t have a sense of community like the gay community.
When I disclose my status, I wait about five seconds and begin to answer the question I KNOW is coming: “How did YOU get it?” Then you can usually tell what the other person is thinking. It’s only a few seconds, but it’s always there — the incredulity space, the judgment zone.
It took me about five years to come to grips with living with HIV. When I was diagnosed, they told me I probably had three to five years to live. After a fog of depression and bouts of self-destruction, I slowly started to give back to the programs that helped me out. I began working in HIV. From my first days as a volunteer, I knew that the best thing I could do with whatever time I had left was to become an advocate and activist.
Stigma, I’ve heard that word so many times since diagnosis, but the only time I have experienced it is my own personal stigma. I had to battle my own ignorance and educate myself. I suppose it probably stemmed from the information I was given in the 1980s regarding HIV and AIDS. Although I knew I had never done anything homosexually, I’d always thought it was a homosexual disease. And I have never injected myself either. So I was neither of these and so it was supposed to be impossible for me to catch [HIV] — that was the information I had been given in the ’80s.
The main challenge is stigma — as a straight man there is always that extra aura of disbelief around my “real” sexual preferences or experiences. I was an injecting drug user who shared needles with a woman who must have been HIV-positive. I didn’t want anyone to know. Not even my family, let alone trying to have a relationship with a woman. The fear of rejection stayed with me for a long time.
Heterosexual men living with HIV are a population in this epidemic that needs to be counted, serviced and allowed to give input to help end the epidemic. It’s really hard when you feel there is nowhere for you to fit in, but you still have HIV. There ought to be inclusion in research and studies to track the trauma connected to heterosexual men living with HIV as well as identify the service gaps. At the grassroots level we need to come together to alleviate internal stigma by supporting and holding each other up, and address the external stigma by being visible and developing ourselves as community educators and public speakers.
One of the main issues is the lack of awareness and support. There are very few HIV campaigns geared towards the heterosexual community. Many campaigns still perpetuate the stigma that this is only a gay disease to the point where straight people feel they are in no danger. Though the risks are smaller for heterosexuals and [HIV] is harder to contract, a risk still exists — HIV/AIDS can affect us all.
Many in the straight community do not know their status and are never referred to get an HIV test by a doctor due to the fact they are not 'high risk'. The push to get tested and know your status is a good one; however, it should be equally shared with everyone — regardless of sexual orientation.
In order for us to reach zero [transmissions] we need to look at every avenue we can take to reach this goal. This is one reason that I am so out about my positive status because I want straight people to know that HIV can happen to them as well. Regardless of sexual orientation, we are all brothers and sisters fighting this battle — and we need to be in this together.
- Straight and HIV-positive? For advice and support contact Pozhet in NSW or Straight Arrows in Victoria