He was reckless with his own safety. I’m sorry to say it and he’s only one guy but that’s the truth.
He told me so himself, before he contracted HIV. He had a ‘busy’ sex life, my friend, and so did I at the time. But there was a difference. I wasn’t having unprotected sex. He was. And he was proud of the risks he was taking. At least that’s how he liked to come across. He’d boast that he didn’t care about the dangers. It felt better. The risks were low. He was too big to fit into a jonny anyway. It’s a kind of self-destruction and defiance I’d seen before in young gay men.
He didn’t tell me when he was diagnosed and in fact I don’t think he told anyone close to him. It was a year before he mentioned, almost in passing, that he was ‘positive’. He said: “It’s tricky now on first dates because of my positive thing.”
The ambiguity of the word blurred his meaning. Had he been a more chirpy individual I think I’d have missed it altogether but no first date could have judged his general demeanor as positive. Kind and funny, yes. Clever, usually. But the word ‘positive’ jarred with me and made me laugh at first but then a moment later I realised that he’d just told me he had HIV.
We spoke about it. Largely against his will, though I only wanted to see if he was okay. Maybe I was too pushy. What business was it of mine? In that conversation I lost a friend. Suddenly it felt like there was a gulf between us. Had I judged him in spite of myself somehow? Not for having HIV but for contracting it so… Willingly, without even trying to take care to avoid it. He was flippant about it and passive aggressive and so confrontational and I wasn’t clever enough back then to wonder, why? He knew he’d made a mistake and he could see something like judgement in my face. Well I guess I was angry with him because I’d always secretly liked him more than I’d said. And now I felt like I didn’t know him anymore. He’d kept this thing from me.
He said he was glad he had HIV, half-joking that it had freed him from worrying about getting it. He said it hadn’t made a difference to his life at all and AIDS didn’t really exist anymore. He said he was going to be ‘undetectable’ soon thanks to the drugs he was on so he wouldn’t have to tell guys he had the virus. I asked whether the man who gave him HIV had told him the same misleading thing. He snorted and didn’t answer. Being ‘undetectable’ makes it much less likely you’ll pass on the virus but certainly doesn’t make it impossible.
Today I have a few mates with HIV and I’ve known two guys in my lifetime with AIDS and there’s no reason anyone should have to deal with ignorance or stigma. They didn’t do anything at all to knowingly welcome HIV into their bodies. As one put it, for him it was “Just life, love, lies, lust and very bad luck.”
I guess you could say the same about my friend but couldn’t he have been more responsible? He could, but we’re human and we all do reckless things sometimes. We all make mistakes particularly when our penises are making decisions for us.
Looking back a decade later, I wish I’d been more patient with my friend and listened better. I hope he’s okay now. I’m very proud to be hosting the World Aids Day event for the GMFA gay men’s charity in Soho this year.
AIDS effects so many millions of people for so many different reasons the world over, so to do my small bit to help make a difference feels deeply important on a very personal level.