HIV and Friends

Jim Burroway

January 30th, 2008

This commentary reflects the opinions of the author, and is not necessarily those of the other contributors of Box Turtle Bulletin.

Last Friday, BTB contributing author Daniel Gonzales wrote a controversial post objecting to some advice given on the gay male hookup site “Manhunt.” (By the way, I think that post marks the first time an author on this humble site has ever linked there, but that’s beside the point.) The advice was in response to this question:

So, my friend “Dave” has HIV and when he met my other friend “Steve” sparks flew. I debated if I should tell Steve that Dave was positive but decided not to. Later that night Dave and Steve went home together and when Dave told Steve he was positive things came to an abrupt halt and now Steve is no longer speaking to me because he thinks I should have said something. Was I right to keep my trap shut?

Manhunt’s sex-advice columnist Michael Alvear’s responded:

I would have told “Steve” that “Dave” was HIV+. Why? When philosophy meets reality, logic flies out the window. If I’m asked to choose between an abstraction like personal responsibility and the well being of a close friend, I would rather be intellectually inconsistent than emotionally tortured. I’m not passing judgment on you because there are good arguments on both sides. The only person who needs a wake-up call is negative Steve. He gave up a night or maybe a life with an awesome guy just because he’s HIV+? What a schmuck.

Daniel called that advice “bogus”:

Remind me never to make friends with Alvear if I contract HIV.

A person’s HIV status is their own business and their own business only. I’ve been in situations similar to this and never for a second considered disclosing someone else’s status.

The response in the comments was quite varied. And privately, I’ve gotten a few e-mails from readers who are very puzzled by Daniel’s reaction. One asked if we’ve lost our collective minds. Well, yes and no. The topic of HIV/AIDS tends to do that. Since some have questioned our credibility because of that post, I want to take some time to address this question in detail and throw my two cents worth in.

This particular situation calls for everyone to examine this from three sides: Steve’s responsibility, Dave’s responsibility and Bob’s responsibility. Who’s Bob? Well, the letter writer doesn’t have a name, so I’ve named him Bob.

Steve’s Responsibility

Let’s recap. In a nutshell Steve is Bob’s friend, but he’s mad at Bob because Bob didn’t tell him that his other friend Dave was “poz,” or HIV-positive. Steve’s furious that because Bob didn’t warning him ahead of time, Steve didn’t know until Dave was “poz” until Dave told him, bringing everything to an “abrupt halt.”

I think we can all agree with Michael Alvear on one point at least: Steve is a schmuck, but for a more serious reason that Alvear cites. Steve’s a schmuck because he’s denying his own irresponsible behavior while trying to make Bob the scapegoat.

Look at what happened. Steve was about to have sex with a someone he had just met that night, and he was going to do so without having “the conversation.” And it appears that Steve decided to call everything to “an abrupt halt” only because he got the “wrong” answer from Dave when Dave brought it up. Ironically, the “wrong” answer just happened to be the honest-to-God truth about Dave’s HIV status.

If there ever was a case of playing with fire, this is it. What if instead of honest Dave, Steve had found another really hot guy that he decided to go home with, someone who Bob didn’t know. And what if no conversation took place? I have a sneaking suspicion that nothing would have come to “an abrupt halt.”

But let’s say that Steve is only slightly less than a schmuch and initiated the “the conversation,” and in that conversation Steve got the “right” answer because this hot guy lied about his status? Would Steve have brought everything to an abrupt halt then?

Or what if that hot guy just assumed that he’s negative because he’s never been sick and never been tested? According to the CDC, nearly one million Americans are infected with HIV, but about a quarter of them don’t know it.

Or what if that hot guy was honest and thought he was really HIV-negative because he just got a negative test result last week? That negative result may not mean he’s actually HIV-free. The truth is, it can take from a few weeks to several months before an infection leads to seroconversion in some people, and it’s that seroconversion which produces a positive result.

All we know is that Steve changed his behavior because Dave gave him the “wrong” (but honest) answer. But given all the possibilities in this situation, Steve is playing a dangerous game no matter what anyone else might say or do. Before anyone casts any stones towards anyone else, we really need to place the responsibility for Steve’s health squarely where it rests: with Steve.

Dave’s Responsibility

But just because the primary responsibility rests with Steve, it doesn’t mean he’s the only one who should be concerned. And in this story, it turns out that Dave is the hero in the story. He made sure “the conversation” took place and gave Steve the information he should have asked for. At least we know that there’s one responsible person in this whole scenario. He deserves a heaping helping of recognition, and everyone who is in this situation needs to follow Dave’s example. It’s tough though for a lot of reasons, so I have a whole lot more to say about Dave. So stick around, because I’ll come back to Dave after I deal with Bob, since he’s the focal point of the whole controversey.

Bob’s Responsibility

So now we come to Bob. The guy caught between his two friends, Dave and Steve.

I wish Bob had explained why he decided not to tell Steve about Dave’s HIV status. I’ve thought about it, and can only come up with three possible legitimate reasons: 1) that he was confident that Dave was a stand-up guy and would do the right thing, or 2) that he thought that Steve was a stand-up guy and would do the right thing, or 3) that it wasn’t any of his business.

On the first point, Bob was right. Dave is a man of integrity who did the right thing. Maybe that’s why Bob and Dave are friends.

But on the second point, Bob was seriously wrong. Steve was a complete idiot. Does that mean Bob should have spoken up? Maybe so, and he can do it without disclosing Dave’s HIV status. But given Steve’s reckelessness, Bob might be taking on more responsibility that he can reasonably handle, since he’d probably feel obligated to speak up regardless of who Steve is about to go to bed with. With Steve’s dangerous calculation, how on earth is Bob going to keep him out of trouble?

So what about the third point? Is it any of Bob’s business?

My view aligns somewhat with Daniel, that it is none of Bob’s business — generally.

We all know that matters of health are very sensitive, so much so that we demand confidentiality between the patient and his or her doctor. I think we can all instinctively understand that this confidentiality is important. And so as a general rule, I think we can understand that maintaining confidence about someone’s health status is generally wise.

It’s the party line in the poz community that one must never ever ever never reveal someone else’s health status. But that’s the thing about party lines. Party lines which leave no exceptions, generally speaking, aren’t always wise. There needs to be room for exceptions.

The question has been asked, does privacy trump safety? I think the question sets up a false dichotomy. If I were Bob and I believed that my friend Dave would actually lie about his status, and I believed that my other friend Steve was too much of an idiot to take care of himself no matter what Dave might or might not say — then yes, I would probably feel obligated to say something. But that doesn’t mean I have to reveal Dave’s HIV status.

But if Steve were such a complete idiot there was no other way of getting through his thick skull, then yes, if pressed, then I might. But remember, in this very limited scenario, I believe that my friend Dave would lie about his status (and why would I protect that behavior?) and that Steve is stupid and utterly irresponsible. Which means that I’d also have to dump both friends and look for a much better class of friends.

I know that’s crossing a party line, but sometimes party lines beg to be crossed. But in the end, I’m no more capable of protecting Steve than anyone else. Ultimately, it has to be up to him.

But there’s another point to be made here. The issue has been raised that Bob had no business discussing Dave’s health status. But I’d also point out that Bob had no business assuming that serodiscordance between Dave and Steve should be a deal breaker.

Serodiscordance in couples — where one partner is HIV-positive and the other is negative — is not terribly uncommon. There thousands of couples all across the country, both casual and serious, who are “poz/neg” (I hate the term “serodiscordant”; it sounds too, well, discordant). The fact that Dave and Steve are of a mixed serostatus doesn’t mean sex is inherrently dangerous for Steve. It just means that they need to take measures to keep from passing HIV on. This isn’t always easy, but thousands of couples somehow manage. Besides, the fact of this particular couple’s being poz/neg shouldn’t trigger any change in behavior on Steve’s part anyway, since Steve needs to protect himself no matter what anybody says or doesn’t say.

But if Steve considers serodiscordance unacceptable — and he has every right to establish whatever boundaries he chooses (again, I’m treading on another party line) — then that just means he has a special obligation to raise “the conversation” as early as possible. After all, doesn’t Dave have a right to know he’s about to waste an evening with someone who considers it a deal-breaker? If Bob knew that serodiscordance was a problem with Steve, then if anything he probably should have pulled Dave aside and told him, “hey, Steve’s not going to go for this.” But I don’t see anyone making that argument for some reason.

I think Bob did the right thing in this particular scenario. With a different scenario, maybe Bob might feel compelled speak up. Since this is something of a judgment call, I wouldn’t come down too harshly on Bob if he had said something — although I’d be very critical if he unnecessarily disclosed Dave’s HIV status. But I strongly disagree with the notion that Bob bore a moral responsibility to do so.

So to those who say “I would want to be told”: if you really want to be told, then ask — and take the answer with the appropriate grains of salt. That’s the only way to protect your health. No one else can protect it like you can. Even if Bob were inclined to freely blab about who’s poz or not, he won’t always be around.

Let’s Talk About Dave Some More

Remember Dave? In the responses to Daniel’s post, both public and private, few seemed to notice that it was Dave — the poz guy who posed such a terrible threat to poor unsuspecting Steve — who showed responsibility by forcing “the conversation.” For some, it’s almost as if the poz guy is virtually guaranteed not do the right thing. That because he “did something wrong” to get infected, then he’s going to keep doing something wrong to pass it on.

Ever since five gay men died in Los Angeles in 1981, people with HIV/AIDS have been a frightening abstraction. AIDS is certainly frightening. It’s commonly believed to be a fatal condition, but that’s no longer true. Thanks to modern medicine, AIDS has moved from being a fatal disease to a chronic one, much like diabetes. It is still a very serious, complicated and life-changing condition (like diabetes), it still causes a lot of health problems in virtually every organ of the body (like diabetes), it still ultimately results to a lot of deaths for too many people (like diabetes), and it remains incurable (you get the picture). And like modern-day diabetes, AIDS is often acquired due to poor choices that one makes in life — but also like diabetes that’s not always the case.

AIDS differs from diabetes in two distinct ways. First, AIDS is communicable and diabetes is not. And secondly, unlike diabetes, AIDS carries a very special stigma more than twenty-five years in the making.

Well there’s a dirty secret we’re not supposed to talk about, so I’ll cross yet another party line. It’s the stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS within the LGBT community. In February 2006, Cari Courtenay–Quirk and colleagues published a study in the journal AID Education and Prevention titled, “Is HIV/AIDS Stigma Dividing the Gay Community?” In short, the answer is yes. One poz participant talked about the taboo that has developed among some:

I think people support you to a certain extent, and then they kind of back off from you. It’s like taboo to them. So on the one hand, they’re always there to help and they’re concerned, but when it comes down to getting to know you, if they’re not HIV–positive, then it’s different. There’s some sort of block there.

The stigma surround HIV/AIDS often keeps HIV-negative men from talking about it, much like Steve in our story. Another study participant noted:

They are afraid of being involved with somebody who has it or being attracted to somebody who has it and then risking getting it themselves. And it’s a lot of just not wanting to think about it, and so please, don’t bring it to my attention. Let’s not talk about it, and, you know, we’ll be fine.

That very same stigma can reach everyone regardless of HIV status. Several years ago, I decided it was time to shed a lot of excess weight. When I did, I experienced reactions similar to this one:

Nobody knew his status. And he chose not to tell anyone. And I would hear like a lot of little remarks because he started losing weight, you know. And it wasn’t in a sort of nice way. I don’t know, but catty gossip, you know? Like, so yeah. I think that sometimes you can find prejudice among your own people.

There is considerable stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, and it’s not just heterosexuals who are responsible for it. The difficult truth is that it is alive and well within the LGBT community. And because of this stigma, many people with HIV/AIDS remain in a second closet, fearful that if their secret gets out they will lose friends and family and even their homes and jobs. The stigma also affects people who are not living with HIV/AIDS, including even AIDS volunteers and health care workers. People living with HIV/AIDS who have experienced this stigma are more likely to be non-compliant in mantaining their health regimens, and they are less likely to reveal their serostatus to their prospective partners and friends. Stigma has even been cited as a critical factor in why some people put off getting tested or treated.

I’ve personally seen the HIV/AIDS closet in action. In cities where there is less stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, people talk more freely and openly about themselves and their health. They have come out of that second closet. But in other places, having HIV/AIDS is treated as a deep dark secret which can be disclosed to no one. Not even to their close friends like Bob.

As long as HIV and AIDS are the topics for gossip, intrigue and condemnation, there will always be those who would just rather hide than make themselves known. That’s human nature, and as gay men you’d think we’d be more sensitive to this dynamic that we’re creating. All of us, positive and negative, have been there with regard to our sexuality. Yet we are setting up the same forces with HIV/AIDS.

No matter how responsibly Dave carries himself for the rest of his life, it appears he will still judged by his HIV status. He is often looked upon as a dangerous predator out to infect the poor innocent Steves of the world. This notion that Bob needs to go around warning all the Steves of the world about Dave just provides more fuel to that attitude. It’s time for Steve to finally grow up and be a man.

So Steve, leave Bob alone. He can’t keep you safe. Only you can do that.


See also:
HIV and Friends, Part 2 — Is an Undetectable Viral Load Safe?, where we examine the hypothesis of Swiss health officials who suggest that an undetectable viral load renders one virtually non-contagious.
HIV and Friends, Part 3 — Where Ignorance Rules. If the Swiss believe that HIV isn’t contagious under certain conditions, a Judge in Ontario believes HIV is so dangerous it can be transmitted simply by sharing the same courtroom with someone.


January 30th, 2008

Wow, just wow. Thank you so much for writing this; I saw the buzz around the original topic and now with this follow-up commentary by Jim, I’ve started thinking about my HIV+ friends and what is out there causing stigmas against them more intensely, and I recognize that there is more room for acheiving clarity about these sorts of questions and situations that I need to take on. You’ve demonstrated how necessary getting and assessing the WHOLE truth is to making a truly informed statement on whatever we witness or experience.

Sorry if this sounds gushy or corny, but after reading this I just couldn’t help being motivated to respond. Thanks again.

Emily K

January 30th, 2008

I think with situations as sensitive as HIV status disclosure should have their own considerations for each individual situation. There is SO much that needs to be taken into account, and there are many possible variables and outcomes. But if the parties involved are truly friends, understanding and appreciation – or, at worst, forgiveness – will be experienced no matter who says (or doesn’t say) what and when and why.


January 31st, 2008

This is a fair and balanced assessment.


January 31st, 2008

Bravo Jim and well said.

Ben in Oakland

January 31st, 2008

Very well said indeed, Jim.

Not to mention…

There are all kinds of fun that one can have while remaining 100% safe (that was me in the ’80’s), and even more fun one can have while remaining 98-99% safe (me in the ’90’s with my HIV positive partner until his death) and a “full response” while remaining 95% safe (me in the late ’90’s and ’00’s until I met my current partner).

Both my husband and I are negative, and monogamous, so we’re 100% safe, even though we’re 100% unsafe, so to speak.

The sticking point in this story is Steve. His upset indicates to me that there was another agenda for him, one that was frustrated but which was not acknowledged. He could have had a good time with Dave, maybe even found the guy of his dreams, as I did with my late partner. It surprised the hell out of me. I wouldn’t have traded the 5.5 years for anything. Today is the 12th anniversary of his death.


January 31st, 2008

Jim – I appreciate the nuance, but I cannot agree with the analogy to diabetes. Not knowing about a potential partner’s diabetes status has no real consequences for one’s health. This exception which you note, is critical to the ethic of telling or not telling.

Bottom line, if I knew two friends who might hook up and I knew one of them had a disease that could be spread via intimate contact, I would tell my unsuspecting friend as well as the friend who had the condition that I was going to do so. Sure, I might have to deal with fall out; but I believe I might have to deal with a different kind of fall out if I say nothing.


January 31st, 2008

great, thanks :-)

Timothy Kincaid

January 31st, 2008


Brilliantly thought out.

I think this is an issue that goes to the core of how one views the world.

Libertarian minded persons (regardless of political affiliation) tend to believe that each individual is – for the most part – master of his own fate. And while we each seek to alleviate any disaster we see coming, we also recognize that ultimately we can’t be responsible for the Steves of the world.

Authoritarian minded persons (again regardless of political affiliation) tend to believe that each person must be controlled and required to behave in a certain manner. The collective good overrides individual responsibility generally and individual rights always.

Libertarians (small L) think that Steve is the primary responsible party here. Authoritarians think Bob should be the one to control those around him.

This often is reflected in gay political issues.

Those most likely to hold Bob responsible are also those who believe that they can and should pass laws restricting the rights of gay citizens – for the greater good of the community. “What ifs” rule the day.

Those who support freedom and equality for gay persons tend to also believe that Steve and Dave are free to make their decisions – even very bad decisions – and that Bob’s interference should only be when Bob knows for certain that unsafe sex is going to occur. Individual circumstances rule the day.

Or so it seems to me.


January 31st, 2008

This is one of the best essays here to date – well reasoned, well expressed, even handed and cognizant of the range of issues and nuances applicable to the situation.

Excellent work, Jim; reasonable, accurate, and respectful.

So obviously, professional homophobes will be quick to criticize it. Such folks just hate reason, accurate and respect for GLBTQ people.

Bill Ware

February 1st, 2008

Whether it’s raising teenagers or counseling clients, blurting out some unpleasant truth may not be the best approach to dealing with situations like this. This may lead to defensiveness and denial which results in behaviors which are the opposite from those we intend.

Far better to ask the right questions so that the person can take responsibility for learning these truths for themselves.

Bob: “So, Steve, you seem interested in Dave. Have you had “the conversation” about HIV status yet?”

Steve: “Well, no.”

Bob: “Hmm, seems like an important conversation to have before you head home with him, don’t you think?”

In the intricate web of life, we all have a certain responsibility for each other. Often, this is best achieved by prompting another to be more responsible for himself.

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