Dear Doc, I am confused and kind of upset about something that happened to me recently. First, I want to be clear that I am not ashamed of my HIV status. I have disclosed to all of my friends. And I like to make myself available to anyone who has questions about HIV. So I don’t have a problem with someone bringing up my HIV status with me. Having said that, I was at a birthday party of a good friend last week. One of his friends, who I had met awhile back, approached me and asked how I was feeling.
I wasn’t sure how to answer that question. Had he heard I was sick? So, I just answered, “I am fine, how are you?”
“I’m okay.” And then: “I know it must not be easy being HIV positive,” he said. “It’s gotta be rough.”
“Actually, it’s not. I do fine,” I answered.
“Well, I just wanted to let you know that I don’t have a problem with your HIV. I would still go out with you.”
Now, mind you, I am a patient person. I understand he was trying to make a connection with me. But man oh man, I sure felt like I was being patronized. I couldn’t help asking myself: Do I suddenly have HIV tattooed on my forehead? And is that all I am to him, a diagnosis?
And then I asked myself a question that really hurt: Does he think going out with me would be an act of charity?
“Thanks,” I responded. “I’ll keep that in mind.” (I almost added, "And I don’t need a pity fuck.”) And then I walked away. Am I overreacting here? What would you tell one of your clients in this situation?
I am sorry this happened to you. I have had this discussion with clients many times. I sure do understand how it must have felt to have someone seem to relate to you as a walking diagnosis, and not as a real person. And I understand your reaction. Here are some ideas that I hope you might find helpful:
First, let’s face it. Other people can be flat-footed. One of the things you have probably learned along the road in living with HIV is that other people don’t always know what to say. Consequently, they may say something that doesn’t sit with you so well, if not outright offend you. Nobody likes to feel patronized. But keep in mind that a lot of people are just kind of winging it where HIV is concerned, especially if they haven’t interacted with many people who are living with HIV (or have but didn’t know it).
And second, don’t accept being disempowered. Some people assume that no means maybe, or that you are hesitating to pursue getting together because you feel shy or “unworthy” of their attention, as you seem to have picked up from this guy. This is where you begin not only to feel like you are being patronized, made a charity case, but are a substitute for the volunteer work the other person should be doing with people who really need help. You’ve dealt with a lot and you’ve come a long way. You don’t have to allow other people to patronize or otherwise disempower you.
Gently disclose your reaction. If you’re not quite sure of the other person’s intentions, you might consider disclosing your initial perception of their offer. You might say something like: “Wow, I am not sure how to respond here.” And then:“You mentioned I am living with HIV. I hope you don’t think I don’t have any dates because of it.” Or with a smile, take a more direct approach: “I do get a date once in awhile, just in case you’re concerned about that. I don’t want you to think you have to turn me into a cause.” Humor can help. Or more direct: “You seem to have some issues around HIV. Would you like to talk about that?” Also, consider letting the other person know how their comment makes you feel emotionally: hurt, disappointed, frustrated. Again, disclosing your reaction in a way that mirrors the attitude in which the offer of a date was made can help the other person not to feel confronted and defensive. In other words, blowing up at them, as much as you might feel like it, probably doesn’t accomplish much. It might even be the beginning of a real conversation.
Consider asking for clarification. It as simple as: “You led off here with my HIV status. I’m not sure why.” And then be willing to listen to their response.
But also consider having an attitude of goodwill. Look at it this way, the individual asking you out on a date at least made an attempt to acknowledge your HIV. That, at least, saves you the energy of having the disclosure conversation. Think of all the people who avoid mentioning discussing the topic of HIV rather than risking saying the wrong thing. And let’s face it, all too many people out there are still not as educated on HIV as they need to be. Is this enough reason to give him the benefit of a doubt? And at the risk of sounding like I have watched too many romantic comedies: Who knows, a guy who is a little on the flat-footed side might also have the potential to be an honest and loyal boyfriend. However, if you are so turned off by that flat-footed comment, you have the right to walk away.
Do you feel any potential chemistry? On the other hand, if you feel like this could be a person worth a second chance, then consider being honest about your reaction to his comment and see if he is willing to have this discussion. If so, he might be worth giving a second chance.
And, what about friendship potential? Nobody I know has too many friends. If this guy seems like someone you might have something in common with, consider agreeing to the next step in creating a friendship. Chances are, you’ve developed a good sense over the years of whom you can and can’t trust.
You and your relationships. Insist on being treated as an equal with the individuals you choose to bring into your life. Don’t allow yourself to be made to feel less than because of your HIV, or anything else, for that matter. But also recognize that behind what might initially feel like a patronizing gesture might be the beginning of a dating relationship, or a friendship. Follow your instinct. And most of all, remember: Who wouldn’t want to get to know you?
Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains a website, www.JustGotDiagnosed.com.