Submitted by Nigel Whitfield, BLUF webmaster, Nigel, aka SubDirectory (3), 29 November 2014
As World AIDS Day comes around once again, I'd like to reflect on the way that we talk about those in our community who are living with HIV/AIDS. And, in some ways, that also reflects on the ways we talk about people in general, especially when it comes to online profiles.
Of course, for many people, the whole point of an online profile is to try and find people to have sex with, and there's nothing wrong with being upfront about that, or indeed about being upfront about what exactly you want.
Sometimes, however, it's the way in which people are upfront that can ruffle feathers, whether it's intended to or not. And as with much language, subtle differences can have a tremendous effect not only on how you are perceived, but on how other people feel when they read what you've written. Sometimes, it's the difference between being inclusive, and being exclusive - a big list of what you are not, or what you don't like sends a more negative message than talking about the things you do like.
Sometimes, it's just sheer thoughtlessness. But that can still hurt, or make you look a less pleasant person than you really are. For example, is it really necessary to put "No blacks, no asians" on a profile? You could politely decline approaches from people, or say that you really get off on Celtic looking guys, for instance. It might amount to much the same sort of thing, but it makes you sound a lot less like a racist, doesn't it?
What does this have to do with HIV and World AIDS Day? Simply that, still, after more than three decades, we are still all too happy to stigmatise people who carry the virus. You might not thing you're doing that, but it can be easier said than done.
When you advertise on your profile that you're "clean and expect same" to mean HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, you're implying that those who might have something are dirty. That's not really a polite way to refer to other people. There are plenty of other euphemisms people bandy around, but it often amounts to the same thing, an implication that those who are positive are somehow dirty, or undeserving of your attention.
Sometimes, we dress this up in grander terms, like "I just wouldn't want want the stress of dating a positive guy", or "I couldn't cope with falling for someone and then losing them" but personally I don't find those arguments convincing - and nor should you if you know much about modern treatment.
Being positive isn't a walk in the park; contrary to how some people view it, it's not quite like simply taking an aspirin every day. Some drug regimes can be awkward to live with.
But it's not a death sentence either, and modern treatments mean people have pretty normal life expectancies. So, if you fall for someone who's positive, there's probably a far higher chance of them being hit by a bus, or being in a car accident than there is of them dying of AIDS while you're still in love with them. In other words, quit using that as an excuse to try and discriminate.
The other thing I think when I see people asking on their profile that those they meet are "clean" or "DDF" is that you don't quite understand how this all works. Estimates from random testing suggest that in London, for example, around one in seven gay men is positive. Around a fifth of those may not even know it. That means that perhaps one in 35 people might mean your "clean" criteria as far as they know, and still be wrong.
So - as has always been the case - the onus is not on other people to prove to you that they are "clean" and therefore worthy of your attention. It is on you to protect yourself and take responsibility. That might mean condoms. It might mean new drug treatments like PReP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, a regime where you take drugs that minimise the risk of infection), or it might mean avoiding certain riskier activities. The only person whose status you can be sure of is your own.
Remember that you do not have a right to know someone's status, just because they're going to have sex with you. You can ask them - but they're not obliged to tell you, even if they know. And if their telling you they are negative means you'll do something different, have you really been having safer sex in the first place? Or just gambling they won't be one of those 1 in 35.
And yes, sometimes people who are positive do know it, and don't tell you. For any number of reasons, some good, some bad. One of those reasons is the reaction when they tell people. You might think that's wrong - but when people so freely bandy around terms like "clean" or "disease free", should we be surprised if people don't feel like taking part in a conversation where they have to say they're "dirty" or "diseased", when neither is the case? In a sense, when we use value-laden terms like these in an attempt to protect ourselves, we're probably making people less likely to be honest with us. If you really think people should tell you their status, you too should be working to avoid stigma, not create it.
On the BLUF website, we don't have a simple 'safer sex' yes or no option, because it's ultimately up to each person to choose how they want to disclose information, and whether they do so on a profile, or face to face when they meet someone.
But we do offer options, via the profile tags. You can, for example, add the "positive" tag to your profile to show your status, if you wish. You can also add the "poz-friendly" tag to show that you don't worry about someone's status, as well as "safe" or "bareback" and all the other tags the site provides. If you didn't know, these are displayed in a visitor's own language, so if you add "poz friendly" to your profile, a French user will see "rien contre les positifs" and a German one will see "poz freundlich"
So this Word AIDS Day, I'd like BLUF members to consider which of these tags they want to add to their profiles. I'd also invite you to look at the words you use in your text, and think about whether they're inclusive, or exclusive, friendly or hostile - not just to people with HIV, but to all the different members of our community. Let's make an effort to embrace each other, not push some people away.