What to do when someone outs your HIV status

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By: Jennifer McMillen Smith, MSSA, LISW-S, Division of Infectious Disease and medically reviewed by Ann Avery, Infectious Disease Physician at Metrohealth Medical Center

It’s hard enough to have somebody accidentally reveal your HIV status without your permission. Cousins, friends, coworkers — they’re human, and they can slip up. It’s forgivable.

Getting intentionally outed is something else. When somebody knows you want your HIV status secret but blabs anyway, you may feel emotions like betrayal, shame, rage, and regret.

But what should you do about somebody outing your HIV status? These ideas might help:

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Expect the best but prepare for the worst

More often than not, your secret will remain safe with you and the people you trust. It’s best not to get too preoccupied with the idea that somebody might reveal your secret without your permission.

Still, it’s a good idea to have a plan just in case. It’s like buying car insurance even though you have no intention of getting into a crash.

Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen and then think about the best way to respond. You’re likely going to feel all kinds of nasty emotions and you may have to get them under control. Try to stay cool — it helps to focus on doing things that help and avoiding things that hurt.

A plan is your first step toward making the best of a lousy situation. In the rare case that crap ever hits the fan, here’s some suggestions for what to do next.

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Stay cool

It’s a good idea to give your brain some time to register what’s gone down. You may feel a strong urge to get payback. That’s the one emotion to deal with first.

We recommend you don’t go looking for revenge. That just creates a never-ending cycle of pain and suffering and it won’t make you feel better. If you have to stay home and stare at the walls for a few hours or meditate till the anger has drained away, do that.

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Remember, you’re not alone

Talk to a friend or a family member you trust. Just talking to people can help ease the pain and calm your brain. You don’t have to do this alone.

Sometimes the people who care about you might want revenge more than you do. Although it probably feels nice to hear that your loved ones have your back, we recommend doing what you can to talk them out of going vigilante on your behalf.

Instead, maybe you and your bestie can go for a walk or hit up the local boxing clinic. Physical activity is a great way to clear your head and have some fun showing that punching bag what’s what.


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Forgive and move forward

It’s important to make sure you understand what happened.

Was your HIV status revealed deliberately or by accident? You may need to have a conversation with the person who outed you to make sure you have the facts. If you have this conversation, you could calmly try to find out who they’ve talked to. If it’s only a few people, it may be worthwhile to speak to them as well.

The person who revealed your status may need to be educated about the seriousness of what they’ve done. Again, we suggest keeping your cool.

The most important thing is forgiveness. Now you’re probably like, “Wait, what? You want me to forgive that *****? Heck no!” But here’s the tea: forgiveness isn’t the same as forgetting and it’s for you, not them.

You don’t have to forget what the person did. You don’t have to trust them again. But if you can forgive what happened, then you can move on.

Forgiveness is all about moving forward. It’s accepting what’s happened, realizing it has no power over you, and choosing to move on and embrace your bright future.

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What if it turns into harassment?

Some people have been outed by former partners seeking revenge for a break-up. If this person continues to harass you or attempt to blackmail you, you have options. You might talk to your friends, a case manager, or HIV support group to get help figuring out the best way forward in your situation.

Engaging with vengeful people tends to be a bad idea, so you may want to bring in outside assistance. Should you call the cops? If you feel unsafe or threatened, go ahead.

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Getting outed doesn't have to be tragic

You have nothing to be ashamed of if you are living with HIV. People knowing your status can seem inconvenient or scary at first, but if there are problems from disclosure, they tend to fade away after a little while.

With a solid plan and a little help from people who care about you, you’ll get through it. You can even emerge stronger and more confident from the experience.

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