As I prepare to say goodbye to my 20s, I've noticed that getting older has its perks. Department store salesmen no longer roll their eyes when I ask to be fitted for a new suit, I no longer feel the need to sleep until just before the sun starts to set, and my car insurance company no longer hates me. It would seem that this so-called "midlife" isn't so bad after all -- that is, unless you are single, about to go on the dreaded first date and have to find a way to casually disclose that you are HIV-positive. Now, I still don't believe getting older is all that bad, but it is definitely a hell of a lot more complicated.
Over the past several months I have been grappling with the question of just when is the right time to disclose my HIV status. This has led to many hypotheticals posed over bottles of wine with friends, both positive and negative. Several of my friends say that the cliché third date is most appropriate. Assuming that sex is still off the table, this is the point at which both parties have had enough time to get to know one another for who they are, not what disease they are carrying. The danger of the "third-date rule" is that it allows for feelings to develop, albeit little baby ones. Disclosing your status once a semblance of trust has formed is like placing a loaded gun in front of a person and asking them not to shoot you with it. I don't know about you, but I am still reeling from the shotgun that tried to take me down when I found out about my status. Now, I prefer to hedge my bets and avoid the firing range as much as possible.
A person who is opposed to dating you because of your HIV-positive status will not be swayed by your charm, your smile or your fancy words. It is not that they think a person who is HIV-positive has a fundamental character flaw that makes them pull the trigger. As tough as this may sound, two dates and some heavy petting are not the panacea for the cloud of fear and do not allow him to see you for all you have to offer. Frankly, it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with him. A person who rejects a possible love interest because of his HIV status is terrified of many things. He is terrified of being subjected to the stigma that he himself is perpetuating. He is afraid of contracting the disease through something as harmless as kissing, because his fear outweighs his logic. Mostly, he just wants to avoid the reality of the virus, because it means facing the question marks that he so easily assumes are negative signs.
Now, this is not to say that a gay man doesn't have every right to choose whether he will or will not engage in a relationship with someone who is HIV-positive. Quite the opposite, in fact, as I believe in divulging my status before I even agree to the first date. I am not invested before the first date. I haven't begun to scribble his name on my desk pad, incessantly lurk on his Facebook wall and wonder if the feelings are mutual. In fact, revealing my status before a first date spares both parties feelings and satisfies both of our choices. I choose not to have to sit across the dinner table from some scaredy-cat ignoramus who would potentially miss out on a good thing because I am HIV-positive.
Being diagnosed with HIV can be a critical blow to a person's sense of self-worth. We lie awake at night and ruminate over whether or not our next potential boyfriend might be a "never-was" because of an outdated perception of what it means to be HIV-positive. In the light of day, we pop our little pill, and we are still left to lead the rest of our long lives dodging bullets. It is my firm belief that immediate disclosure is the best way to avoid a shot in the back.
It has been my experience that disclosing my status in the beginning has typically been met with an appreciation of my honesty and a first order of drinks. Dating is still a crapshoot, and being HIV-positive adds a new level of doubt, no matter how you approach the situation. But being up front is the best way, for me at least, to preserve my dignity while I battle it out in the trenches of singledom.
Truthfully, it is your choice to decide when to disclose, as long as you do in fact disclose. What is important is that you recognize your value regardless of your potential partner's hangups and insecurities. Those of us living with HIV face plenty of challenges already.
There is no need for us to go around painting targets on our chests.