Dear Virginia…

One of the features selected by The Independent for re-publication in I, its spin-off  experiment in combining tabloid format with broadsheet quality, is the weekly Dilemma and accompanying advice from resident agony aunt Virginia Ironside. Yesterday we heard from Adrian, who writes:

Dear Virginia, Ten years after I was diagnosed with HIV, my parents cut me out of their will, leaving everything to my sister and her children. They reasoned that I would die early and have no children and wanted their possessions to remain in the family. I was devastated and remain so. It’s not the money, but their possessions would give me a sense of place, a belonging, and a remembrance of my early life. What should I do? Yours sincerely, Adrian

Warning that she “hates to say this,” Ironside kicks off by asking: “are you sure that your parents have accepted your sexuality?”

That would be his… homosexuality? Bisexuality? Heterosexuality? Asexuality? We don’t actually know anything about Adrian’s sexuality, because nothing in his letter indicates whom he has sex with, nor how he identifies. The unabridged version of Virginia’s response, printed in the Independent, is even more direct: “Just because you’re gay and HIV positive doesn’t mean to say you’ll die early.” If we read this as “just because someone is gay and HIV positive doesn’t mean to say they will die early” we have a factually accurate and clued-up statement. But Virginia, dear Virginia: just because a man is HIV positive doesn’t mean to say he is gay.

When Ironside hypothesises that Adrian’s parents are “punishing” him for his “sexual orientation,” it is clear that she has assumed him to be a man who has sex with men. Which he may be – and, sadly, his parents’ actions may be driven in the way she suggests. But the fact that it is taken as read, when the letter in no way references sexuality, makes me sad. HIV status is not, and has never been, a reliable diagnostic tool for categorising someone’s sexuality. The fact that people are still using it as such seems to me to matter for two reasons.

Firstly, let’s think about prejudice. Homophobia and the stigmatisation of HIV have been buddies since the ’80s. Like a couple of bullies at the back of the classroom, feeding off one another’s general nastiness, they just need to be separated. This can only happen if we all – however well-meaning, queer-positive and accepting of HIV we are –  keep our assumptions in check.

Secondly, perpetuating the link between gay men and HIV encourages complacency amongst those who fall outside of the demographic. When it comes to risk and STIs, it’s how we fuck, not who we fuck, that we need to focus on. Regardless of the genders and genitalia involved, using protection when one person’s semen, vaginal fluid or blood could enter the body of another person is what matters. Knowing the gender of someone and their partner[s] does not mean that we know how (or whether) they have sex. To believe otherwise is not only presumptuous, but a little unimaginative.

I hope it’s clear that the content of Adrian’s letter was not my focus here. Nonetheless, I’d like to conclude by acknowledging how hurtful his situation sounds, and wish him all the best.

2 Comments on “Dear Virginia…”

  1. Emily says:

    Hm, while I agree with everything you say in general…this could be an example of truly AWFUL editing down of the original letter? I’ve seen this before in advice columns, where the advice-giver seems to be working off more detail than we get…

    It’s interesting that the opposite harmful assumption is that gay women don’t get STIs – I wonder if that’s because we seem to have historically have flown under the radar as people who exist/actually have sex etc?

    • Hi Emily,
      thanks for the comment!

      It could indeed be that the original letter was abridged, though that in itself would reveal interesting editorial choices. If a reference to being gay was cut out, it must have been seen as superfluous: readers would have enough information in what was included (i.e. that Adrian is HIV positive) to draw conclusions about his sexuality.

      You’re right that the possibility of STI transmission between women is often ignored, and I think this is connected to the pervasive notion that if there’s no penis involved “real sex” isn’t happening. Stonewall’s Prescription for Change has some good stuff on this: I particularly value the interviewee who asks service providers to recognise that when two (or more) women are in bed together, they’re not just “stroking kittens and drinking camomile tea”!

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