Column: Sexual bias and stigma solidify differences in others

When we give into stigma and bias, we limit the potential of relationships.

Last fall, I randomly bought a book of collected essays on queer sex and dating, because I’m horribly inept at both. Queer narratives aren’t usually included in the mainstream, and even when they are, they’re essentially presented as close renditions of heterosexual relationships. I knew what I wanted didn’t match the male-female, alpha-beta binary that many LGBT people appropriated and mirrored. I didn’t require the power dynamics generally presumed in a monogamous relationship. What I needed was insight on what a relationship, sexual or emotional, could be aside from what I had already encountered.

But I had, and probably still have, a really over-determined notion of what I thought I wanted. There’s nothing else in my life that has been as liberating and also inhibiting as coming out. Openly declaring my interest in men was my first public articulation of sexuality at all, but looking back, it effectively brought my sexual development to a halt. I was required to abide by the identity of being gay – that I was a man attracted to men, and that those categories were immutable. As time went on, articulating that identity felt like more and more of an approximation of something grey and more complex. Coming out implied I had a concrete idea of what I was attracted to, but I’ve come to realize that wasn’t totally the case.

Notions of what I thought a relationship would be have been most challenged by one of the essays in the book. The narrative was short, but powerful – two men saw each other out at the bars a few times and finally got the courage to talk to each other. After some drinks, flirtation and late-night drunk pizza, it was clear they wanted to spend the night together. But the man the author was flirting with paused, looked in his eyes and told him he was HIV-positive.

In the queer community, HIV is something I’m constantly aware of but in a distanced way, through condom PSAs and global campaigns to prevent HIV abroad. It’s equally impossible to avoid moral rhetoric coming from inside and outside of the queer community – that HIV is the curse of sexual deviants, reckless needle-users and trashy club kids.

Our fear and skepticism of HIV-positive people (and HIV-positive sex) is not just tied to our potential moral judgments, but also stems from our notions of bodily capacity and ability. Our projected images of relationships and sexuality presume the ability and health of our partner and depend on vague attachments to what healthy sex is. HIV-positive people, despite their “normal” appearances in public, aren’t perceived as people like us who happen to have a treatable disease but are rather seen as contaminated vessels, unfit for “normal” sex without preconditions.

Lack of education on HIV contraction and treatment leads us to be skeptical of how sex with someone HIV-positive would work, and our social biases make us wonder how we would come across dating someone HIV-positive. Unclear standards for what health, ability and capacity are dictate the ways in which we include and exclude individuals from our purported sexual interests. One could be empirically “able” and “healthy,” but be immediately disqualified from normalcy once their HIV status is revealed.

And more broadly, it’s clear that beyond HIV status, our metrics and standards for ability willingly neglect those whose disability is more apparent. Disabled people are often the least noticed and least included in our sexual dialogues, and our unwillingness to confront this is problematic.

It’s easy to write and theorize from an insulated, privileged (and “able-bodied”) perspective about how one might react to being told their potential partner is HIV-positive. But it’s another thing to be confronted with this scenario in real life, and I’m sympathetic to those who feel conflicted by this hypothetical. It takes effort and courage to be able to deconstruct stigma and bias, particularly when our own purported sexualities and ideals have subjugated and shut out those whose bodies we’ve deemed disabled or unfit.

The confrontation presented by the anecdote of the two men, as well as others regarding ability, race, gender and class, is crucial for understanding the accommodations our sexualities are willing and able to provide. These hypothetical scenarios provide a stage on which our sexualities are asked to perform and grapple with differences in others that we might see as limitations. Constantly questioning our sexualities and biases and not just remaining confident that we have ourselves figured out is important in maturing and making our world views less myopic, and maybe more liberating.

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