Poet DANEZ SMITH on Sex After HIV.
Poet Danez Smith on the relationship that reignited their fire.
HE HIT ME on Jack’d, the Blacker, less functional Grindr. Mutually horny and down for the wham, we talked and sexted his whole way back to the Twin Cities from Milwaukee. I didn’t ask for a face pic. I wasn’t picky then, happy to eat and be eaten. And he had good game, so rare in the age of sup and wyd. Even as a faceless square, he stirred something in me I’d presumed was dead. Somewhere in the body, near love, lives horniness, and for the first time in too long, he had me there again, under the spell.
This was the summer of 2016, two years after I had tested positive for HIV at the Magic Johnson center, in Oakland. That day had felt like a wake— I remember my mother openly mourning in front of my face— and since then sex had been haunted for me, drained of romance, a negotiation at a death-marked market where pleasure felt accidental and undeserved. HIV was no longer a death sentence, they said, but what of the social loss, the sexual death?
Often I’d stare into the empty blue light of my phone at little boxes full of men and die a little bit. I put my status in my bio and watched the messages dry up, endured the sting of a block. I felt untouchable, banished from desire, that I should be glad for what I could get. “No poz,” it became clear, was an unspoken corollary to “no fats, no femmes.” I learned what it was like to be “not someone’s thing.” What it was like to be a thing. I felt starved for even “hey.” And I started to understand why some positive folks keep their status a secret. Being positive can feel like someone looked into your life and said, “You’ve been touched enough.” Stigma births a cancer on the soul. If the blood doesn’t kill you, stigma will try.
In those first years after my diagnosis, I made exceptions, took what I could get, took bad dick from bad men and was too grateful for it. Full of meds and drained of intimacy, I resigned myself from the dream of love. I took my scraps in weary peace. I was going to live—but live alone.
And then I found him. He wanted to meet for dinner when he got o≠ the road, said he needed to eat before eating. A hungry bottom in wait, fasting all day for the promise of strokes, I arrived hunger
dazed and hopeful for touch. He pulled up at the same time as I did, his Black skin bruised purple in the early moonlight. I took in his Negro nose, his
Hov lips, eyes like stones buried in black sand. I don’t want to limit him to the Black of his face, but I loved every curve from the jump. Them teeth looked holy, a smile that summoned my rain. Not to be all Zane about it, but like 40 days and nights of it in seconds.
Over Henny and fries, we fell into a velvety groove, talking about the things we talk about. Does your mama know? How she feel about you? Where are you with God?
We had more in common than just desire. We’d both come up in the church, both spent some years in Wisconsin figuring out our lives. I told him about poetry and the places it was taking me. He told me about his preaching days. I heard my mama fall for him then.
“You read my whole profile, right?” I asked as we were about to leave. “Did you see that I’m…” “Me too,” he said.
This was the year the CDC released a study estimating that one in two Black men who has sex with other men will contract HIV in their lifetime. We sat there, two men on the same unlucky side of that dark equation, horny out of our minds, settled down by the facts of our blood. As the candlelight flickered across our faces, we compared notes on meds and side e≠ects, the things stigma does to the mind, the soul. Why hadn’t I asked his status before? How did he seem so easy around this disease whose constant threat loomed in my stomach like a stone? In an instant, my fear had almost kicked me out of the date and into a depressive spiral. And here he was—cool, calm, positive, and fine as hell.
We fucked good and long that night, not a bloody worry marking the sheets, the plague of loneliness passed over for once. I pulled the Lovers card from my Tarot deck and dated that man to the other side of summer. I loved him briefly but deeply; he healed me up and got on my last good nerve. I got on his. A summer with him— sweating in the night while Greenleaf played on with no audience—returned something to me. A normalcy. A sense of worth. The good dick and decency I deserved. Someone to love until I didn’t. My right to feel desire.
Now, in the middle of another plague, I’ve left a di≠erent lover. Returned into another season starved of touch, I find myself thinking back, a few summers and a few lovers ago, to the night I sat across from a man
I’d just met, readying for a one-night stand that would last until autumn. It was the first time I ever talked about HIV without gesturing toward dark conclusions, a reminder to my then stigma-riddled mind that even within danger, there is room for pleasure. A year into COVID-19, 40 years from the beginning of AIDS, 400 years since the pandemic of American anti-Blackness began, I’m thinking about that man, not wanting him but holding on to what he taught me: In a world, a nation, and even a body that are each plotting to kill you, don’t forget to fuck. Freely, wildly fuck, unburdened and unbridled, as is your right.
HIV was no longer a death sentence, they said, but what of the social loss, the sexual death?