The time I told a guy on Tinder that I was HIV positive he didn't believe me.
"That's not funny at all," he wrote. "You don't joke about HIV."
I was kind of expecting this kind of reaction. It can be difficult enough these days to be a gay man living in Indonesia. It's even harder when you're HIV positive—or "Poz" as most people call it. I explained to Mario* that I wasn't joking. I actually am Poz, and I am open about my status. Mario told me that I was the first Poz person he ever met, and then said the whole thing made him feel confused... should he feel sorry for me? (The answer is yes.)
"Most people in our society are still afraid of Poz people and, deep down in my heart, I feel the same,” he said. I didn’t blame him.
Mario’s response was much better than one man who, after saying he’s OK with my status, told me it’s weird that I was still “playing around” on dating apps. “I am human and I need to be loved, just like everyone else does,” I told him, quoting Morrissey. Another man insisted that I should read the Quran more, pray five times a day and listen to more dakwah. Then he told me that he wouldn’t date me because we’re both men. Then why did he set his Tinder preference to include men?
After being Tinder and Grindr in Jakarta and Bandung for three days straight, I didn’t see any profile that disclosed a person’s HIV status, which was worrying. Let’s be honest, it’s quite far-fetched to assume that all gay men on dating apps were HIV negative. Indonesia, China, and India contributed to around three-quarters of the total number of people living with HIV in Asia-Pacific in 2016, according to Avert, a UK-based organization that advocates for HIV education. And one of the most affected populations were men who had sex with men.
Nico*, a friend of mine who tested positive in 2014, said he never revealed his status on dating apps. He told me that his viral load was “undetectable,” meaning the level of virus in his body was so low that blood tests couldn’t detect it. In other words, Nico had no risk of passing on HIV to other people. Still, he refused to tell people other than very close friends.
“The gay community in Jakarta is very small," he said. "I bet all the gay guys in this town will know about my HIV status if I write about it on my Grindr profile."
Nico wasn’t worried about getting rejections on dating apps. He’s more concerned that people might refuse to be near him, drink from the same glass as him, or have a conversation with him. He even decided to not tell his sex partners about this, before or after hooking up.
“I feel sorry for them, but since I’m ‘undetectable’ I don’t feel that sorry,” he said.
The stigma, the fear of discrimination, and even fear of losing their jobs were some reasons why people living with HIV (PLHIV) refused to open up about their status, according to Jonta Saragih, an HIV/AIDS activist who studied Global Development and Gender at the University of Leeds.
“In the ideal world, the HIV status of a person should be confidential,” Jonta told me. “It's up to that person whether he or she wants to open up about their status or not. However, if there is a risk of transmission, I think it is also fair for the person to disclose this to his or her sexual partners. Besides, only his or her sexual partners will know about this.”
Right now, Cambodia, Laos, and Singapore are the only countries in Southeast Asia with laws that can put a person in jail for not disclosing their HIV-positive status to a sexual partner. We don’t have anything like that yet in Indonesia, which I guess, is a good thing for now. With the way our lawmakers are mulling over the ban on gay sex and sex outside marriage, the criminalization of non-disclosure of HIV status may increase the stigmatization to the PLHIV in this country.
To my surprise, while I did encounter some “unpleasant” reactions on these dating apps, I also received some positive—no pun intended—responses. Most of them told me that we could just be friends, but some insisted to take me on a date.
Chandra* told me that he had friend who was Poz. He was shocked at first, but he became more informed about the disease afterwards and eventually realized it's OK to have sex with Poz people, as long as it’s safe. “I think most people here are afraid because they don’t know anything about it,” he said.
Another guy, Ruli*, said that he didn't worry at all about my HIV status. “Why not?” he said, when I asked him if we could be more than friends.
A few men stopped talking to me but others, appreciating my honesty, continued our conversation. Some were curious about my medication, like whether or not I took my pills regularly. Others asked me if I was a top or a bottom, and one guy asked for a dick pic. It was business as usual.
“I think this is a sign that our community has become more aware of HIV issues, from infection, treatment, or campaign. We should appreciate this,” Jonta said.
*Names have been changed.
This article originally appeared on VICE ID.