Alan, I am a 28-year-old gay man. I came out when I was 18 and since then I've been pretty satisfied with dating and romance. I've always been confident and comfortable with my sexuality. I recently tested HIV-positive and now feel like I have to come out all over again. I've taken a break from dating and now find myself afraid of how people will react when I tell them about my status. I don't know what the rules are. What do I say and when do I say it? And, if safe sex really is safe, do I have to tell them at all? And mostly I'm afraid (although I know it sounds crazy) that no one's ever going to love me again. Can you give me some guidance? --Mark
I’m sorry to hear about your predicament. An HIV diagnosis is life-changing in so many ways. Many positive gay men describe the experience exactly the same as you do: another “coming out.” It is complicated and painful. I’m glad you are reaching out for support.
You’ve asked several questions so let me address them one at a time. First, the question of how and when to disclose your status is very complex. Disclosing anything of a personal nature about oneself is a deeply vulnerable thing to do and requires careful consideration of the situation, who is involved, their need to know, your trust in the other person, and how you’ll cope with the outcome if it is not favorable. There really are no established rules about how and when to disclose. It is a very personal choice. Some prefer to put it out there right up front before getting too involved to avoid possible rejection later when they might be more attached to the person. Some prefer to wait until they feel if there is mutual interest and that the relationship is going somewhere. You may have to experiment with both approaches and see what is most comfortable for you.
Your question about whether to disclose your HIV status or not at all is also a personal choice that involves many considerations. My best advice for you is to consider your personal integrity and choose what is most aligned with that. This may include thinking about what and when you would want to know if you were the other person.
Finally, your fear that no one is ever going to love you again doesn’t sound crazy at all. Many who recently test positive feel this way. I imagine you feel like your entire identity is defined by this virus. But with time, you will come to know that you are not "HIV." You are a lovable and complete man living with a chronic (for now) health condition. Also, in my experience working with hundreds of gay men, I have found that most who are positive are fine with dating another positive man and that even most who are negative are open to the possibility.
I encourage you to continue to reach out for support and maybe even join a support group if there is one in your community. If you can’t find one, there is a lot of support available online. Also, be patient with yourself as adjusting to a new diagnosis takes time and self-compassion.
Alan Irgang, LCSW is a psychotherapist and “dating coach” in private practice in Chicago. He is also on the faculty of the Loyola University School of Social Work where he teaches graduate level courses in Human Sexuality. Alan has been in private practice since 1998 and has been facilitating groups for singles about dating and relationships for six years. Check out his website www.alanirgang.com for more information about his practice and his upcoming seminars for singles. Questions may be submitted to Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org; all private information will be kept confidential.