Learning to disclose

There’s no rush. Learning when and how to disclose your status can take time. Sometimes people come home from their diagnosis and tell their loved ones or the first person they see. However, you may find yourself having to comfort the people you tell at a time when you need comforting yourself. It is okay to wait until you feel safe, informed, and confident before disclosing your status to others.

Resisting stigma. Sometimes people use the fear of HIV to justify treating people with HIV in judgemental and discriminatory ways. HIV is not passed on via casual contact, such as hugging, kissing, shaking hands, or sharing a meal together. It is passed on via sex, sharing equipment for injecting drugs, childbirth, and breastfeeding. When you know the facts, you are in a better position to push back against stigma, should you encounter it.

When disclosure is required. There are two scenarios where disclosure is unavoidable following your diagnosis.

Notifying the health department. Firstly, the doctor is required to notify the health department in your state or territory. This is done using a code instead of your name, to protect your confidentiality. The doctor may ask you a number of sensitive questions about your sex life or use of drugs. This is done in order to understand how you may have acquired HIV, not because of curiosity or personal judgment. Keeping track of HIV diagnoses lets us monitor how many people may need treatment and services, and how well our prevention efforts are working in different groups.

Contacting prior partners. Secondly, it is important to contact any person with whom you have had unprotected sex, or shared injecting equipment with, since your last HIV-negative test result. This offers them an opportunity to get an HIV test and commence treatment if needed to protect their own health. This is called contact tracing. You can do this yourself, or a staff member from the health department can do this with your help. The doctor will ask what you want to do.

In both scenarios, the questions should be explained, they should be asked without judgment, and your answers should be kept confidential. If your experience doesn’t match these expectations, you may want to see a different doctor, and you could talk to an HIV organisation about raising concerns or making a complaint.

Telling potential partners. People with HIV have to make decisions about when or whether to tell potential sexual and relationship partners. Some prefer to ‘get it out of the way’ early, so there are less hurt feelings if they are rejected. Others wait until they feel like they can trust the person they are telling. Some do it in person and some people do it online. There’s no right answer and no one strategy that can avoid heartbreak altogether. But it definitely helps to talk with other people with HIV about how they approach disclosure.

Telling people before sex. If you are using effective protection, it is your choice whether to tell a potential sexual partner before getting it on. There is no legal obligation in Australia to tell anyone your status as long as you are using effective protection. Protection means using condoms — or your partner using PrEP — until your viral load is undetectable, and then it is safe and effective to rely on undetectable viral load alone if that’s what you prefer.