Ask Allie: When Someone Tells You I’m HIV Positive

by Sarah Rutledge Fischer 

Dear Allie,

My son recently moved back to town, and it’s wonderful to have him near. An added bonus is that I get to see some of his old friends from home again. They are all great kids, and it’s a joy to know them as adults. Next month my son will be a groomsman in the wedding of two friends, both brilliant young men I have known for a long time. I am looking forward to the wedding, but I am also deeply concerned. My son recently told me that one of the grooms is HIV+. We will be spending a lot of time with them and their families in the weeks before the wedding, and I’m just not sure what to say when I see them. Should I express sympathy? I’m not sure I can ignore what I know and pretend that this joyous union isn’t terribly bittersweet.

Mother of the Groom[sman]

Dear MOG,

Thank you for your letter. It sounds as though you have a great and welcoming heart. Your son and his friends must be very lucky to have you in their corner. Let me see if I can help.

First, let’s get some up to date information about HIV. Many of us formed our concepts of what it means to live with HIV during the terrible days of the 1980s and 1990s. The mention of HIV or AIDS may bring to your mind horrible images of terminal illness and the memory of far too many funerals. If that is the case, you are not alone. It is difficult for our society to erase such strong associations, but for many people living with HIV today, those associations are no longer relevant.

These days, with regular treatment and daily medication, a person diagnosed with HIV before the disease has advance to a late stage, can expect to live an active life well into old age. The key to this great prognosis is early diagnosis and regular medical care. This is why there is a continued push in the LGBTA and other communities to encourage regular testing.

Now, let’s talk about what you should say to your son’s friend. Probably, nothing at all. A person’s choice of when to disclose their status and to whom is a very important and personal decision. HIV+ status still carries a great deal of stigma, as even your loving inquiry shows. There are laws in place to protect HIV+ people from discrimination in housing and in the workplace, but they can be difficult and costly to enforce. Your well-intentioned mention of the friend’s HIV+ status could do a great deal of harm if overheard by an acquaintance or coworker.

So, before these events begin, talk with your son. Ask him whether the friend is public and open about his status or active in the anti-stigma movement. Ask whether the friend knows that you are aware of his status. If the answer to either of these questions is no, you probably shouldn’t say anything at all.

If your son’s friend is public about his HIV+ status and willing to discuss it with you, perhaps you could talk with him over lunch or coffee rather than during his wedding celebrations. Be honest with yourself about your own need for comfort and reassurance in the face of something that frightens you. You should seek that elsewhere. Instead, focus on the support and encouragement you can provide to him. And don’t forget that, for him, this is a time of joy and new beginnings.

If you find that your interest and need to help doesn’t stop there, get involved. Friends for Life has many great volunteer opportunities. You can learn more at or by calling (901) 272-0855. Memphis’ HIV Care and Prevention (H-CAP) Group is another great organization that is always looking for volunteers who want to get involved. You can learn more about them at or by calling (901) 222-8996. That should get you started.

Your friend,

To submit your own question, email Allie at

Disclosure Support:

DON’T ASK: “How did you get it?”
The likelihood is high that your friend got HIV through sexual contact. Don’t be rude and ask them to discuss the details of something they may not want to talk about. If they want to talk about it, they will bring it up.

DO ASK: “How long have you been dealing with this?”
If your friend has only been recently diagnosed, ask about what kind of support network he has in place. He may need you to provide emotional support, to help with shame or self-stigma he may feel, or merely remind him that you are there for him. If your friend has been living with HIV for years, his answer to this question will give you clarity on his perspective and what sort of support he needs from you.

DON’T ASK: “How long do you have?”
An HIV+ diagnosis is not the death sentence it once was. With proper treatment and regular medication, your friend will likely live a long and healthy life.

DO ASK: “How is your treatment going?”
The good prognosis of a person living with HIV is highly dependent on whether they enter treatment and adhere to their medical regimen. It doesn’t require much more than quarterly doctor’s visits and a daily pill, but your support and stigma-free encouragement may make all the difference.

DON’T ASK: “Does your boyfriend have it too?”
This question is rude and, for the most part, irrelevant. It isn’t anyone’s place to disclose another person’s HIV status, even their partner’s. Don’t put your friend in this awkward position.

DO ASK: “How can I help?”
Whenever we encounter a friend in crisis, it is important to offer real and tangible help. If your friend is having trouble establishing a medical routine, offer to attend appointments with him until he finds a doctor he likes. If your friend is nervous about disclosing to other friends, offer to help him create a safe environment where he can disclose to other family and friends without fear of judgement or rejection.