When Mark Flores, a medication adherence and substance abuse counselor in New York City, joined the gay social networking site Connexion.org six years ago he found that although users could create discussion groups, none existed specifically for HIV-positive men. At that time, he says, there were few online venues where HIVers could interact with and support each other. So Flores drew on his five years of sobriety, long-term HIV infection, and social-work training to establish the site's Positive Support group, which he continues to moderate, contribute to, and-most important, he notes-learn from.
What are some of the most common topics addressed on the site?
There have been a lot of sociopolitical topics brought up, but the most prominent are around disclosure. A newcomer to the group recently posed the question, "Do you disclose up front in your online profile or personal ad when you're looking for sex partners or dates?" There were a lot of varied responses and debate back and forth -- from guys who believe it isn't anyone's business as long as they practice safer sex to those who disclose right away to quickly weed out those who ultimately will have a problem with their status. It also generated a lot of discussion of rejection and how to deal with it, which is another major issue for HIV-positive men.
Have the issues being discussed changed over the few years?
One issue that has come up lately is among guys who have been positive for a long, long time and have lost long-term partners -- not to HIV but to other things. They're now in their 50s and 60s, many are lonely, and they're faced with putting themselves back in the dating pool as someone living with HIV -- or even trying to decide if they want to do that. It's an interesting phenomenon, and one we'll see a lot more of as HIV-positive men age.
What have been some of the controversial or heated discussions?
One of the members and I got into sort of an argument over serosorting and participating in unprotected anal sex with others who are HIV-positive [see also "Assumed Risk" on page 8]. My point was that it's irresponsible to even discuss it as a viable option given what we know -- and don't know -- about the virus. His side was that we ostracize those who want the "real" feeling of sex, particularly since there's [very little] risk of infecting anyone else [with another HIV strain]. It wasn't a frivolous t'te-'-t'te; it ended up generating very sophisticated discussions on some very profound issues.
What did you learn in that back-and-forth?
That I can be a pompous ass. [Laughs] It's actually been a very liberating experience for me to get involved in the discussions, share my opinions, and sometimes have my friends sort of check me and say, "Mark, you're acting like an ass." [Laughs] Ultimately, it's allowed me to be not just a facilitator to the group but also a teacher and a student.