The following is from an interview with James (not his real name) an HIV+, gay male, sex worker, pro-Dom, and former drug user. Thank you for sharing your story, James.
James grew up in a Midwest town Pentecostal family where religion and family were constantly reinforced by their twice a week church attendance. James remarked, “All of my friends were from that church; in fact, I did not know anyone other than church members.” At the age of 16, after struggling with his sexuality “forever,” James shared with his older sister about being gay. James stated, “My sister betrayed me and told my parents and this ensued a shit storm in my life.” His parents demanded he “repent of his homosexual, evil ways and go back to loving the Lord.” However, James knew he could not deny who he was, and told his parents as much. His parents threw him out of the house until “he properly repented and served the Lord.” Alone, hungry, scared with his last $100.00, James went to LA hoping a friend would help.
“The friend was a total asshole and basically had sex with me for a few days and then told me to beat it.” Now, completely alone, in a strange city, and frustrated, James had no idea what to do. Then, a kindly man offered him a warm bed and food. “He was a nice guy…at first he said I could just hang out until I got on my feet. Then he started to flash around a lot of money. When I asked him what he did, he said he worked in the porn and sex industry. This was more money than I saw in my whole entire life.” He became James’s mentor, telling him what porn shoots to go on and what places to stay away from. “The way to make more money was to do it (sex) raw (bareback), so of course I became that type of actor. I was making a lot of money between this and my lucrative escort business. With that came the partying, more sex, and HIV.”
“HIV completely changed my life. First, it [HIV positive status] got me into recovery.” James explained he left partying and entered (drug and alcohol) recovery and has been sober for 5 years. “Being an escort brings its own stigma, but it, honestly, is something I do not have to self-disclose, unless I want to date you…there is the rub…most guys are completely intrigued by my sex work, but hesitate to get involved with me because of it. I have heard numerous times…you are a great guy but I can’t be with (date) a hooker…I ain’t no hooker!” James further explained that HIV is the second hurdle that creates a lot of stigma in his life, both professionally and personally. “I have an obligation to tell clients, if they ask, about my HIV status (James explained he is 80% safe with clients and is undetectable) if they want to fuck raw.” James stated he has been single because no one wants a “HIV positive sex worker for a boyfriend, and that just hurts.”
I asked James two question, which I believe are important and pertinent to the discussion of stigma and I offer James’s answers in their entirety.
Many profiles on gay dating sites have the terms clean and dirty to describe someone who is HIV- verses someone HIV+. What are your thoughts? “I’m not dirty! When I see that shit, I just get pissed and usually say someone. Gay men can be so pathetic when it comes to HIV status. Think about the terms…because I am HIV+ I am somehow defective and should be ignored or worse cleaned up…it reminds me of what my parents said when they threw me out of the house…maybe I am just dirty.”
What is your advice to other young men in a similar situation? “You are more than your status, the drugs you take or the work you do! Don’t let anyone take your humanity away from you!”
In conclusion, James tells a story of stigma and shame from growing up gay in a Midwestern town to being a sex worker to being in recovery to being HIV+. It is estimated that more people delay treatment or refuse to get tested out of shame and stigma, especially if they are involved in the sex industry.
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This interview was conducted by Brian Fuss of the Harm Reduction Coalition