Sex and the City

Four HIV-Negative Men Talk About Sex,
HIV Testing and Relationships 20 Years Into the AIDS Epidemic

By Vince Catrone from Frontiers

For the past few months, newsstands and television screens have been filled with retrospectives on the first 20 years of AIDS. Scientists, activists, health care workers, economists, historians, politicians, patients and PWAs have been asked their opinions on the epidemic, since their perceptions can help illustrate exactly what AIDS has cost us over the past two decades. To add to the discussion, Frontiers decided to talk to a few ordinary Los Angeles men about their lives. All four are single, and, to their knowledge, HIV-negative. For some, this may seem like a pointless exercise; what can four men relatively unscathed by AIDS tell us that we don't already know about the disease? As it turns out, they show us that no matter how much we reduce the risk of infection, we are all living with the epidemic.

Those involved in the discussion include the following men:  

Kent, age 24. Texas native. In Los Angeles two months. Sales executive.

Omar, age 26. El Salvador native. In L.A. 11 years. Nonprofit organization staff member.

Joe, age 30. Boston native. In L.A. 10 years. Television production staffer.

Doug, age 39. Washington, D.C., native. In L.A. 10 years. Marketing director.

Vince Catrone:   When do you first remember hearing about AIDS?

Joe:  I remember I was probably about 11 years old and saw a picture in Tim e or LIFE magazine. It was a picture of an early demonstration about AIDS from San Francisco, and I remember there was a protester dressed like a skeleton with a wig on, so I had this scary feeling attached to the word "AIDS" from the get-go, without even knowing what it was.

Omar:  Mine was about 10 or 11 years ago when I moved to the United States. I am from El Salvador, and I don't remember hearing about AIDS or HIV back there, so when I went to high school here maybe [I heard about it] from health education. I don't have a clear moment in my mind.

Doug:  Probably, I was about 23, about 17 years ago. I was dating, I was in a heterosexual relationship at the time, and I didn't come out until I was about 25. I was fortunate, if you will, to have come out and have my first gay experience after we knew about it [HIV]. There were a couple of my friends who had come out, about four or five years before me, in their late teens or early 20s, and they were already infected by the time I came out.

Kent:  Every time my mother and I were shopping she would see someone who was ugly or dressed poorly or just had things on their face and she would say, "Oh my God, AIDS alert, AIDS alert." But she didn't know what she was saying. Then, seven years later, I'm like, "By the way, I'm gay."

V.C.:  So was AIDS something that was funny and strange?

Kent: Oh, I can remember being horrified of it as a child, using a napkin in the rest room to open a door because it was such a fear thing in the media, and I think my parents were scared of it as well. So it was really, really frightening.

V.C.:  When do you remember first hearing about someone dying of AIDS?

Joe:  I would say Rock Hudson. It wasn't even somebody I had even heard of before that, but it came out in the media, and my parents knew who he was, so it gave AIDS some context. But at the same time, because it was this big, famous person, it was removed. I don't have anything in common with any Hollywood stars, so the one who has AIDS, that's not in my world, either.

Kent:  This year. A friend of mine from Dallas died of AIDS. I saw him [last] August with my family, and everything was fine. He looked great. No one knew. And then I got a call in January that he was dead. He was probably in his mid-30s.

V.C.:  Did you know he was sick?

Kent:  No one did. There had been some talk, but that is very Dallas for you. It's kind of like, (whispers) "He has cancer."

V.C.:  Omar, Doug, do you know anyone who has died of AIDS?

Omar:  No, I don't. But when I went back to El Salvador in 1994 someone died. He was gay and he died suddenly without any explanation. Everybody in the community just assumed it was AIDS.

Doug:  I have had several friends that have died--not any for a while. The last friend of mine died back in '97. I know a number of people right now that are HIV-positive that are living very well with it. Probably the very first person I knew was my roommate at the time. He told me he had gone to be checked just like we all do and he had known for about a year. That was back in 1986.

V.C.:  Let's say a close person came to you and said, "I have AIDS and I'm dying." Would that change your friendship?

Joe:  I almost feel it couldn't, not in terms of how you feel about the person. You would not be able to help to feel more compassionate toward that person. In a way, you would try to fight it because you would want to treat the person like they are normal, because that's the way they would want to be treated.

Kent:  I think it would make our relationship stronger, in the sense of wanting to live every day as best we could in the sense of not fighting or arguing over petty things. I really think it would make me want to reach out more to them.

Omar:  I don't know. Because sometimes it's really hard to figure out the way your heart is going to go. You think you are going to deal with the situation in a specific way, but then the emotions come up, and you have to deal with it at the moment. But I think we say we are going to help that person, but sometimes we also need help to deal with that situation. Sometimes we want to help but that person doesn't want any help.

Joe:  You are totally right. Everyone likes to think, "Oh, I would be fine with that," but what if you're not? What if you have a feeling you don't count on, or that isn't so pretty or noble, or you are not so proud of? You can't lie or deny them, but you hope you would get over them.

V.C.:  Do you ask the guy you're going to have sex with if he is negative or positive?

Joe:  I always feel that is a loaded-gun question. It is serious, and if you are not serious about the person, you might be implying that you are. So if I go out on a date, and then another date, and we are not really doing anything, and if I'm really not that interested I won't ask because I don't want them to think that I want to get attached or that involved.

Doug:  What about if you meet someone and you know it is going to be a one-night stand? I would definitely ask. Although, with a one-night stand, unless I know otherwise, you are [positive]. Two guys ago I was dating someone who was positive. And before we did anything, when we were dating, he said, "There is something you should know, I'm positive."

V.C.:  Did that change your reaction to him?

Doug:  I think had it been sooner, after the second date as opposed to the fifth or sixth date when we still hadn't slept together, it may have impacted my decision more. But as it was I was really into him by then as a person.

Joe:  I've had that twice. It's something you think about, but I remember being struck both times by this person telling me this really horrible thing and how they couldn't be much more vulnerable.

Doug:  If we are going to invest time, I don't want to get down the road and have you find out later. It's almost better if you come out front and say, "Here are the ground rules now, and this is what we have to deal with. We have to deal with this together." I think he thought that as soon as he told me, with me being negative and he being positive, that I would say, "You know what, I really like you, but let's be friends."

V.C.:  Have you dated someone who is HIV-positive, and did that change the relationship?

Omar:  I haven't dated anyone positive. I was in a relationship for two and a half years and we broke up a few months ago, and I haven't been dating. But I think about it. It is an issue and a reality for me. Sometimes I think I wouldn't date someone [who is] HIV-positive, but I have worked with HIV-positive people, so it's something normal to think about and to say, "I'm not going to date someone positive," but then you get to know the person. You learn how to take care of yourself and the other person, so I think I would. And with one-night stands, I wouldn't even ask, I'd just take care of myself. I know it is a horrible thing to do if you don't tell a person you are HIV-positive and get that person infected, but it's your responsibility.

Kent:  I have not dated anyone who is HIV-positive. I have not dated. And I would totally go out with someone who is HIV-positive. I'll take a dinner any way I can.

V.C.:  Would that include sex?

Kent:  I think if I cared enough about the person it would not make a difference. I have only had sex twice in my short, little gay life. As long as the guy is nice and won't chop off your head, I don't see any reason not to.

Joe:  There are so many other reasons not to date a guy. I know people who would not date a person who is HIV-positive. They would not go out with them because they have a really big fear. I understand it is a communicable disease, but that's what relationships are all about. Risk.

Omar:  A lot of HIV-positives don't like to date negative guys. They don't want to create that stress for that other person. I learned that from working in prevention, and I talked to a lot of HIV-positive gay men. First, they didn't want to get rejected, and second they didn't want to go through teaching them how to deal with the situation.

V.C.:  Do you regularly test?

Omar:  Every six, seven months.

Joe:  Sometimes every three months, sometimes every year.

Kent:  I haven't had sex in about a year and a half, and I go once a month and I'm like, "Has it hit me yet?" and they are like, "No, good God."

V.C.:  By a lot of standards, people would say you have an incredibly low risk and you have been tested well outside the period for infection. Do you know all these things but your mind doesn't allow you to accept it?

Kent:  I really think that I could be walking and it would jump on me. I am a constant maintenance-like person. It is part of my routine.

Joe:  I'm just curious, because you said before you would totally date someone who was HIV-positive. I feel like then you would be going and getting tested three times ...

Kent:  ... a day?

Joe:  Right. Do you feel like you would? How would you resolve that?

Kent:  I think that love and being in a relationship happens only once in your life, so I don't know how I would react. Probably you are right, and I'd go three times a day. But I think that I would never let that stand in the way of really liking someone or going out with someone.

Doug:  My boyfriend and I were together about 12 years and during that time we probably tested maybe three times with the assumption that we were fine because we were only sleeping with each other and we knew we were negative. Although, over the years, we found out that there were occasions when we both strayed outside the relationship. And we continued to have unprotected sex [with each other] after that.

Joe:  Is that when you would test?

Doug:  Typically, yes. Since I have been out of the relationship I have only gone once [to get tested]. I went right after. I wanted to feel I was going into everything with a clean slate. I haven't tested since I dated the guy that was positive. In all honesty, I didn't think it had been long enough. My goal is to start going in every six months.

V.C.:  Would you say the testing experience is harrowing? Is it routine for you? What is your experience when you go in to test?

Joe:  "Harrowing" is an excellent word. Going back to something Omar was saying, you make your own choices. You took the risk. You engaged in certain behaviors, and you did [so] knowingly--no matter how much you might have been drunk or caught up in the moment or whatever. You can't absolve yourself of the responsibility. I definitely don't make deals with God. I used to come out of there with such relief and think, "I'm never going to sleep with anybody ever again." And that's not realistic--a week later ... Every time I go it gets more serious, and more thought-provoking, and it stays with me longer.

V.C.:  Do you see it as part of being a gay man in 2001?

Joe:  Why is it just gay men? I have a lot of straight friends at work I started dragging in to have tested. These are guys and girls in their 20s having sex, having one-night stands, and they don't think, "I should get tested." Yeah, it's part of our routine, but it should be everyone's routine.

Omar:  That has a lot to do with health promotion. They are telling gay men they are more at risk to be infected, and that's why we take that message. Heterosexual men don't really think about protecting themselves. There aren't many services for heterosexual men--there are for women, and for gay men, but not for heterosexual men.

Doug:  I'm finding, too, that a number of guys I have met--what I have noticed is I meet a lot of guys who claim to be bisexual. Women are sleeping with these guys, not knowing that they are sleeping with other guys, and to me that's very scary.

V.C.:  Omar, would you say that's a big part of life in El Salvador? Are there two sides to your life?

Omar:  I went back in 1998 for a year and a half, and it was culture shock. Gay culture is an underground culture. Even men who are bisexual, during the day would be homophobic and be very violent to effeminate ones just to distance themselves from them, but at night, they would go to gay clubs. In Latino culture, if you are gay you are not a man. That's why if you are bisexual and masculine, they think you are not gay. I was openly gay in my small town, and I went to a dance with a few gay friends. At the beginning the people in the community thought I was a man who liked to fuck gay guys, so I wasn't gay. But when they saw me dancing with them, they identified me as gay, but not as a man. So they assumed I liked to be penetrated. I thought that my masculinity was in my ass then. If I get penetrated then I'm not a man, but if I penetrate, that's OK.

Doug:  I know Caucasian guys who feel the same way.

V.C.:  Why do you think that is?

Doug:  I think part of it goes back to that whole role thing, it's the identification of being a bottom means you are effeminate, or you are not masculine ...

Joe:  You are lesser, or somehow inferior.

Omar:  I think the gay community itself perpetrates that. If you want to make fun of someone you call them a big bottom.

V.C.:  Do you think society would change its attitudes toward gays without AIDS?

Omar:  I think prejudice would still be there. AIDS is one, but if we get a cure it would be about other issues of gay culture. There will always be rejection from society.

Joe:  I think it would lift it. All the advances that gay people have made in society as a whole would take a quantum leap forward. But I don't think gays are ever going to be completely accepted or tolerated in society.