Mark S. King

Positive vs. Negative: The Truce is Broken

Filed By Mark S. King | November 15, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: broken truce, HIV negative, HIV positive, HIV/AIDS, HIV/AIDS activism

The wary truce between HIV positive and HIV negative gay men is crumbling. We resent one another more than ever before, it appears.

Thumbnail image for truce.jpgDuring the latest permutation of the AIDS crisis, when lives have been extended and the crisis mentality has receded, there has been a silent understanding between those of us who are HIV positive, and our friends who have remained negative. We won't make them feel guilty about being negative if they don't blame us for being positive.

The whole topic is fraught with shame and guilt and blame, and keeping our opinions to ourselves (or within our respective group) has been the collective response.

That is, until last week, when I posted a video "in praise of HIV negative gay men" as part of my video blog My Fabulous Disease. The response, from both positive and negative men, was fast and infuriated. And they say a lot about the thin layer of restraint covering some deep resentments.

In the video, I wanted to lift up those who are negative, because I don't believe they get enough credit for staying that way. I haven't had to take an HIV test for 25 years; I don't have their anxiety over testing every six months, nor are all my sexual choices "tested" with every result. I contend that the lives of HIV negative men can be more stressful trying to avoid HIV, than my life is living with it.

MedalGRAB.jpgI'm comfortable making this argument because I'm HIV-positive. I've been washed in the blood. I'm cloaked in the righteousness of knowing what it's like to live with HIV. (I despise this viral-centric distinction, by the way. Knowing "what it's like" isn't based on HIV status. My brother lost his partner of 14 years to AIDS although he remains negative. Tell him he doesn't know what it's like to live with HIV. I dare you.)

When I posted the video all hell broke loose. HIV positive men wrote me to say how they suffered from constant rejection, from the bars to the online cruise sites. They howled about how horrific their medications were, when they could afford them. Never mind that the video meant to support negative men, nothing more. They rejected the notion that HIV negative men needed "coddling" and called them "lucky." And that I was selfish and irresponsible. And please take them off my mailing list.

HIV negative men responding even more ferociously. How dare I mock them, they wanted to know. My earnest exclamations of "Thata boy!" and "Good job!" were taken as sarcasm. My own lack of anxiety over not being regularly tested infuriated them ("How dare you suggest you have it easy now. So you think we should all just become HIV positive?"). They said I was selfish and irresponsible. And please take them off my mailing list.

And all because I tried to speak honestly about how important it is to acknowledge the good behaviors of negative men. It was especially disconcerting to feel as if the very men I was trying to praise had taken such offense. Why? Was their survivor's guilt so close to the surface that these wounded men didn't know a sincere message of support when they heard it?

This isn't a contest. There's enough stress and grief to go around. But it was fascinating to be witness to so many men who either won't address their resentments openly or insist their hardship is greater than yours.

In the 1980's, AIDS forced us from the beer busts and into community service. It sneered at our body conscious culture and turned our friends into withered shells. And it taught us to drop our differences and get to work helping each other.

Those lessons are fading faster than the death rate. And I'm going to keep on writing about it.

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Frankly, this "negative pride" concept is the most insensitive and naive thing I've ever read. First of all, there's implication that if negative men should be celebrated for doing something right then positive men have done something wrong. While this may be superficially true, it's only natural for positive people to feel shamed. Additionally, there are many men who are negative despite having engaged in risky behaviors. So to cheer them for only having been lucky is clueless. Perhaps you have succeeded in bringing positive and negative people closer together - if only to think you're an idiot.

Why does being supportive of HIV negative men assume tearing down those who are positive? Don't we have enough support to go around...?

Nowhere in the video do I say "negative pride," which might be a loaded phrase, I'll admit.

Where there's snark there's fire.

Why is everything zero sum? Why things be broken down into black and white wrong and right? Neither path, positive or negative is without it's challenges.

And how about the people who've become positive as a result of sexual assault? How are they supposed to feel after seeing this?

Kathleen O'Neal | November 15, 2010 5:49 PM

To be honest, after watching the video, I think that some of the misunderstanding may have had to do with the tone of the piece. It's difficult to tell whether or not the speaker is being sarcastic. It's a solid message, but one that may have been better received had it been delivered in a more straightforward and sincere way.

I hear that, Kathleen. I never dreamed a souped-up delivery style would suggest insincerity - I was just being enthusiastic. But this hair-trigger issue probably required a more straightforward delivery. Thanks.

steve talbert | November 15, 2010 6:37 PM

I think it touches a nerve because it became so politically correct trying to destigmatize it as something shameful that HIV is almost glamorized in some instances. It's a very mixed message, but our culture has a hard time anyway dealing with all types of death, deterioration, etc..

If you'd have done this any other way, you wouldn't have learned what you learned. I applaud you for writing/video-blogging about this EXACTLY the way that you did. Bravo!

Loran Spurling

Mark, anyone who has had the pleasure to know you for all of ten seconds would know that you are "exuberant and creative" with your messages (humor is a strength) -- an that you would NEVER intentionally insinuate condemnation of any person or group of persons. You had the best of intentions here, and I'm sorry it has gotten so blown out of proportion. I've met you; I know you. I'm sorry not everyone else does.

steve talbert | November 15, 2010 6:31 PM

There is no "righteousness" in having a disease. This isn't religious martrydom. HIV is a preventable condition that some people get by accident or on purpose in combination with how their genes work. Nothing more or less.

People with it should be pitied, not shamed or glorified. People without it should be thankful.

Steve, please don't should on me. Thank you.


Spare me your pity, Steve. I don't want it, nor need it. I'm an 18 yr. survivor and the only thing I want from the negative community is for them to get the hell out of my way. I spent the years from 1987 to 1993 fighting this disease and the government's apathy from the negative side of the fence, from 1993 until now being a royal pain in the ass from the positive side. What do I see from the negatives now? Not much. A handful of glittery fundraisers that, while the money is most welcome, are by-and-large ineffective in moving our nation toward a sane and responsible AIDS policy. Perfect example: if the Reich Wing party has its way in gutting Medicare/Medicaid funding, that will effectively be the death sentence of thousands of people with HIV/AIDS in America. No funding - no treatment, no funding - no meds. If the negative community will not join with us in the fight, then get out of the way. I'm not doing this only for myself and other HIV+ people - I'm doing this to save your butt, too.

My sister said I've survived this long because I'm too evil a bitch, and death is afraid of me. My grandmother used to say it was because I'm so damned stubborn. My doctors tell me it's because I've been incredibly lucky, and old friends say it's because I refuse to give up and be a "victim". I say they're all right. I am an evil, stubborn bitchy old drag queen. I have been incredibly lucky that my O.I.'s have been few and far between, even though I can almost set my clock by the frequency the virus has mutated on me regardless of my meds compliance. And no, I won't give up this fight. I also won't change my life to make the virus the centerpiece of my existence - I won't be a "victim", or a "martyr to the cause." I will be defiant, and I will own my life to the end.

I don't want your pity. What I want is your respect, and your willingness to see me as a person, not just a person-with-AIDS.

I watched your original video and I really couldn't tell if you were being sarcastic or not. I don't know if gay men deserve praise for remaining HIV- anymore than women who don't want children deserve praise for not getting pregnant. Obviously HIV is far more undesirable than an unexpected pregnancy, but the choices made to avoid the two events are similar. And avoiding both of them is its own reward.

And that's why your video came across as sarcastic to many negative men. It's almost like if Congress apologized to the rich for raising their taxes.

At the Risk of sounding "Hyper-Critical," your only mistake was Over-estimating the intellect of the average gay man. (Maybe that DID sound "Hyper-Critical"....I'd take it back if i were making a very sound point)

richard king | November 15, 2010 7:58 PM

This is certainly a topic that deserves more thoughtful discussion. Thanks for bringing up this sensitive issue. While it may be that those on one side or the other believe that "You don't know what it's like", and then close the door, I contend that further examination of our own beliefs may reveal preconcieved and unsupportable arguments. Just because someone "doesn't know what it's like" does not mean he will never understand. That understanding can be encouraged by open-minded discussion.
Keep challenging us, Mark. We can take it.

Some of the comments suggest Mr. King has gone off on a rant in the style of Gilda Radner as Emily Latella. While there may be something to that, the tempest this teapot has brewed suggests he may have struck a nerve that his detracting commentators didn't realize they had.

Mark, you made me remember how lucky I am to not have to worry about my HIV test results any more. You made some good and honest points. Like, I already have HIV, who's gonna listen to me about having safe sex. I admire your courage to be honest. Keep doing what you're doing. You have a fan in me!

Loran Spurling

Subversive Librarian | November 15, 2010 11:27 PM

I've watched this video a couple times and I don't really see the sarcasm. But then, I've been following your work for a while and I know your style. Given the dismal state of civil discourse these days, I can see where a new audience would expect, and therefore see, snarkiness. Sincerity is in very short supply these days.

I always feel that every point of view has something to offer, and I'm grateful for yours because you seem to have a knack for stirring up the shit- a talent I admire deeply.

Mark, I think people who do not know your personality and how you deal / confront things in a whimiscal manner at times, can find the video patronizing, if not very sarcastic, from both NEG and POZ aspects. Having recently met you and talked with you I did not find it sarcastic. But in saying that the video brings up the differences beginning to re appear in the gay world. I see it more and more - Its OKAY to be POZ as long as I am not POZ - there is an US and THEM culture re emerging and it is not pretty, its not emotionally healthy and it is hurtful. Other than confrontation on a personal level I know of no other way to deal with it, but seems society is moving backwards instead of forwards when it comes to this issue.

Overall, I think your video, taken sarcastically or not, hit a cancerous nerve on both sides of the fence - now we need to figure out how to deal with it so it can be cured.

As a poz guy (for 25+ yrs. now) I'm feeling a bit embarrassed for the churlishness and resentment that some poz guys have expressed over this issue. It makes me wonder if myopia isn't a side effect of HIV? Truth is; it's very difficult for sexually active young men to remain negative and I'm all for any praise and re-enforcement us older guys can heap on them. Perhaps if I'd experienced more of the same, I might not be poz?
It's hard to say since I became poz during that era when many of my older role models were claiming that AIDS was just a government ploy to scare gays, and only a threat to Haitians and intravenous drug users. There are lots of lousy things about being HIV+, but getting turned down sometimes when seeking a hook-up is the least of them. Aren't we tougher than that? Than choosing to be petulant and resentful cuz we can't get our rocks off in a finger snap? Has graciousness and humilty really disappeared from our midst? Boiled down; in the fervor and frantic-ness of a Saturday night I'm happy for folks going home with whoever, and which ever hook-up they choose to - even if it means they rejected me in favor of another. There will always be another Saturday night.

"We won't make them feel guilty about being negative if they don't blame us for being positive."

What are you talking about? Why on Earth would a person feel guilty over not having caught HIV or any STD? HIV negative men don't have any moral obligation to follow you or others over a cliff and don't have any reason to feel guilty over not having done so.

As for whether you deserve blame for being positive, I am not sure who else would be to blame. I don't think the fault lies in the stars. And I am pretty sure that the statute of limitations on blaming Ronald Reagan has probably run out. So, with a few exceptions, if in 2010 you are catching a debilitating and potentially deadly retrovirus that has been transmitted in the same well-known manner for nearly 30 years, you might bear the blame for the result. That doesn't mean you have feel constant shame. But taking responsibility for one's actions should be seen as a positive thing.

Why do negative people feel guilty sometimes? It's known as survivor's guilt, for not being dead, for winning what they might consider a karmic raffle when so many others have lost. When they have sometimes made the same mistakes and not suffered the consequences.

Why should we not place blame on positive people? Because their "fault" may have been showing their humanity -- by trusting someone they loved, or misjudging danger, or being drunk at the wrong time. Humanity that, by the way, your acidic remarks sorely lack.

Thank God for you. You have made my point about simmering resentments and a lack of grace far better than any video ever could.

I'm honestly not resentful of HIV positive men. At all.

I am sad and angry that gay men continue to account for 2/3 of new HIV cases, even though since 1986 there has been something close to universal understanding of how the virus is transmitted. I acknowledge that there are some cases where a person is not responsible, such as nonconsensual sex, or a situation where a supposedly monogamous partner has cheated and passed the infection on. But the vast majority of these new infections occur simply because the draw of pleasure outweighed fear and prudence.

That is blameworthy behavior. It hurts not only the infected individual, but that individual's family and friends. And it sets a terrible example for all of the great gay boys in the Millennial generation, who at this point should be reading about AIDS as an artifact of the last century.

As a secondary matter, it hurts all gays and lesbians, because it allows our enemies to claim that the "gay lifestyle" is destructive and unhealthy, comparable to smoking or drug use. This remains their major trump card to this day. So the personal decisions of gays and lesbians relating to their health are in a real sense political acts as well.

I'm sorry if this comes off as lacking in humanity, but I see the failure to blame as the inhumane course. The failure to hold people accountable for their actions - in a moral sense, not a legal one - likely has abetted the spread of the virus. If it is a choice between sensitivities and lives, I'd choose the latter.

"I'm honestly not resentful of HIV positive men. At all."

Interesting way to start off stating your points where you state that the failure to blame is inhumane. Placing the blame on gay men who have become HIV positive because "it allows our enemies to claim that the "gay lifestyle" is destructive and unhealthy" is just ridiculous. While I agree that the rapid rate the percentage grows sets a bad example for the younger generation, vocalizing your blame on the certain group of people, namely HIV positive men sure sounds like you're stooping to the level of the "enemies". It also sounds a lot like resentment to me. Vocally blaming someone for their own actions to contract HIV is just petty gossip and judgement. They know what they've done to themselves and surely don't need your blame to make them feel worse about regretting their actions.

And why are they our enemies in the first place? Last time I checked, we are all human beings with the right to be loved. Placing the blame on others for your own situation, even if they did have a major roll in it, is counterproductive toward the fight for equal rights and acceptance. Rather than placing the blame, wouldn't it be more productive to join the cause toward HIV prevention rather than just blame people who already have it?

Regardless, our so called "enemies" will find something to blame the gay community for whether it's HIV or not so I personally find your comments offensive. I am an HIV positive gay man and have been for the past 8 years. Stating you do not resent HIV pos men and then state it's inhumane NOT to blame us is HIGHLY offensive to me and I assume to many others.

I have tried to stop blaming others a while back once I realized that by always placing blame on others no matter what the reason is plainly a way of ignoring your internal struggles and focusing on other peoples faults rather than try to help educate and love others. We don't have to be enemies and blame.

Wow, Mark! You certainly have stirred something up, something I did not see coming when you and I started discussing this as two gay men.

I never for a second thought your tone was sarcastic. And maybe I'm nuts, but I think there's enough pride to go around -- both for those of us who are positive (regardless of how that happened, jeez, is it necessary for us to make distinctions based on who was "at fault" for infection?) and those of us who are negative (some because we were lucky, others because we practiced safe sex always).

I love my brothers on both sides of this fence, and I wish both nothing but happiness. I cheer on any poz man to continued good health. I cheer any neggie (is that a term?) to continue to test that way, since we've all heard that the meds can be a bitch.

That you've stirred up lots of stuff is probably good, even if I personally get anxious when around a lot of discord. Good for you. You're an amazing writer and a fantastic video blogger.

Hey - at least you've made people think and react. We can't ask for more out of you. :)

Michael McKeon | November 16, 2010 12:11 PM

This is some crazy shit, I am, and was in Los Angeles all through the 80's when everyone I knew died.

This is a wedge that I just don't understand. FAGGOTS, and I'm a big one, tend to take themselves a little too seriously and this is a prime example.



I don't know what it is but as a neg man, I really adore the poz men in my life...and it's not out of "neg guilt" as some might think either.

I'm not a bug chaser or anything (even the poz men I know find it weird) but they are some of the most tender loving men I know. I appreciate their honesty and I will not turn them away because safety is safety and viral load can vary and many are not aware or honest anyway.

I agree with you, we should have some pride as well. I might get - sign and turn it to a plus sign should I ever get it. If it happens it happens. We just try our best. The medications are better, not perfect but bearable. I might sooner die of lung cancer honestly. I use safety, and often, the intimacy often makes up for lack of skin on skin. (more experience is usually common) It's doable to be in a serologically mixed relationship these days. I think we should forgive the accidents but we should not reward those who are dishonest about their status. Its understandable for a new guy on scene to be scared. Overcoming fear is part of maturity.

I cannot believe how history repeats itself for gay men. Were you not around in the 1990s when this issue was huge??? Did you not read William Johnson (HIV how the uninfected are affected by AIDS); Walt Odets (HIV- Living in the shadow of an edpidemic); Eric Rofes (Reviving the Tribe); the NY Times, and many others who parsed, analysed and made suggestions for dealing with this issue -- all from a critical place in the mid-late 1990s where a discourse among gay men evolved dealing with HIV-gay men. I and a friend (the 1st ED of Canada's 1st ASO in the early 80s) ran HIV-gay men's support groups at our local ASO (AIDS Service Org) in the late 90s early 2000s as a part of this discourse and praxis. The phrase "the sero-chasm of viral apartheid" was central to this era. How can we be more than a decade later and gay men are acting like they never heard of this concept before?!? No wonder it is all a perpetual mess. There is no transmission of information between gay men historically so each new group (and those who missed it the first time) re-invent discursive wheels about HIV/AIDS over and over. Un-fucking-real.

Yes, I've read those books, David. Eric "Reviving the Tribe" Rofes was a personal friend (he quotes me in "Dry Bones Breathe"). I deeply miss his leadership, but he's smiling at this debate, I assure you.

But alas, no one reads anymore and time marches on and human nature being what it is... the same issues tend to come back around. Gay men coming of age don't have the advantage of our history nor have been provided our reading list, David.

Hopefully, people like ourselves with take a deep breath and find ways to impart our experience with others. This blog is my way of doing that.

The sero-chasm of viral apartheid? Speak English, man!

What an elitist post. I'm an Ivy-educated man, and I had to read it three times to even understand your point. And I still don't get it.

Are you saying that since there was much discussion about the "chasm" between pos and neg gay men 15 years ago, we should no longer be discussing such issues? Or are you saying the rift itself should be gone?

If you're saying the latter, I agree. We ought to be beyond this. The rift should not exist. If you're saying the former, I disagree. These issues are hardly played out, and simply rattling off a list of writers who touched upon this subject 15 years ago hardly seems like a reason to be indignant about it being brought up again.

By the way, the phrase "the sero-chasm of viral apartheid" is redundant, and appears not to have been central to any discourse. Type it into google. Yours is the only one that pops up.

I don’t know where to start – as usual I disagree with everyone.

Viral Identity Politics. At the beginning of the epidemic, activists coined the label “People with AIDS” (PWAs) to separate the person from the disease. That term has been replaced with the terms ‘HIV posivite’ (‘poz’) and ‘HIV negative’ (‘neg’) which conflates the person with the disease (or the lack thereof). I’ve even heard some guys say “I’m HIV”. Basing your identity on a disease for which you want a cure is about as logically tenuous as basing your present identity on the changeable historical results of a lab test.

Blame. While blame is essential to legal proceedings, it is irrelevant to health issues. People with lung cancer deserver medical treatment. People with high cholesterol deserve treatment for heart disease. It is only when the behavior is stigmatized that blame enters the picture.

Sarcasm. I like sarcasm but I didn’t feel the video was sarcastic or even an exercise in recreational bitchiness.

New developments. The interests of the infected and the uninfected are not in opposition but generally complementary. It is in the interests of the infected to minimize future infections - part of the reasons for ADAP waiting lists is the steady increase in new infections among gay/bi men over the last 10-15 years. With fewer new infections, there will be less demand for resources for treatment. We are now at the brink of new breakthroughs in HIV prevention (microbicides, test and treat, test and linkage to care, PrEP, and PEP) in which drugs used to treat the infected are beginning to be used to prevent new infections. While this is an exciting scientific possibility, there is a depressing funding reality. The political will to expend the funds has yet to be developed. Besides, most of us have ties both of friendship and Eros across that chasm, anyway.

Mark, this debate is necessary. Thank you.

Things are changing. If gay men our trying to separate themselves from positive gay men then how do those that aren't gay feel about pwa's. I feel it every time I go to the doctor's office or the dentist office, most folks really don't want your around.

Things sure have changed.

There is so much stress on this subject probably here as there. Relationships between people should actually be based on their similarities and compatibility, rather than in their differences of serology.

Thirty years after HIV having become a global epidemic, the stigma prevails for both HIV-positive gay men, as for the negatives that they like or with whom they live with. This stigma acts like a monster, reducing social life to dust, wearing and harassing the lives of many HIV-discordant couples in many countries.

In Peru marrying an HIV+ was prohibited, as recently learned in one of our members there.
Yet, as I read somewhere, 63% of heterosexual relationships are serodiscordant... I don't see why can't we have that number. Or do we?

However it is important to mention that a good portion of new HIV infections could have been originated in people who didn't do the test previosly, or who say they didn't knew the HIV status of their partner and who nevertheless didn't care if their were also protected. Let's not think about on HIV+ gay man infecting negative guys as a prerrogative for deceit on disclosure...I cannot see a absolute statistic number about that anywhere and mentioning, well... it will always feed the monster!

Early detection and protection, must be an obligation to ourselves - self-esteem and self-preservation should work on a daily basis - as to the others.

I think that 30 years of HIV wastage on gay men community - who led the numbers in terms of protection for a long time in this epidemy- it is now producing a part of a cycle that will soon be reversed. Mark Bloch was right, history always repeats its trends, but as we were the first to be aware, we will put an end to it...

Thanks Mark for bringing us this topic.

Luis Sá, Portugal

There was a truce?

If there was any truce at all, I doubt that news of it made it east of Denver, or west of the Alleghenies. I definitely don't get the idea of any truce here in the midwest, except maybe in certain neighborhoods of Chicago.