24 Jul 2009

Breaking this chain of silence (Part 4)

Will you be accepting of a friend or potential partner if he or she came out as being HIV positive to you? How far have we come as a community in coping with the disease and accepting people with HIV?

It has been heartening to read the responses to my articles these past few weeks. I thank the readers for their words of support. Others who commented apparently had their own personal issues to deal with. When Fridae.com first approached me to write about my personal journey as a HIV-positive person, I was a little hesitant at first. My apprehension had to do with sharing my private thoughts and experiences - and leaving myself feeling vulnerable. But I felt it was important to stir some debate on HIV issues within the community - as our infection rates are still climbing, and the level of acceptance of HIV-positive people amongst the LGBT community has still not reached a stage where many are comfortable to come out.

Also, something happened over the weekend which got me thinking of acceptance of HIV-positive people in general. Andy Low came out as an openly positive person in Singapore's Sunday Times. He is only the second person to come out publicly, after Paddy Chew first declared himself as HIV-positive in 1998. It will be interesting to see what public reaction will be like, following his disclosure.

Even when Paddy Chew first came out - within the LGBT community the feeling was divided. Many were proud of his bravery and saw him as a beacon of hope - but there were others less happy. Some accused him of seeking attention and publicity; others felt his coming out merely strengthened the prejudice that AIDS was a gay man's disease.

Since then, I have often asked myself - how far have we come as a community in coping with the disease and accepting people with HIV?

Being gay, we are used to leading shadow lives. Someone once said that gay people are used to living with secrets. HIV is just another one. Many of the gay HIV-positive people I know all live with this secret - they do not feel safe enough to share this secret with the rest of the community. Why is this so?

No one likes to be judged. Who wants to be labelled 'promiscuous', 'irresponsible' and 'stupid'? People can say everyone knows how HIV is transmitted - and those who do not protect themselves only have themselves to blame. As it is, I am discriminated already by mainstream society - I don't need my own community to do so.

I have had my fair share of coming out to people about my status. A few times I was lucky - my first boy friend simply accepted me when I told him on our second meeting. Another sex buddy years ago was grateful I told him - and today we remain good friends.

Then, there were the not-so-good experiences. People would freeze when I told them. One simply refused to look at me and just walked out. A few others became paranoid - the fear of getting infected by just being around me was palpable - and it was their fear or rejection by family and society that made me seem such a threat. It was like I was being punished for opening up.

I got my HIV infection from the most intimate of acts - sex [there, I finally answered that question].

Sexuality and the expression of it have been at the core of many a gay men's sense of identity. The urge for sex is not just a physical craving - at another level, it is our search for acceptance by another, an intimate act that confirms our desirability and self-worth. This urge is made more powerful, especially when mainstream society rejects you.

You cannot ask a person to forget all that by saying "you should know better". Instead, it will drive people underground. People will continue their search for love and acceptance - even if it ends up in sex without condoms. Shocking as it is - this bears out, as the infection rates for gay men (in Asia, and Western countries) continues to climb and is disproportionately higher than the general population.

The introduction of recreational drugs has also not helped. It's almost the norm these days when you go into an internet chat room for people looking for 'high fun' or 'chem sex'. With the growing use of recreational drugs - ecstasy, ketamine, ice and GHB, more people are having unsafe sex - and they know it, but they can't seem to stop it.

Some tell me they only have unsafe sex when they are on drugs - as if that was OK. Others have gotten addicted to sex with drugs, and it's usually unsafe sex. Others just like to bareback - and use drugs as an excuse to continue doing it. Then, there are the fatalistic one - some I have spoken to say they have not tested and do not know their sero-status - but they conclude that they will end up positive one day as they can't seem to stop taking drugs and barebacking. The search for hedonistic pleasure can sometimes lead to just the opposite result. People should know better, I hear you saying - but when it comes to sex and drugs, they apparently do not.

As a community, I have not seen open discussions about all this. I really believe that it is the lack of openness that disempowers us - and makes us vulnerable - to HIV, discrimination, drug abuse and to having a lack of self-esteem. It is so true what the slogan says - 'Silence = Death'.

Where does this leave us? For people like me who are HIV-positive, I will continue to live in the shadows. Coming out to more people will only make me a moving target - and that is not a price I want to pay. I feel that within the LGBT community, I still will not get the support and dignity I deserve as an individual, if I choose come out.

For the young, impressionable gay man - he may not feel empowered to negotiate safer sex practices with a partner. For those who use recreational drugs, they will continue to search out like-minded partners, while not telling their other friends. Like I said before - we are used to living with secrets.

Can we break this chain of silence? Let's start talking. 

This is the fourth installment of a 6-part series which will run every other Friday.