Jeff Leavell learned his was HIV-positive in 2013. In an incredibly powerful new essay published by Unicorn Booty, he writes about coming to terms with his diagnosis and overcoming the stigma he carried for years.
“It was one of those moments in life when everything slowed down, when the world felt slightly out of focus,” he recalls of the day he got the test results. “I can remember sitting there [and] thinking, How is that possible?”
He immediately took action. He found a great doctor and went on a treatment plan. Within just a few months, his viral load became undetectable. He also told his friends and family, who he says were nothing but supportive.
“I would be able to live a healthy and normal life,” he writes. “HIV stigma did not have to define who I was.”
Or so he thought.
Feeling OK about things, Leavell decided to jump back in the dating ring. But when he updated his HIV status on his profile, he was flooded with hostile messages from complete strangers:
“Don’t you think you have a moral obligation to not be on these apps?” “You are trying to infect the rest of us. Bitter f*cking bitches like you should be shot.” “Seems too risky, man. Like, what if your spit gets in me?”
Others wanted to fetishize his HIV:
“Hey, daddy, can I get that toxic load?” “I want that poz load.”
Sadly, this sort of treatment is not uncommon. A recent PSA produced by HIV Foundation Queensland in partnership with Queensland Positive People highlighted the horrible things people have said to HIV-positive guys on Grindr and they’re pretty awful:
Through it all, Leavell says he tried not to let people’s ignorance and downright meanness get the best of him, but it was a challenge. He writes:
I want to be respectful: We all have the right to choose who we fuck. Even if it means not choosing me because of my HIV status. I try to remember that mostly this isn’t even about me. But it’s still hard not to think there’s something inherently wrong with who I am.
He started developing other worries, as well. When he finally met a guy, he wondered, “Will he decide he doesn’t want to be with someone like me, someone who is HIV-positive? Will we always have to wear condoms? Will he begin to resent me?”
“I found myself fighting these fears in my head,” Leavell writes, “having to remind myself that no matter what was going to happen, I would be OK.”
In January, he met an HIV-negative guy named Noah. Not only was Noah cute and smart and respectful, he wasn’t concerned about Leavell’s poz status.
That’s when Leavell realized the HIV stigma he had internalized over the years was, in his words, “bullshit.”
“Noah hasn’t left me. He hasn’t pushed me away or told me I disgust him. Instead he holds me, and he kisses me … Noah finds ways to remind me that I am special, and that he wants to be with me. We both find ways to remind the other that we are important.”
Leavell says he’s totally done “internalizing other people’s shame and HIV stigma” and “worrying what other people think of me.”
“It’s not my job to defend myself to assholes who don’t care about science or truth,” he says. “But I do think it is my job to keep saying it, over and over again, as loud as possible: I am an HIV-positive man. And I am healthy. And I am happy. My life is good.”
He continues: “I do not have to be defined by this. I do not have to allow it to be something ugly in my life. And I do not have to feel ashamed.”