DO YOU KNOW

do you know

(Photography by Laurie Poole – click here)

I have said from the very start of this journey that I wasn’t going to regret what has happened in my past that led me to this point. That I wouldn’t deal in ANY guilt and that I would be a winner not a victim. I have said it before – no one gave me HIV. I made choices and as a result of those I got HIV. That means, me, myself – I. I am the only person I am holding accountable. But ‘Do you know who?’ is a common and regular question that I get asked by people when discussing my life and HIV positive status. That question pisses off some HIV positive people and I can understand why. I’m cool with the question because I also understand why people ask it and I can always see the huge immediate and potential  future benefits of being kind and straight up enough to allow and encourage ANY discussion.

“Do you know who?”

My answer is always the same. No, I don’t. And It doesn’t matter to me. It’s done now. I can’t change it. Why waste that energy trying to figure it out and drive myself nuts with endless questions upon questions. I don’t need to allocate blame. I can better use that energy and mental capacity to change the things I can. Stigma and PrEP have been the things I identified (even when I was HIV negative) that I could change and drive awareness of. So I picked my battles. They are my battles and I refuse to have a battle with myself. One thing my diagnosis changed in me was my tendency to mope about things and waste my emotions and frustrations on things that really didn’t warrant the gift of my attention. In simpler terms – I went from having a very low tolerance to bullshit to having ZERO tolerance to it!

Another thing that I have said before and that I have expressed my gratitude for is the fact that I haven’t been excessively sexually active this year and although I obviously had been having sex where I and other people would have been at risk of HIV. From the little bit of deduction that I could do, I thought that I could be pretty sure that I hadn’t passed it on to anyone else. There was one guy that I was kind of seeing earlier this year that I got in touch with the day after I found out and he just by chance had been tested the week before and was still negative. As soon as I knew he was OK and informed about the situation and my family knew, I then posted that I was HIV positive on facebook – for 5000 friends. I knew that would indirectly take care of informing anyone else that might have concerns.

But it wasn’t really that simple and that wasn’t exactly the whole truth.

There were 2 guys that I have had sex with in the last year that stuck in my mind as people that I maybe should have got in touch with personally. The first guy – Carl, who I fucked and came inside of at a sex party, wasn’t someone I exchanged contact details with. I didn’t know how to go about finding him. And the other guy – Marco, who I met at a party and spent the best part of a day with. A really sweet, funny, sarcastic guy who I genuinely connected with – even through the haze of chems. Marco was a facebook friend so I guessed he was taken care of.

The truth is I really couldn’t find the courage at that point to make contact. I wasn’t shaken too much by my diagnosis but one of my biggest fears was that I had given the virus to someone else – admittedly without knowing but it still had the potential to kill me with guilt. I don’t like guilt. As life would have it Carl (the guy from the sex party who I came inside) was in my Sainsbury’s local 5 days after my diagnosis! I was not prepared to see him, let alone almost trip over him. I completely freaked. I was suddenly aware and anxious that because of the amount of attention my HIV facebook post got that he would probably now know trough someone else even though we’re weren’t friends. I don’t think I have ever made my way from the fruit and veg aisle to the till and straight back out of that Sainsbury’s in such record breaking time!

I felt cowardly for sure but what were my options?

It’s hard enough to speak to someone you have fucked at a sex party in your local supermarket when you are both sober at the best of times – let alone when you’re trying to drop in ‘Maybe you should go for a HIV test’.

That was back in mid August and over the last few months I’ve let go off a lot of that crazy stuff you do to yourself when you’re first diagnosed. It’s called normalising. But life, circumstances and coincidence weren’t done with me just yet – as I was about to find out….

Last month there was a ‘secret gig’ on at Heaven where I used to work and I was running a guestlist for it. I invited 1000 of my ‘London friends’ on facebook. All they had to do was turn up at the door and give my name.

I was outside Heaven in the smoking area having a cigarette on my own when all of the sudden Marco walks into the smoking area. There were only 2 other guys and then Marco and I. I had just lit my cigarette and he had just lit his – there was no option of fleeing this situation ala my Sainsbury’s sprint from Carl. I looked at Marco square in the eye as he did me and we both smiled and said ‘Hey’.

Inside I was not saying HEY! Inside I was screaming and praying that it wasn’t flashing up on my face like a neon sign.

I could tell from the look in his eyes that he KNEW.

He knew and he wasn’t going to bring it up. I could feel he was going to be kind. I could tell he was nervous but I also didn’t find him as shocked to see me as I was him.  I was genuinely happy to see him again but my smile was pure fronting. I couldn’t allow myself to do anything other than front some sort of cool HIV confident calmness.

No one prepares you for these moments. There is no way to. All you can do is hope for kindness.

It was over to him now. Before I knew it there had been a hug and a polite and friendly kiss on the cheek. I told him that I was really surprised to see him out in a gay club (he’s not out to his family, they are a very prominent Catholic Italian family and not so cool with the whole gay thing). Marco said that he’d seen my facebook post and he wanted to check out the gig – so he was actually here on my guest list! I found this a little bit hilarious too! A non-out guy – at a secret gig for a new boyband that was also being hosted by a drag queen from Ru Paul’s drag race – which he loves!

I was hoping for his sake that he didn’t let his family flick through his Sky Plus ‘recorded programmes’ or the cat might be out of the bag and ‘sissying that walk’! I was pleased that he’d felt confident enough to show up at something that was so out of his comfort zone. We had a really pleasant chat and the usual banter. I explained that my date was inside and that I needed to get back to him. It was all very courteous and I thought – cool. That’s that all done and wrapped up now. Wrong again….

Last week I was invited to the re-launch party of Gay Times magazine. I was pretty nervous because big industry events make me kind of anxious. I’m standing at the bar – drinking too much free prosecco and replying to an email when I look up from my iPhone and see Marco strutting towards the bar! Oh for fuck sake! Like I’m not anxious enough already!? – this dude is here too! I couldn’t figure out how the hell he’d actually managed to get into an ‘invite only’ gay media event as someone who….

A – isn’t out as gay and B – doesn’t work in media!!!

It’s also totally bizarre because I had just been thinking about him during the week and how I was a bit proud of him for deciding to try to start owning his situation and his sexuality a bit more.

I remembered that I’d inadvertently hurt Marco a little bit at the party we met at earlier in the year by too harshly proclaiming that I would NEVER have another boyfriend or even date another guy that wasn’t out to his family. As soon as I said it I could see his heart sink. Not because I’d dashed his hopes of dating me – we fucked that was it. But because I had shamed him and removed a bit of his value and worth – just because he hadn’t managed to navigate that part of his life yet. That was totally unintentional but none the less quite mean and a bit cruel – I should have been more mindful and kinder. But at that point in my life as a result of the pain I’d endured because my ex had struggled with this same thing, I really could not see any valid excuse why an educated, funny, confident, clever and very emotionally intelligent man in his 30’s could not have ‘the balls’ to be out to his family.

Without disclosing too much of Marco’s personal circumstances, after he licked his wounds for an hour or so, he told me why he wasn’t out to his family. And it had nothing to do with being cowardly, it was out of love.

Despite the fact that he was noticeably disappointed by my ignorant and quite arrogant dig at him earlier – he didn’t lash back. Instead he settled himself and afford me the privilage of hearing his story. Which must have been hard for him to tell. I knew it was not a story he told often and I appreciated his honesty, vulnerability and openess. He taught me about him and his situation and more importantly he taught me about me and changed me a little bit.

This is something a lot of people don’t understand about gay men. Sometimes we are in episodes of taking drugs and having reckless sex but there is always a reason why. Usually a very simple and understandable reason why we are behaving in certain, sometimes reckless and often unhealthy ways. For me it was because I was heart broken from the fall out of a 7 year relationship. For Marco it was the struggle to be gay without the option of coming out to his family and establishing solid foundations for himself as his true self.

I hadn’t been in contact with Marco apart from a couple of facebook messages in the few days after we met at that party, had great sex and great conversations. But Marco and the insight he gave me has stayed with me. And here he was at the same party as me again for the second time in a month. There was the standard smile and a hug. I asked him if I needed to block him from my facebook? If he was going to keep turning up to events that I was at. Stalker much???

He informed me that actually my DJ friend Chris who was playing at the party had invited him. I thought – how cool! You came to one gig, met some of my friends and made them your own friends and now you’re doing your thing. I was really chuffed.

When Chris had finished his set. I told him Marco was here somewhere and that I didn’t know they had become friends. Chris then just casually dropped in ‘Oh yeah Marco! I’m kinda seeing him, he’s here as my date’

FOR FUCK SAKE!!!!

I thought all my HIV bullshit and anxiety was wrapped up and packed away….but here it was again!!! Biting at my ankles now!

Marco – a guy I fucked bareback while I might have been HIV positive was now seeing my mate and I haven’t had ‘that’ chat with Marco yet!

I felt physically sick at the series of possible knock ons that I could see unfold in front of me. I don’t know what part of me kicked into gear at that point but it was clear that Chris, Marco and I were all going to spend the next few hours hanging out together. Now was not the time to try to address this situation but it became very clear to me that now was certainly the time for me to stop running. I could see the direct implications this might have on my friend Chris and his health if I didn’t own this at some point really soon. I think total temporary denial kicked in. I would deal with this tomorrow when I could pin Marco down privately on facebook.

So the day after the party, with a stinking hangover and pure dread in my belly, I reluctantly opened the discussion and most likely the can of worms with Marco. It all started very cautiously…

Greg Owen : Hey Marco was nice to see you again last night. I’m pretty sure you know all of my shade was in good humour but just thought I’d make sure. It’s actually very sweet to see you hanging out with Chris..he’s a really nice guy. It is a ridiculously small world!! X

There was a good 20 minutes of messages back and forth. Finding any sarcastic, borderline offensive or shady thing throw at each other before I could pluck up the courage to make my opening. I don’t know Marco well but I know him well enough to know he knew exactly what was coming. I made a pitch with…

Greg Owen: So I was a bit freaked out when Chris told me you were seeing each other

Marco reassured me that he had told Chris that we’d hooked up before and Chris was fine with it but he was sorry if  that made me uncomfortable but why was I uncomfortable?

I still hadn’t found the momentum to drop HIV into our thread yet so it reverted back to me saying that I just get uncomfortable about things like that because I don’t like upsetting anyone or muddying the waters with my friends…I was trying every creative version I could think of to address the elephant in the room without actually having to say it – I got the feeling he was doing the same thing.

Eventually the anxiety got to me and I just took a leap of faith.

Greg Owen: It’s ok, it’s cool. I don’t mind you talking to him about it but I’m gonna be a bit honest now…I was a bit freaked out because I haven’t asked you if you got tested since I found out I was HIV+. I didn’t ask you when I saw you at Heaven because that’s a really personal thing and I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to ask you that, especially in a club….

Do you mind if I ask you if you have had a test since? Because I don’t know when I contracted HIV and we fucked bb. And I kind of really hope that I didn’t put you at risk but I don’t know.

Btw this is incredibly hard for me. I haven’t actually had to have this conversation with anyone until now.

Marco: I have since and you don’t have to worry. 

It is a hard thing for sure but nothing you can take responsibility for. It’s a choice both parties make and in that scenario choices may be skewed

But that’s why you are fighting to put preventative measures in place – like PrEP

Greg Owen: Oh god! Ok….I actually felt really sick asking that question. I still feel a little sick

Marco: Really you cannot take that onus upon yourself. I was of sound mind and choice

Greg Owen: I know

Marco: Maybe less sound mind but definitely choice

Greg Owen: Lol. Ok thank you. I just panicked. I could see a chain of upset linking straight to Chris and I didn’t like the concept of that. But I’m glad it is not the case

Marco: It also isn’t a difficult chain to connect. You weren’t good at board games were you

Greg Owen: Lol. Fuck off

Marco: Hehe

Greg Owen: I‘m ‘bored’ of this game you mouthy fucker

So I was relived. But after an hour, when my anxiety had settled down a bit, something about that last set of messages was niggling me….so I read them back…..Then shit got REAL…..

Greg Owen: Btw – I just read your messages back and I didn’t realise that you didn’t tell me you were negative. Just that ‘I don’t have to worry’ I presumed that meant negative. You don’t need to tell me either way. It’s not my business but I do want you to know that if you are positive you don’t have to worry that I’m going to think ‘you gave it to me’ no one ‘gave’ me HIV – ‘I’ got it – I take full responsibility for that

Just wanted you to know that too xxxxxx

Marco: I did check and yes I am positive. It’s something I’ve been trying to deal with and have mentioned it to Chris

I would appreciate if others didn’t know until I’m ready I guess to accept and share

Greg Owen: Ok. That’s cool. Thank you for telling me. I NEVER discuss anyone else’s status

Marco: Hehe I’m sure 🙂

Greg Owen: It kind of goes with the territory. I need to adhere to good practices

You do it your way. YOU are the only person you need to worry about in regards to this

Marco: I had wanted to talk about it but the most important thing for now is baby steps

Greg Owen: It’s yours to own xxxxx

Marco: Thank you xXx

And you are a great guy. And I Admire what you are doing – That stays on here though, never to be repeated! LOL. I’m not going to start being nice to you

Greg Owen: Yes….everyone’s journey is different and no one does it ‘wrong’

Right for you is right for you

I’m actually really really glad you told me

Did you get tested after you found out about me?

Marco: No before. I had been acting a bit recklessly

Greg Owen: Well, we both had.

You on meds yet?

Marco: It’s quite common these days. Yes – I am on meds

Greg Owen: Speak for yourself – I’m not common! 🙂

Marco: Haha it’s just second nature for you. It’s best to start meds as early as possible

Greg Owen: What meds you on?

You know what, I haven’t tried to figure out the who and when

To me – it really doesn’t matter

It’s a waste of my energy

Marco: Me neither, no benefit really

Ritonavir, Truvada and Prezista

Greg Owen: It’s kinda a bit nuts cus only 1 person has cum in my ass since I tested neg last Easter. And I been 60-70 % top since too

Marco: Most likely that but not necessarily

Greg Owen: Just goes to show – you can’t always box clever

Precum has the Virus so it can be that too

It’s been weird that we bump into each other again

Marco: It really is. I don’t classify that day as a random chill out or sex party

Greg Owen: I’m sure life makes people collide for a reason

Marco: I believe that too! – I did enjoy it. Had a good time and enjoyed connecting, talking, etc

Greg Owen: Wow – so we were thinking the same thing

I’m gonna square too so this is out of the way…I was kinda shocked to see you a few weeks ago… you threw me

Marco: Why’s that?

Greg Owen: Because there is only you and 1 other guy that I thought I should have got in touch with

Marco: It was hit and miss. I had palpitations the way there. Only went because I had my therapy session before hand and agreed I should check it out

Greg Owen: Palpitations why?

Marco: I was just very nervous

Greg Owen: Seeing me (HIV related) or attending that kind of ‘gay’ event?

Marco: Attending that kind of event but no I felt relaxed to see a familiar face

Greg Owen: This is gonna sound weird… We can’t really tell if our HIV was exchanged between you to me or me to you when we met…. IF AT ALL. Could easily have been other people.

But in the oddest way…if you exchanged it in my direction…I’m kind a little comforted to know that the exchange was from a person who’s actually kind of a decent guy

I say that cus I had a bit of a horrible situation/experience with a guy earlier this year and it makes me kind of a bit sad if it happened in that situation.

Btw – this is ONLY between you and I

I don’t share these thoughts with anyone else

Marco: Of course…I confided in you too remember

You can be assured I hold what you say in utter confidence

What an interesting and weirdly sweet thing to say

I guess it’s part of 21st century ethics

There’s your story next time you write something

Greg Owen: I know…I trust you. I should probably explain. It’s more that I haven’t had this conversation before with anyone and it’s not thrown me or upset me. So it’s more a case that I think this is the most personal conversation I’ve had about my HIV. I don’t think I could share/write about how this conversation just played out

There are little bits of me and the HIV thing that I want to keep.

I mean it’s heartwarming to know that we have been able to have this conversation without any fear or anger. And I truly appreciate that x

Wow – I didn’t read your message until now

That’s a little freaky that I was typing about not being able to write about this as you suggested I should lol

Marco: Of course. I understand that you are sharing and want to be there for others. But there’s an element of personal journey to it. As opposed to just personalised

I appreciate this too x

It is a bit freaky we just had the same but different thought! 🙂

Greg Owen: I think you might be right (for once) maybe when I process how I’m feeling right now it would be worth sharing this story. It is so worth sharing. I need to let it sit with me for a bit. Xx

Marco: X

Greg Owen: I honestly have to say – this has been the strangest 24-36 hours

The amount of coincidence is ridiculous

Marco: Hehe what else did you do? WHO did you do?

Greg Owen: Lol. Shut up. You know what I mean – This conversation NEVER would have happened if you hadn’t been seeing Chris

Marco: Very true

Greg Owen: So out of a lot of panic and anxiety came a nice thing. Cus we just talked and were honest.

Marco and I wrapped up our conversation and then I was suddenly really emotional…..

Greg Owen: Ok…I’m not sure why. Genuinely don’t know why but our conversation just made me cry – properly like floods (about me) for the first time since I found out that I had HIV. I’m pretty sure this is a healthy release but very unexpected and I feel really really weird right now. Totally not sure if I should be sharing this with you either but as it was our chat that caused this reaction I thought would. I’m OK just a little overcome. I guess I should thank you.

Marco: That’s sweet and I appreciate you sharing that. No need to thank. It’s being able to share that makes us understand and deal with things

Greg Owen: I’ve stopped crying now!!! Lol. Thank god

I only cried for half an hour

But that was enough

Marco: It Sounds like a healthy release and it is lovely to be a part of. I wasn’t there physically but the communication and bonding are the same nonetheless. 🙂 Aww x

Greg Owen: It wasn’t so lovely for me today lol

It was a bit traumatic

But I am glad it’s out and done now

END OF CONVERSATION

I think the reason I was so emotional that night after our conversation was because Marco released a few of my internalised fears. I could have infected him…or he could have infected me or our HIV could have come from another situation. We really don’t know but that doesn’t change what we DO know…..

We both DO know that we aren’t angry people. We’re not gonna hate on each other.

Instead, we are most likely going to build on what looks like the start of a healthy friendship. Having already established respect, understanding, support and most importantly the liberation and unburdening that comes from being honest….nothing more – Just honest.

I can rest easy now knowing that my friend Chris is not at any risk from my HIV through Marco.

But above all, and this is as honest as I have ever been. I have had a constant niggling anxiety since I was diagnosed. That one day me being cool with being HIV positive would pass and that I’d be filled with some malignant hidden anger that was lurking in the shadows. I was truly petrified of becoming that person. Thanks to the chat I had with Marco – who may or may not have been the exchange point for my HIV…the fact that I didn’t have it in me to be angry with him. That I just wanted us both to be cool, released that horrible anxiety that I have been carrying around and afraid to admit for the last couple of months. I cried a whole lot that night and it felt really good and I feel like I put down a bit of baggage that I hadn’t realised was so heavy.

Thank you Marco and thank you Chris.

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