HIV status disclosure: what if someone reacts badly?

Louis Catania, Patient Navigator, Division of Infectious Disease and medically reviewed by Ann Avery, Infectious Disease Physician at Metrohealth Medical Center

Let’s set the scene: You’re there with someone. 🤗 You love everything about them, they laugh at all your jokes, the vibes are incredible, but there’s something nagging in the back of your mind. 🧠 See, you’re worried about how to approach your HIV status disclosure.

First of all, if someone has a bad reaction to learning about their friend or loved one’s HIV status (in 2024 😲) that’s on them. Some people still don’t understand how normal and safe it is to live with HIV. Often, with a little explanation, they start to understand. Unfortunately, others don’t look past those three letters and are checked out immediately. 😠

There’s still lots of stigma surrounding HIV. That means rejection (or some other bad reaction) is probably going to happen at some point for someone with HIV. It’s not fair, and it’s wrong, but sure enough… it’s still here. Next question is: what to do about it, and how does it impact HIV status disclosure? 🤔

Dating with HIV: what’s the deal?

Many with HIV wonder when-- and even if-- they should tell someone about their status.

First and foremost, if you have HIV, it’s your information to share. There are a few situations that this issue usually arises in— a common one being when thinking about pursuing a relationship.

Remember, it’s your story to tell.

If you’re in a relationship and want to tell your partner, the approach you take is totally up to you. There are two main ways people think about this.

  • 💬Tell and Kiss: Maybe you’ve put your HIV status on your dating profile, or you’ve got it out in the open even before you’ve gone on your date. Either way, you’re choosing to tell before the first kiss.
  • 💋Kiss and Tell: You want to feel out the other person and get a sense of how they’ll react. You’ve had a few dates and even kissed (remember, this is totally safe, because you can’t get HIV from kissing you can’t get HIV from kissing).

HIV status disclosure: the pros and cons

There are upsides and downsides to both approaches. The big one is your safety. Letting people know about your HIV status before meeting them might end up with a negative reaction. At the same time, waiting to tell someone until after a few dates could lead to that “Why didn’t you tell me before?” reaction. 😥

We know there isn’t a perfect answer to this. There are situations where it’s better to be upfront and honest. It’s 💯% your choice, but if someone is going to react badly, they probably will, no matter when you tell them. In the end, there’s a lot of anxiety with keeping a secret, and you deserve to feel secure in your relationship. 💜

Just a side note— things might be a little different, depending on where you live in the USA, about disclosing one’s HIV status to a partner before having sex. There are these things called “HIV disclosure laws. They don’t consider this awesome thing we call U=U (more on that later). If you haven’t heard about HIV disclosure laws before, take a minute to read up on this topic. We’ve touched on it a lot in other articles!

So, what if your HIV status disclosure doesn’t go the way you wanted? What’s the next step?

  • 🚮 The trash takes itself out. What does rejection mean to you? Here’s one way to think about it: it’s not a loss; it’s a timesaver. ⏳ While easier said than done, it’s the truth. It’s better to be by yourself than with someone who doesn’t accept you for who you are. 🫂
  • 💗 Self-love is key. If you’re looking for a partner, it’s important to step back, look in the mirror, and appreciate how amazing of a person you are! If someone doesn’t get this about you, it’s their loss, not yours. You’re never going to let yourself down. 💪
  • 🎉 You’re not the first. Remember, everyone gets rejected at some point in their life. Too short, too tall, too smart, too ignorant, the list goes on. Being judged and rejected because of one’s status is an all-too-common thing for people with HIV. Luckily, there are great support networks out there, keep reading for more info!

In short, it’s not about how you respond on the outside, but how you feel on the inside. Some people just can’t be convinced, and it’s okay to let them go. You got you, boo. 👏

Always remember: safety is the priority

That means being safe during your HIV status disclosure. 🗣️

If you’re planning to tell someone about your HIV status, consider being in a public space. A café or a restaurant could be better than in someone’s home, and you might even want to have a friend or loved one there, too—especially if they know about your status and have your back. There’s strength in numbers. 👨‍❤️‍👨

Nothing’s changed: U = U.

U=U is short for undetectable equals untransmittable. When someone with HIV takes their meds as prescribed, and lab tests are picking up less than 200 viral copies of HIV per cubic milliliter of blood (a really, really small amount), they can’t transmit HIV through sex.

What’s one awesome thing about U=U? It’s an amazing way to combat all those arguments from people that have a negative reaction. “You never know.” We do know, we’ve known for years how HIV works and what to do to keep people safe; U=U. “Condoms break.” Well, user error is a big part of that, and, U=U. “You can never be completely safe.” The science says otherwise. U=U. 🤯

Just keep in mind that there’s more to think about than HIV. U=U is awesome, but there are other STIs out there, too. Familiarize yourself with our Safer Sex Guide. 🥳

Find support: we’re out there

If you want more support for your HIV status disclosure, we’ve got some resources for you to check out, including:

Be sure to look at the Positive Peers app, which is a great place to get in touch with other people living with HIV. Got questions? They’ve got answers, backed up by experience. 👍 Positive Peers also helps you stay on top of your wellness goals—it includes things like customizable med reminders, so U=U remains permanent in your life.

At the end of the day, you don’t control how others react to your HIV status disclosure. But—more importantly-- how you feel about their reaction is totally up to you. No matter what others say, be happy, proud, and love yourself. Enjoy your life, and surround yourself with people that accept you for who you are. You deserve it.