HIV research conducted in Soweto among men who have sex with men (MSM) found that one in three gay-identified men are HIV-positive.
Adam (not his real name) - a 38-year-old self-identified gay Sowetan - says most MSM and gay men in the township are aware of the high incidence of HIV, and that “everyone” knows about safer sex and condoms. Still, many MSM and gay men find it difficult to negotiate safer sex; and there is concern about the ‘after-nine’ MSM who potentially put their unsuspecting partners, wives and other people at risk.
“I think the problem with men who sleep with men is that sometimes we feel sexual and emotional attraction for another man for the first time … we don’t even have the time, the conscience or the thought to use protection - and as a result the disease is spread. If people are open about it, and they talk about it – even if you are ‘gay’ or ‘not gay’ – you can use condoms with your wife or your girlfriend or anyone else.”
I could not date anyone because I am HIV-positive
Many people are unfamiliar with the unique experience and complex psychologies of MSM and other gay subcultures. Black gay men and their lived realities remain a mystery. They flirt, meet and socialise quite easily in Soweto and in other townships, says Adam. “The thing I like about South Africa is that everyone minds their own business. You can see by the way people are doing their things they want to see that they are gay people. You can flirt with somebody, even if they are straight, they won’t mind. They accept, most of them are not homophobic. You can get unlucky sometimes with somebody who is homophobic and who will tell you off. But in some cases they will tell you ‘I’m not gay’ but they will be friendly.
“They can meet in shebeens and in the malls, and there are clubs in Soweto. There are many movie houses where you can go and meet. I have seen most of the people doing their cruising at Park Station – and where you can see this person is gay.”
It has also become more common, due to economic and other reasons, for straight men to engage in transactional sex for money – something referred to as being “gay for pay”. Adam confirms he has experienced situations where he flirted with somebody, and when it was time to go home they ask: “How much are you going to give me?”
Parallel with this relatively open, safe world, Adam sheds some light on internalised discrimination or homophobia between MSM and gay men:
“I had quite a bad experience with friends who stigmatised me because of my HIV status,” he says. “At one point I could not go out, I could not date anyone…
“It is a matter of you accepting yourself before other people are able to accept you. You can’t expect anyone to accept you when you do not accept yourself – that has affected some people psychologically because they have to lead two lives. They pretend to be negative when they are positive.”
For gay people, like everyone else, love is important. “I look for somebody who will be there for me,” says Adam. “Somebody who will love me as who I am, with HIV. And somebody who I will relate to, and that I can talk to constructively – and say ‘yes, this is my partner’. I personally believe in live-in partners because you get to interact more, know more of each other. Be there for each other like family.”
Homosexual people, however, seldom have supportive role models for same-sex relationships, often basing their ideal relationship on a hetero-normative model, like that of their parents. Thus one finds power imbalances or role play, such as male and female / dominant and submissive roles in many black gay male relationships, or when two men get together sexually.
I ask Adam to clarify if a receptive or an insertive partner is more vulnerable to HIV: “Yes, some prefer to be bottom only, some people prefer to be top only and that would make you more vulnerable to HIV because the submissive one would be taking instructions from the other partner.”
The future for black MSM
HIV and related social and health issues have come a long way. Simply put, HIV was first a “gay” disease, and then it became a black women’s disease in Africa, and now it is generally considered to be “everybody’s disease”. Ironically gay men and MSM have been left behind in the safe sex message campaigns, and often experience inadequate access to targeted treatment options.
Adam’s advice to MSM and black gay men is not new, but it’s practical. “First of all use protection, condoms. Secondly get tested, and if necessary get treatment as early as possible.
“Do not worry about things you cannot change. Focus on those things you can change. There is hope for an HIV-free generation. Get tested. Know who you are and accept who you are. Protect those you love. And join support groups for knowledge and empowerment.”
Yngve Sjolund, Health24
Yngve Sjolund is the founder of CD4 magazine and a consultant for HIV/AIDS NGOs in writing and editing research around HIV, sexual and reproductive rights, gender-based violence and sexual minorities. This article was made possible through funding from the Open Society Foundation of South Africa’s Media Fellowship Programme.
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