Guest Blogger

Why Are So Many Gay Men Grateful They Got HIV?

Filed By Guest Blogger | November 15, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Politics
Tags: HIV+, HIV/AIDS, self help gurus, victim mentality

Editors' Note: Guest blogger Mike Alvear is the author of Attract Hotter Guys with the Secrets & Science of Sexual Body Language, host of HBO's The Sex Inspectors and writes a sex advice column syndicated to the gay press. He blogs at mikealvear.com.

HIV attitudeIf I hear one more HIV+ man tell me he's "grateful" for the disease because it made him a more peaceful, loving, open, honest person I'm going to scream. Those afflicted by disease --whether it's cancer or HIV-- have taken a pernicious slide toward rationalizing their conditions as something "necessary" for them to achieve some kind of enlightenment. And we can lay that awful trend on the likes of Louise Hay, Deepak Chopra and that whole positive thinking guru crap that passes for spiritual insight.

I don't want to be mean to my friends and acquaintances that have the burden of a terrible condition, but I just can't be silent anymore. I simply can't listen to anyone who tells me he's embraced the virus as a gift because it's made him a better person.

Just last week an acquaintance said, "HIV has given me a new life. I needed it to open my eyes to the joy of living. I'm emotionally stronger and I have a new sense of priorities."

What a crock of caca. HIV as the path to God? The virus as your friend? This is the kind of fertilizer the fields of Ireland long for.

Disease as a gift you should be grateful for? Who thought that up? Probably the same people who tried to console me when my 24 year-old brother was killed in a horrifying car accident. You know, the people who say, "It was God's will."

So yes, just like I should be grateful that my brother was included in God's plan, HIV+ people should be grateful that their virus led them to God's path.

Do you see what's going on here? A complete denial of senseless tragedy. And make no mistake, getting HIV is tragic. See, if you can just blot out the randomness, the pain, the injustice--whether it's an accident or an infection--and put meaning into it, then you can pretend there was a reason for it.

Yes, I learned a lot about loss, family and love out of my brother's death. But to be grateful for it? That's grotesque. It's the same with HIV. Yes, you can learn lessons and become a better person. But to be grateful for it? That's obscene.

This kind uranium-enriched BS has been handed down by luminaries from Oprah to Deepak, but the very worst one is testicular cancer survivor Lance Armstrong who once said, " "Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Excuse me, Lance Armstrong and everyone else with corkscrew vision, disease is not your connection to the divine. It is NOT a rite of passage or a path to God. IT'S A FUCKING TRAGEDY. An injustice heaped on innocent victims.

Look, it's not just the flawed logic that burns my ass more than a three-foot flame; it's the danger this kind of thinking represents. See, if HIV changed your life for the good, if AIDS is the way to God, shouldn't you therefore aspire to get it? Because look! Infection=Salvation! Wow, you mean all I have to do is get a deadly disease and enlightment is mine? Screw those condoms, boys, let's go raw.

Here's what I say to all my HIV+ friends: Don't be grateful; be angry. Don't carry the burden of trying to make HIV your friend. Like all friends, it'll expect you to be loyal and introduce it to your other friends.

While HIV is not your friend, it isn't your enemy either. It just *is.* Learning to deal with it is an admirable accomplishment, but please, don't tell us it's a gift. Or that your grateful.


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Stuff like this blows my mind. Even worse, I've seen a new rainbow "pride" flag on some blogs on the 'net recently: Bareback Pride, with six rainbow-colored sperm. The bloggers pride themselves on having as much anonymous, unprotected sex as possible, both anal and oral. Some even list stats: loads taken, loads given, loads swallowed, etc. The attitude appears to be that any sex other than bareback is just plain wrong and, if they sero-convert and become HIV+, well, they'll deal with it when it happens.

IMO, these people should forfeit their health insurance as soon as they become HIV+. I'm sure that statement will anger some but, let's face it, why should others pay for their deliberate, repeated, proud attempts at suicide?

Well, I've certainly learned something today.

Bareback pride? I can see that kind of thing highlighted on sites dedicated to porn and hook ups, but nothing "respectable."

What will they think of next?

Mike, I don't buy into the "god's will" stuff either - I'm rather vocal about calling out bullshit - but you can't just outright discount "growth through adversity"

Cancer or AIDS wasn't my... I guess you could call it my "stressor" - I had something different, but getting past it has given me an immense amount of inner strength and it's made me a much, much better person.

Grateful? Hard to say. For me, "sort of" - like most things in life, it's complicated.

Some people come out of events like that positively - but a lot of the people who have had "stressor events" in their lives have handled it incredibly badly and crumbled. Some have fallen to addictions, depression, some have even killed themselves. So clearly, it's not always a good thing.
The "handled it ok" people may even be a (rather vocal) minority.

Necessary? I don't know either.
I really don't think anyone aspires to get infected - but I think it's besides the point.
It isn't the disease, it's the internal struggle you go through when you learn and finally accept it that causes this change.
I really doubt that I would have gotten to the point where I am today had life just sort of continued on.

"I don't want to be mean to my friends and acquaintances that have the burden of a terrible condition"

I'm sure there must be a "but" coming......

"but I just can't be silent anymore."

I'm thinking that hasn't really been a concern.

"While HIV is not your friend, it isn't your enemy either. It just *is.* Learning to deal with it is an admirable accomplishment, but please, don't tell us it's a gift. Or that your grateful."

Yes - it's always important for people who are ill or dying to meet the emotional needs of those who aren't.

That's why I tell my Mom who has cancer to stop believeing in some mythical sky god. Because I'm helping her by having her conform to my needs.

Weak.

Thanks Kathy...I've read this five times already, and get so annoyed that I can't think of anything besides curse words...

I'm with CatherineCC.

Disease is a time when one is forced to stop and contemplate their life. My cancer removed me from the mainstream of life, my job, my friends, and also my family because I was in a city far away from my home in Indiana. Unless you're going to lose yourself in daytime TV, books, or the Internet, and even if you do, you have time to think and contemplate what could be the last few months of your life or with luck the next few decades. One cannot help but be somehow different following a disease - especially at a young age.

Heck, I even managed to wrangle an HIV test in 1985 by telling my oncologist I was afraid my blood transfusions from the 1984 surgeries might have been tainted. Yeah, I didn't have the guts yet to tell him the truth.

Good piece here, even if the sentiment is older, the frustration deeply felt, and the psychopathology of denial obvious. The message needs to be repeated: When you wax poetic about the 'gift' of HIV, you are romantically enticing younger gay men to become less vigilant. You are leading them to their premature deaths - if not chronic illness, poverty, and artificially abbreviated sexual expression. Unless you are a millionaire like Magic Johnson, or were in the gutter before an AIDS service organization plucked you out of the gutter after you tested poz? HIV is a losing investment - in every life. The rapture a few denialists experience is short-lived. Eventually; encroaching heart disease, diabetes, liver complications, the spectre of rectal cancer, et al outweigh the glory's of insight and 'finally realizing what's IMPORTANT!'. What's important is a long and uncomplicated life - at least uncomplicated as far as avoidable diseases go. HIV is avoidable - a cure is not at all in sight!

You'll find that there are a fair number of recovering alcoholics out there who are grateful for their alcoholism because it forced them into a program of treatment that singificantly improved their sober lives, making them happier and more self-aware than they've ever been. I'm among them.

Now's when you make the argument that HIV and alcoholism aren't the same at all, because: (1) alcoholism isn't really a disease, but a social evil. (If you believe that, you're daft.) (2) alcoholism isn't deadly. (If you believe that, you don't drink like I did.) (3) HIV is incurable. (So is alcoholism.)

This isn't to say that I'd seek to be an alcoholic given the choice, but rather that I've made the choice between a sow's ear and a silk purse. Alcoholism isn't the best thing that ever happened to me, but the program of recovery it forced me to embrace was. And, I will take the word of those with HIV that there is value in the process of dealing with that disease. It's not for me to judge them or their perceptions because I don't have that disease, and mere "logic" isn't enough to give me the wisdom to second-guess those who do.

Well said. My sentiments exactly. And from the same POV, as well.

bozemanmontana | November 16, 2009 11:12 AM

As a person in recovery, I agree: My alcoholism has shown me a way of life far richer than anything I could have imagined when I was using.
I'm blessed that the majority of poz men in my life are now on journeys that amaze me, and I suspect, amaze themselves.
I guess it's just shocking to some that there's two sides to every coin.

I don't see why you're so angry, Mike. You don't mention whether you're poz or not, so I'm guessing not, so I don't really see why you're so emotionally invested in this topic.

The only thing you tack on at the end is that people who say they're "grateful" for disease/HIV/adversity/cancer will spread it willfully to others. I kinda thought we got over the stereotype that people with HIV try to get as many people infected as possible, but it's 2009, you wrote this, and here we are.

All I can say is that some people find comfort in that. I know Barbara Ehrenreich has a book out on this topic, which I'm guessing was the inspiration for this blog post, but she's talking about something different: when people try to force the "I'm happy I have cancer!" mentality on others. Which may or may not apply to HIV, and which may actually work for some people.

And Barbara's big point is that the reason we expect sick people to remain positive is because we're emotionally immature in America and can't deal with people who are sad, angry or depressed. She's trying to get people to deal with sick people's feelings instead of trying to dictate to others how to feel. Which is, ultimately, what you're doing here.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | November 16, 2009 8:47 AM

Your empathy is why your so angry Mike. Your annoyance is that people who screwed up and got the HIV antibody should have known better since 2000 if not much sooner. There are sociopaths who *will spread the disease* to others if they get the chance so use a damned condom and be very choosy about who you spend time with.

The reason I expect to keep my terminally ill partner positive emotionally is that it is easier on him, although it can be harder on me. If that is my immaturity in dealing with my 80 year old partner, at age 56, so be it. The cards we are dealt vary, but have to be played in any event.

There is nothing to be grateful for in having any disease. Moreover there is *nothing to gain from acquiring a preventable disease*! Losing a friend this year to cancer while striving to be positive for another friend with cancer I can only suggest determination and anger as reactions to disease.

Not sympathy, nor enlightenment, not anticipation of angels, and certainly not understanding from anyone who does not have your problems.

YIPES! A commenter here wrote; 'I don't see why you're so angry, Mike. You don't mention whether you're poz or not, so I'm guessing not, so I don't really see why you're so emotionally invested in this topic.'
Just want to say; HIV remains a deadly issue that ALL gay men should remain angry about regardless of sero-status. If more people were 'emotionally invested' - yes, angry vs. feel good crapola - we might have a chance of licking this disease from within our rank and file. Comments like those above go beyond the pale of my own anger; they leave me utterly appalled.

Wow, that's some wicked reading comprehension skillz.

I didn't ask why he was angry about HIV/AIDS. I asked why he was so angry/invested in the fact that some people grow and come to peace with HIV. You know, like, the point of his post.

But I just read your comment above and you seem to be in the "If we ever say that HIV+ people have anything good in their lives, then gay kids will become voluntarily infected." It totally makes sense as an argument; when Maya Angelou wrote about how being sexually assaulted taught her, eventually, the power of language, budding writers everywhere ran out to be raped.

What a hateful, misinformed, UN-empathetic piece of "CACA" this post is. As an HIV+ person (for the last 14 years) I am supposed to go around being in a stage of rage and anger? I am not supposed to make the best of it, to grow from it, to be grateful for what I have (as opposed to what I don't?) The writer, and all those that agree with him, have SERIOUS issues of their own - look in the f-ckin mirror, and take your hateful gaze off of me and the millions of others around the world who have this disease and are just trying to survive, and dare I say, thrive.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | November 16, 2009 10:48 AM

Jim, when I say "get angry" I mean do not capitulate and give up. So many have and before the "cocktails' arrived we watched friends die. Be angry at the HIV, not others and do your best to overcome.

Yes Jim, thrive by all means. I think the point of this posting is to the quite young who consider HIV infection inevitable (and HIV a controllable condition like diabetes) so they practice unsafe sex anyway. It is not an attack on you, but a wake up call to them. Stay healthy and take a piece of my love with you.

Thanks for the discussion. Cancer survivor here, at least for now. Things I got from cancer: years of agony, career in toilet, temporary and permanent side effects, stress on family and friends, bankruptcy, limits on future health insurance. Yes, I also appreciate each day. But that's "trying to make lemonade." Cancer itself sucks. HIV must, too.

Heard one HIV+ acquaintance say to another, "I haven't been wearing condoms. I'm certainly not going to start NOW." I was shocked at his cavalier attitude toward himself and others. I say: access the medical care available, take good care of yourself, and wear condoms. It's asking so little - so much less than chemo or radiation.

I also don't hear people address the financial loss to our community. The money spent on HIV care could be applied to political activism, literacy, homeless LGBT youth, the arts, etc. It's possible to achieve enlightenment without catching an incurable disease.

With all due respect, your credibility is curtailed by your arrogance and naivete, and you miss the point.

HIV did not bring me to God. HIV did not make my life better. HIV did not (insert whatever Precious Moments expression you like). Dramatically experiencing my mortality did that.

This illness also gave me (again dramatically) an understanding of my own ability to write my own ticket, empowered my choices and emboldened my resolve to live a life of purpose, service and personal integrity.

At a crossroads, we all get to make choices.
Personally, I chose gratitude for my life over anger toward my disease.

That's the point.

This post has me wondering how much thought and research go into deciding who gets a "guest blogger" spot.

On his blog, on November 9, 2009 at 4:11pm, Mr. Alvear published a post praising Barbara Ehrenreich's "Bright Sided, How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America." (While you're at it, check out his trans-phobic, racist, and misogynistic post of November 6. Equal rights should take a back seat to an undisturbed workplace?)

The guy read a book and liked it. He's applying what he read to his most immediate and emotional topic--HIV. That, taken together with his emotional tone and the lack of depth in his analysis, lead me to assign negligible import to this piece and these views. This is all knee-jerk reaction and badly connecting the dots, with very little rational thought.

It's disappointing, because this kind of ill-considered ranting seriously detracts from Bilerico's otherwise generally high quality of material.

Mr. Alvear, who are you to criticize how people process and handle a dread disease? Who are you to impose your coping mechanisms and beliefs on other people? What business is any of this of yours?

Generally it's the fundamentalist Christians who so stridently declare how I should be thinking and living, and of what I should be ashamed, not other queers.

What in the world is going on in your life that you have so much anger? Why do you think it's okay to channel that anger into this topic, one which is apparently not a personal issue for you?

I don't happen to feel that HIV was given to me by god, or any of the other spiritual beliefs you mention here. I must acknowledge, because it is the truth, that HIV was a catalyst for many positive (pardon the pun) changes in my life. I live healthier. I have a better appreciation of every moment I am lucky to get. My friendships and family relationships were tested; those who are good influences on my life are closer than ever, and those who were not have withdrawn.

Would I prefer, and would my life be longer and healthier, if I did not get HIV? Yes, probably. However, there is no way to know for sure, and there is no changing what has happened. I move forward, taking what strength I can from the ordeal of the disease, and minimizing its negative effects.

My approach is valid and effective for me, a fact which is not open to debate or criticism, and certainly not insults. If you think you have a better approach, propose it with kindness and at least an apparent desire to help.

Until then, I'm glad you've read a book. I hope you open your mind to the idea that perhaps this book wasn't the answer to all life's difficult situations. In the meanwhile, I hope your platform doesn't get any larger for propagating your insulting and heartless words.

Christian,

I totally agree with your observations. Mr. Alvear seems to have no credentials to write the nonsense he has written. I have thought about his column for 24-hours and I still come up with the same statement you made: "What business is any of this of yours?"

If the purpose of this arrogant column by Mr. Alvear was to provoke a few PLWHA, he succeeded. But, to what end?

"Please don't tell me it's a gift. Or that you're grateful." I guess it depends on your definition of gift. Some gifts are downright awful. The reaction to becoming HIV+, or results from it, are personal, individual and highly variable and you have no right to tell anyone how to feel about it or talk about it unless you are speaking from personal experience as a poz man. So STFU, and listen.

the two cents i would add in here come from having leapt the divide between negative and poz in a surprise result on my annual HIV test four years ago.

what i learned:
no matter how intimately hiv negative people have been involved with the full horrors of hiv disease in the classical era, they have no idea what it is like to be hiv positive and have no business commenting on "the right way" to learn to live with it.

as a new york gay man and as the physician in our extended homo network all through the worst of the crisis, i thought i had some idea of what it would be like to be poz. stepping into PozLand with both feet, i discovered that i was profoundly wrong. and the adjustment to living in PozLand was complex, profoundly painful, and confusing. and completely different from what i had imagined. today i'm doing well, emotionally and medically, but it is absolutely nothing like what i imagined.

this guy writes like he has some profound wisdom on the matter and, in truth, he has no understanding of what it all means, let alone of what an appropriate response "should" be.

in a more global sense: it is often pain and suffering that teaches us our most important life lessons. if he doesn't know that, its because he's too young and too lucky. something that is to be envied and not envied, both...

While not exactly "thankful" that I have HIV, I will say that before I contracted it, I wasn't exactly the most involved person when it came to LGBT issues.

Now

Honestly, that probably wouldn't have happened when I was a highly paid studio executive with the big house on the hill and the Audi in the driveway.

Am I happy I have HIV? No. Have I made the best of a difficult "situation"? Yes.

Just need to clear up some more BS in these comments:

FYI - the VAST MAJORITY of people with HIV, including gay men with HIV, do all they can to protect their partners from HIV infection. The myth that ppl with HIV are reckless and selfish about the kind of sex they have is just that a MYTH.

FYI #2 - many HIV+ poz guys in fact don't use condoms - with OTHER POZ GUYS. There is no risk for re-infection here, and recently published research shows that re-infection and super-infection are highly unlikely. New research also has shown that a POZ guy being exposed to his POZ partner's semen can actually increase the functioning of his immune system...

thanks Jim, you just saved me from having to go all Poz Prevention on this comment thread's ass.

I appreciate your thoughts, Mike.

For me this taps into a broader experience -- people looking inside themselves, as well as at others, to say, "something difficult has happened, but that's OK, because something much better will follow as a result." So, one friend pats another's hand, offering false promises that great things are pending. And, some hurting folks cope by using a mantra about everything happening for a reason and all suffering bringing a deeper reward some day.

Framing life that way hasn't been workable or authentic for me. Too often, I've seen it used to short-circuit directly facing and acknowledging the weight of whatever the difficult thing is. If the suffering belongs to someone else, the "every bad thing will be used for a purpose" and "when God shuts a door, a window is opened" cliches are designed to comfort the comforter, not the sufferer.

Rationally owning up to what has been lost is what gets compromised in the midst of this. Voices of honest grief are silenced amidst the chorus of those who feel blessed to be cursed. From the sidelines, those who have yet to feel the sting grow complacent because, even if the worst happens, life appears to get better and more meaningful.

I lost my partner to suicide years back. Another guy in my shoes might have found peace with a sense that it was somehow meant to be, or great lessons afterward compensated. My peace has come from accepting that losing him was a bad thing which served no higher purpose.

It's great that some people living with HIV mark it as leading to growth and a more meaningful life.

It also makes sense to hear from those who find that HIV sucks, who challenge the conventional wisdom of "HIV made me a better person," and believe that equally valuable lessons would have been learned without it.

hisurfadvisory | November 17, 2009 3:11 AM

Every new infection is preventable. Period. There is nothing to feel good about in that statement knowing what we know. We shame the memories of those that have gone before us with our complacency.

Realizing that our biological imperative trumps logic, reason, 25 years of AIDS education and constant media bombardment is not the stuff of feel good after school specials. The author obviously gets that -- although clumsily.

The time to examine our feelings has not yet arrived. We must first examine if our individual actions or inaction make us part of the problem or part of the solution.

You give the author more credit than I. The author conflates prevention with treatment and compassion with inaction. The best that can be said is that he is concerned - but that he expresses those concerns in shallow thoughts. Emotionally, his expressive tone is he-man drag over a drama queen heart.

The idea that HIV is spread simply via individual behavior is simplistic. There are strong structural forces at play here. For instance, gay black men engage in less risky behavior compared to white gay men - but have much higher rates of HIV infection in their communities. Their individual behavior is not the sole driver there, obviously.

The expanding rates of HIV among gay men in the United States also speaks to the need for new prevention technologies - such as oral prevention (pre-exposure prophylaxis), topical prevention (microbicides) and vaccines - in addtion to further exploration of sero-adaptive techniques - such as having sex with only people of same serostatus, strategically positioning (e.g. poz guy is bottom, neg guy is top during unprotected sex), withdrawal, and others. Some research also shows that poz people with undetectable viral loads and no STDs are at extremely low risk of passing on their infection.

Condoms cannot be the only answer. Many of us are not able, or don't want to use them. We MUST have options for them.

I think you should not be so angry at these people. Yes, they made a mistake, and yes, it is a burden to them, but they have to live with this horrible infection. Imagine for yourself, I you had a sour attitude every day because of a mistake you made in the past. Life would be very painful and unbearable. They have to make the best of their lives, and if they can find some good in a horrible, life-threatening infection, then that is all the better for them. I don't think you should be so judgmental against these people, and rather, you should offer them condolence.

What should it matter to you how people choose to deal with their illness? It is not your business. Why should anyone care what you think about it? What a jerk.

this guy has made a straw man argument. he's twisted a sentiment i hear often ("i wish i hadn't become HIV+, BUT living with HIV tends to lead me to actively reflect on my life more often and, in so doing, i think my awareness of my self, my choices, my values, my hopes, my priorities has grown.") and mutates it into something i hear rarely, if ever ("hooray for HIV! it's the best! yay yay yay!") so he can knock it down. it makes me long for smart, gentle debate.