Difficult Conversations | How to Disclose Your Status
While you can live a long, healthy, love filled life with HIV, many have mixed feelings (from nerves to fear to embarrassment, etc.) about their status. One of the biggest challenges can be trying to figure out how to broach the topic with a new potential sexual partner. Often, it does not feel as simple as when experts talk about disclosing. Should you do it public, in the bedroom, before or after you’ve brought someone home?
A lot goes into the very personal decision of when to disclose your HIV status. How each of us discloses our status is different and that’s okay. To support you in finding your own way to disclose your status, a roundtable of HIV professionals sat down and unpacked this often difficult conversation.
Participating in this roundtable are Mychael Patterson, a Behavioral Intervention Specialist; Markelse Jordan, a Behavioral Health Counselor; Shavon Griffin, Behavioral Intervention Specialist; and Charlie Lujan, Risk Reduction Specialist.
Q. What are some ways I can disclose my status to someone?
Markelse: “Disclosure is about being comfortable. Before you disclose it’s important that you are comfortable with your status and sharing it. One of the ways I recommend people sharing their status is to make it a part of a conversation; lead into it. For example, you may start off talking to someone about an article you read on HIV or something you saw on the news regarding HIV. You can gauge to see how the person responds to the topic of HIV and if you feel comfortable, you can disclose that you are living with HIV. I also think it’s important to disclose in neutral/safe space. Sometimes you never know the reaction of the other person, so make sure that when disclosing you feel safe with your surroundings.”
Shavon: “When it comes to disclosing your status there are so many fears and anxiety that comes with it. Will that person leave me, will they want to physically hurt me and will they disclose my status to someone else. I think this takes time and it is different for each person and their relationship. There has to be full trust in the person that you are disclosing to, along with being ok with the notion that once they find out they may leave. You also have to have a lot of self-love and respect for yourself. To know that if this person does leave they were never the right person for you and it is not your fault. ”
Charlie: “Perhaps the most important point to understand when disclosing your HIV status to someone else is that once that status has been told to somebody else by you; you will no longer have control over where that information will go next and how it will affect you later in life. Thus, one of the things to consider when disclosing your HIV status would be to ensure you feel comfortable enough disclosing sensitive personal information to that person, so it is not later revealed out to others without your prior consent first. Another way to disclose is by speaking with partners, family and friends about HIV facts while educating at the same time, by doing so you will help eradicate stigma and correct misconceptions about HIV to help them better comprehend that HIV is now a highly manageable illness if the person takes charge over his/her medical treatment.”
Mychael: “I find that as an activist, much of my personal interactions and social media dialogue is centered around my status so most people know up front that I am HIV positive and undetectable. I think an important component to the disclosure is explaining the science and recent studies to immediately alleviate any initial fear. Talking about Treatment as Prevention and the benefits of an HIV negative person on a PrEP regimen can also dispel myths and inform potential partners.”
Q. How do I ask someone about their status once I’ve disclosed mine?
Mychael: “When opening that conversation, I usually begin, “I am HIV positive/undetectable. How about you?” People can overthink this step. For me, offering my information first encourages my potential partner to feel that this interaction is a safe space to discuss our sexual health. One I can establish that trust, the conversation flows smoothly. ”
Markelse: “I believe once you disclose yours, it gives you the courage to ask someone theirs. Again it’s about being comfortable and making this “taboo” topic conversational. Just because you were comfortable enough to disclose yours, doesn’t mean the other person is at that point; Maybe they haven’t been tested, maybe they are already positive; maybe they just don’t want to talk about it; ALL of that is okay. You made a personal decision to disclose yours and everyone isn’t at that point. BUT that doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to ask because you do.”
Shavon: “Well if you have built trust and respect for each other this part may get a little bit easier. Once you have disclosed, you can go into if they have been tested and what were the results. If they have not been tested the importance of taking a test when they are ready. Again it is a timing thing nothing is every cookie cutter. There are times when people get very upset and so each situation will be different. ”
Charlie: “Most people disclose their HIV status to others because they care for the other person in some way, shape or form. Caring is a potent compassionate feeling which can be utilized as a tool to introduce challenging topics, to normalize a conversation and to minimize shame that we all sometimes struggle with (such as HIV). Many individuals agree that most people react with more openness and willingness to talk further when asking others about their HIV status after disclosing yours if you introduce the topic by stating something like “someone cared about me enough in the past to ask if I had been tested recently and what my HIV status is, so I would like to do the same for you.”
Q. How do I ask someone to use a condom?
Charlie: “Well, I believe it’s best to take a proactive approach when it comes to condom wearing, if you are one of the guys that enjoy condoms usage: it would be a more effective plan for you to always be the one who has the condom ready for when the situation “arises”, you can make it part of your foreplay techniques to ensure you have it down to the “T” so it is part of the “sexy” mood and has a turn-on effect on both you.”
Mychael: “I start by explaining to a potential partner the reasons safe play is important to me. I want to protect you. I want to protect myself from other STIs which might interfere with my HIV treatment and potentially infect other partners. When I engage my partner in a knowledgeable conversation, it’s hard to argue. And if they do, we can table the encounter until they feel more comfortable with protection. ”
Markelse: “I believe by informing your partner that the condom is beneficial for both of you guys is important. Many times people get offended when asked to put a condom on because the person requesting is “implying something”; But again, by saying something like “Hey, do you mind wearing a condom. A condom protects both of us and allows us to have sex with a piece of mind”; conversations like that are really helpful and opens the door to other conversations that include status and disclosure. ”
Shavon: “Asking someone to use a condom seems to be an easier task, sometimes it not even asking it is just making sure to have one in the bedroom or on you and handing it over. If that person looks at you with confusion or feelings that would make me question why would they not want to put one on and who else do they have unprotected sex with.”