While it can be tough for anyone to form a lasting connection, having HIV can make it even tougher. HIV can undermine your self esteem and your sexuality. And while things may be looking up these days, it is still really hard to disclose your status.
I found it impossible for a long time. For quite a few years the virus was foremost on my mind. Every waking moment I could feel it and see it in my body and I was terrified that others could see it too. I felt like I had a dirty secret and I sure as hell didn’t feel sexy. I was living in San Francisco, one of the queerest cities in the world but picking up guys was the last thing on my mind.
Occasionally I might spruce myself up for a night on the town, but most of the time I was completely shut down.
Basically, I was terrified of passing the virus onto anyone. I had a fling with a guy who removed a condom during sex without telling me and I went into a tailspin for weeks before jumping on a flight to Australia and spending the next five years in chastity. I still took pride in my appearance but I stopped flirting with anyone.
I stopped looking for sex and intimacy. I couldn’t disclose my status without breaking down in nervous jitters so I decided it wasn’t worth it. I was afraid that one rejection would knock the wind out of my sails for good.
I also wanted to change.
Most of the sexual encounters I’d had prior to my diagnosis were under the influence of drugs and alcohol. I could hardly recall the names or faces of many guys I’d been with. Most were plucked from the dark corners of bars in the wee hours of the morning and dispensed with a few hours later. Clearly, I still wasn’t comfortable with being gay so I decided to refrain from sex until I could do it clean and sober.
Instead, I channelled my energy into yoga and meditation. I went to self help groups and chanted with other emotionally wounded and physically compromised people. I lived on carrot juice and steamed vegetables. I saw one therapist after another. I took up creative writing and spent months locked away in my room.
While I didn’t have much of an appetite for sex, five years of abstinence was a long haul for anyone and by the end of it I felt like a born-again virgin. I couldn’t imagine getting naked with a guy let alone what to do with his body parts.
Unfortunately, I had a hot Greek landlord at the time and I couldn’t pay the rent without going weak at the knees. While I exuded health and creativity, I was pretty damn cranky most of the time.
My vow of chastity was put to the test one summer day when a friend dragged me to a nude beach. I tiptoed past blokes sprawled on the sand tanning their bods and rubbing lotion on their butts. I hadn’t seen a guy without his clothes on for years and here I was surrounded by bare flesh. Naked men floated past me on blow-up devices. They belly-flopped into the sea. They ducked in and out of the bushes.
I kept my shorts on and sat in the lotus position but by the day’s end I was tumbling on a towel with my legs wrapped around some chubby cub’s thighs. I had my tongue down his throat and my hands glued to his butt. Half the beach-goers strolled by and had a good old laugh but after five years of celibate agony I really didn’t give a hoot.
I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing. I ditched the meditation tapes and self-help books. I signed up at the gym and started pumping iron. It was the perfect place to get my libido fired up again – hanging out with a bunch of blokes groaning and grunting in sweaty singlets. I closed my eyes on the bench press and all kinds of glorious filth went through my head.
Then I hopped online. It was full of charlatans with hollow promises but I got a bit of slap ‘n’ tickle in between the lattes and little white lies. It was great to be dating again, even if I could barely recognise the real-life versions of my cyberspace hook-ups.
I may have been stood up and dicked about, but at least I was back in the saddle.
I hit the bars and started downing schooners and checking out the talent. I went to funny theme nights where you can hang out in your undies and shoot pool or drop your dacks and see who you might bump into in a maze of dark corridors. I cruised the backrooms and even got tangled up in the glory holes every now and then.
Being a scrawny self-conscious type, the saunas were always a no-go for me.
But after six months of pumping iron I was ready to kick the doors down. Blokes swaggered by in towels, feeling each other up and guiding each other into tiny cubicles. Random grunts and groans echoed in the darkness while disco divas belted out over the sound system. I sweated in the steam room and soaked in the hot-tub. Now and then a foot brushed my leg and the hairs on my neck stood up on end. My eyes darted this way and that – hoping it was the hot guy beside me but knowing deep down it was the creepy dude in the corner. So I did the bolt and called it a night.
Things have chilled out since those post-chastity outbursts. After an initial foray back into the scene I realised that I’m a little older and my priorities have changed. My health and personal development come first and that means putting time and effort into things that encourage it. But I’m also determined not to let HIV shut me down. I have a right to sex and intimacy like anyone else. I have a right to healthy relationships. Living well with HIV requires a commitment to your health but there’s always room for a night on the town. You never know your luck in a big city.