03/18/2014 02:38 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Stigma Enigma

I was Googling myself recently and came upon a full archive of a lively email thread that addressed my interview on this website with Simon Watney. Since most of the participants were not fans of me, Simon, or the interview, the thread provided some amusing reading, particularly the part where one of them said that I had "admitted" to refusing sex with gay men because I "found them too effeminate." I was startled at the time, but now it makes me laugh, and not only because I've never "admitted" anything of the kind. Indeed, I'd be the last person to admit such a thing, and not only because my barren sex life has been a story of how my effeminacy -- which is unable to be measured by any currently existing scale -- is usually the reason that other guys have balked at attempting sex with me.

While I've never actually told lies about another person whose approach to ideas around HIV is different to mine, I've issued my fair share of brickbats. Hostility seems to be settling in as the atmosphere of the day, and there's a pervading sense of contempt and mistrust in the air. Look, for example, at a recent article here on the Huffington Post, which claimed that

You can't have safer oral sex with a "negative" guy because you can never know for certain that he is in fact negative.

There's some truth in this idea, since of course you can never know for certain that somebody is HIV Negative, even if that person is yourself. Of course he could have become infected since his last test. But how on Earth does the promotion of ambient paranoia -- where the next man who puts his dick in your mouth is going to infect you with HIV -- work to reduce fear & stigma and open up the dialogue? And in any case, since most gay guys are not infected with HIV, are not trying to trick you or lie to you, are not uninformed or uneducated about HIV and are not inconsistent in their approach to safe sex, why suggest it in the first place? All things being equal, if he's telling you he's Negative, he probably is.

I think it's curious, since if HIV prevention is the goal of those who claim that stigma is causing new infections, then why stack stigma on top of stigma? If there are men who don't know their status but want their dicks sucked, then articles such as the above are hardly going to encourage them to race out and get tested. What if the test comes back Negative (as it usually will)? Then they're back where they started from, being looked at with suspicion, with nothing known "for sure," and people refusing to suck their "negative" dicks. What's the objective here? To keep testing until it comes back Positive, so then all doubt can be erased? As Simon Watney has said,

[Some advocates] seem to think it 'stigmatising' when negative people exercise caution, but as an HIV-positive gay man I can only say I disagree. Given the significant numbers of new infections on the part of those infected by individuals who wrongly imagine themselves to be uninfected we should surely be trying to support those seeking to protect themselves rather than sneering at them?

See also: the baffling epithet Condom Nazi. It's applied by some men (of either status) to other men who advocate condom based safe sex because they believe, correctly, that it offers a very strong protection against infection with HIV.

If stigma -- shaming and frightening people away from approaching HIV in an open, pragmatic way -- is the problem, then what possible sense can it make to denigrate those whose choices are different to yours, chucking in an invocation of Nazism while you're at it?

I know from my own personal experience that HIV Negative men are often wedged into a lose-lose situation. If we use condoms, we're boring, latex-loving, stuck-in-the past weirdos. But if we don't use condoms, we're confirming that we act inconsistently have only stayed uninfected by dumb luck, that we can't be trusted, that we have no investment in HIV prevention, and are therefore in no place to criticize HIV Positive men. And -- worst of all -- even have our dicks sucked.

And speaking of cocksucking, since most gay men who become infected HIV do so via anal sex, where do the legions of gay guys who couldn't care less about penetrative sex fit into all this? Are they being softly stigmatized too, by being ignored in the conversation? All this obsessive banter about barebacking and "breeding," is irrelevant to them, and suggests that those inside the conversation presume "gays" are all "sodomites," a word I thought went out of general use around the time of the trial of Oscar Wilde.

Anyway, I can't speak from the point of view of an HIV Positive man on the receiving end of stigma, but I am pretty sure that fighting fire with fire only creates more fire, and if in the process you flame someone who wasn't your enemy in the first place, you can be pretty sure they aren't going to be too sympathetic to you subsequently. I believe that's what's called a vicious cycle.