On March 18, 1986, William F. Buckley, a notorious homophobe and right-wing author, outlined a plan in The New York Times to “identify all the carriers” of AIDS. His plan involved systematically administering an “AIDS test” to everyone in the general population and tattooing warning labels on those who tested positive.
They “should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals,” Buckley wrote.
Buckley’s proposal, among the earliest known mentions of a codified HIV tattoo, spurred several backlash letters, with immediate comparison made to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. In 2011, London South Bank University professor Richard Sawdon Smith told CNN that many people living with HIV may have gotten HIV tattoos as an act of defiance to Buckley’s proposal. For queer men, the idea had some practicality: Such tattoos would wordlessly communicate HIV-positive status to others and make the business of disclosure easier.
Among the many HIV-related tattoos, one has become widely recognizable: the international biohazard symbol, which appears on medical packaging for hazardous materials like viral samples and used hypodermic needles. I discovered the symbol on a damp, balmy day in Savannah, Georgia, when I tested positive at 21 years old. I was a senior in college and was walking to my car after a morning yoga session when I got a call from the student clinic. The woman on the other end of the line seemed disorganized and squeaked out, “We need you to come in.”
That night, I searched the internet for information about HIV for the first time. I quickly clicked down a dark rabbit hole of poz-phobic Tumblr posts, “pozzing” stories, and black-and-white photos of AIDS patients. This was before PrEP became part of the queer lexicon (playmates and friends would not start casually referencing Truvada until two years later). I was horrified that this would be my life — virus fetishists and skin lesions and illicit internet chat rooms filled with biohazard symbols.
I started blogging, and some months later I wrote a blog post blasting the biohazard tattoo. The post, titled “Poz Guys, We Are Not Toxic Waste,” was very angry, judgmental, and prudish. I argued that the tattoo conveys the false idea that we are dangerous social miscreants hell-bent on infecting others — a story some people still believe. In some circles, the symbol is associated with bug chasing (when HIV-negative people seek HIV), gifting (when people with HIV have sex with bug chasers in order to pass HIV on to them), and stealthing (which has different definitions but is widely considered the practice of attempting to transmit HIV to someone without their knowledge). But I wasn’t like any of these people, I argued. This was a gross undercurrent of HIV life I would never touch — a netherworld where diseased and addicted people crawled around in bathhouses and sex clubs. I was not like them. I was “safe.”
A few months later, I met a guy who lived down the block from me. He was kinky, dominant, and very handsome. We started having regular BDSM sessions (“BDSM” covers various sexual practices, including bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism). We grew very close. When I graduated, I moved with him to San Francisco. He believed that AIDS was a conspiracy generated by pharmaceutical companies, and that drugs and lifestyle choices, not a virus, caused the deaths of so many people. With his encouragement, I went off meds.
We lived together in an aging pornographer’s house, where I was made to appear in the owner’s films and sleep in a sleeping bag on the floor. After only a few months, I boarded a plane home. A month later, I found a job in Los Angeles, and while my living situation had noticeably improved, I began experimenting with crystal meth. I lurked through the bathhouses on weekends, having anonymous sex for days.
I met many bug chasers in those places and was surprised to learn how alike we are. I will not pathologize them, as various “experts” have tried to do. They have an extreme fetish, one of many extreme fetishes in the world (many of which involve far more harm than bug chasing). So long as something is done with consent, I can’t condemn it. I’ve enjoyed my own extreme kinks and fetishes and can hardly pass judgment.
It was an unhealthy time, but I learned something important from it: I love the world of sex and the people in it.
I love the queers who get a little high and fuck in the back of a club. Among them are the greatest sexual health educators and activists I know. In fact, it was the friends I met in sex spaces who encouraged me to get back on medication, try sobriety meetings, and pull my life together. The netherworld of sex is fun, and while it certainly demands limits, it taught me the beauty of community and sexual liberation.
One night at a bareback-only sex party, I was passed from guy to guy around a central fuck bench. Two of them had biohazard tattoos. Later, in a corner, I talked to one of them, named Brian. He had bright blue eyes that seemed to glow in the dim red light of the sex club.
“Does it mean you’re not on meds?” I asked.
“No. I’m undetectable.”
“Then what does it mean?”
“It means I’m HIV positive and not scared of it,” he said.
These people saved me — lovers and friends and faces in the dark. I got back into treatment (I have been undetectable ever since), found a support system, and, in 2016, came out about my HIV status in The Advocate. Going public was the most important thing I have ever done. This Pride, I took a final step.
I asked my tattoo artist for a black biohazard symbol on my right shoulder. He didn’t ask me what it means, and I haven’t had it long enough to see what the general reaction is. But I hope some newly positive kid at a sex club asks me about it, and I hope other people living with HIV see it and know that we are in this together.