How an uncomfortable chat made me a better ally online

I had an uncomfortable chat on Grindr not long ago.

It did not start badly. He was exactly what I was looking for in a hook-up (it was all there in his profile ‘TopSwimmer – don’t stop at hello’) and on top of that, he seemed nice. We had been chatting for a week before we started making plans to meet.

Then I asked him if he was ‘neg on PrEP’. He did not give me a definite answer, so I asked him again. By the third time, I could tell he was getting annoyed.

“I am undetectable. Is that a dealbreaker for you?” he said.

I paused and suddenly it all made sense. He was living with HIV.

I regretted being so pushy straight away – I did not mean to force him to disclose his status.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt that it was a dealbreaker. Shouldn’t he have told me earlier? What if I had never asked? Would he have hooked-up with me and never told me he was living with HIV? I got frustrated with the situation and told him so, and the chat ended very quickly.

The whole thing bothered me. I am not naive about STIs. I have been on PrEP for years and have always supported people living with HIV. Having forced someone to disclose their status, I was now not sure about meeting up with them.

Was it his fault? Was it my fault? Was I being unreasonable? Whatever the case, I knew something was wrong with my reaction.

I decided to do some digging.

I looked at what the science says

I decided to get better informed and know what it means to be ‘undetectable.’

I knew it meant he was HIV-positive. What I did not understand was that it also meant he is on treatment that reduces the levels of HIV in his body to the point it cannot be detected by current viral load testing – and that it makes him unable to transmit HIV if he sustains his undetectable status. In fact, across multiple studies, and a combined 89,000 acts of condomless sex between gay couples, there’s never been a documented case of transmission between a person living with HIV who has a sustained undetectable viral load (UVL) and their sexual partner.

It turns out my reaction was based on a bit of ignorance of the current science around HIV. I got defensive about a risk that did not really exist.

I’ve stopped assuming everyone I chat to is HIV-negative

I realised I’d unconsciously been assuming everyone I spoke to online was HIV-negative.

Apart from how naive this was, it also set a bit of an unfair expectation. In the case of ‘TopSwimmer’ I had assumed something about my potential hook-up and then got angry when it turned out to be incorrect. Worse, I felt like he had been dishonest with me by not telling me straight away that he was living with HIV.

It is clear to me now how unreasonable this was – nobody was lying to me (and there’s no legal requirement for him to disclose, in case you are wondering). The idea that he was responsible for managing my assumptions about his status is both unfair and very unsexy.

I also realised that someone’s status matters less than what steps they take to keep themselves and others safe. Both of us had taken steps to look after our health; between his undetectable status and my being on PrEP, there was no risk of HIV transmission. Someone might in fact think they are negative, but things may have changed since their last test. Questioning someone’s status is not the issue; I need to take responsibility for myself the same way as he is looking after his health and protecting me!

I now know it’s better not to make any assumptions or be so interested in what someone’s status is; instead, my concern should be how I am managing my own risks.

I changed the way I think and talk about managing HIV risk when I’m hooking-up

The biggest change for me was realising that I share the responsibility for managing my HIV risk, no matter the status of my partner.

‘TopSwimmer’ was already doing his part to eliminate the risk of transmitting HIV. My part – knowing my status and taking prevention measures I’m comfortable with – is up to me. If I’d asked my question differently (say “condoms, PrEP or UVL?” instead of “are you on PrEP?”) our conversation wouldn’t have ended the way it did.

This is one of the biggest changes I have made to be a better ally to people living with HIV, and it is not just about language. I feel like I’m in much better control of my own sexual health and that gives me more freedom when I’m hooking-up.

I updated my profile

Like a lot of guys, when I use apps like Grindr, I look through their testing and HIV strategies in their profile information. For me, sharing this information can be an uncomplicated way to communicate with a potential hook-up, but I now know that the way this information is shared can have a significant impact.

When sharing this information, it is important to talk about it in a way that does not stigmatise anyone. Words like ‘clean’ or ‘DDF’ (“drug, disease-free”) to talk about sexual health preferences with guys I hook-up with isn’t ok. People living with HIV aren’t ‘dirty’ or ‘unclean’, and this sort of language has no place on a person’s profile.

I’m incredibly careful now to make sure my profile shows everything I’m comfortable sharing about my sexual health without commenting on anyone else’s.

After taking all this in, I felt like I owed ‘TopSwimmer – don’t stop at hello’ an explanation (full disclosure: I was also still really keen to get him naked), so I did get in touch again. I apologised and we managed to pick up where we left off, with a little bit more understanding between us.

And yes, he was exactly the hook-up I’d been hoping for before I put my foot in it – and we certainly didn’t stop at hello.

This article was written by a community contributor and produced as part of a series aimed at tackling HIV stigma. Learn more about HIV stigma and how we can be better allies.

You can also watch Courtney Act give her take on ending HIV stigma here