Recently I was browsing through online personal ads in various online services for gay men. I was surprised at how often the term “UB2” came up. This is an appreviation for, “You be, too!”, in reference to a negative HIV status. It seems to say, in those succinct three characters, “Hey, I’m HIV-negative, and I’m really proud of that. I’ve been practicing safer sex and I really only want to date or hook up with people who are HIV-negative, too. I don’t care who you are, how gorgeous, smart, nice, or interesting you are, if you’re HIV-positive, I really don’t want to meet you because I’m really scared of you and of HIV, because I really don’t know enough about safer sex to have sex with someone positive and not put myself at significant risk. So, if you’re positive, move on, buddy, because you are really irrelevant and invisible to me. If you’re negative, I’ll consider having unsafe sex with you because you’re cool and, hey, you’re negative just like me.” OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but if you read the context of some of these ads, it’s not too far off.
The entire “UB2” sentiment has me really confused. Usually, I try to help my patients in psychotherapy to de-construct confusing concepts and help them to digest them a little at a time, for their benefit in coping with HIV. But the UB2 phenomenon puzzles me, and seems to underscore that there are two camps in the gay dating world right now – people living with HIV, and people who aren’t. Recently I read an article (who knows how accurate the premise is) about how San Francisco recently experienced a rise in recorded cases of syphilis among gay men, raising concern that there was a lot of unsafe sex going on. However, surprising the researchers, there wasn’t the corresponding later rise in HIV infections they were anticipating. The reason, they proposed, may be because gay men were “self-selecting” – meaning that positive men were having unsafe sex with positive men, and negative with negative, in a sort of impromptu HIV prevention campaign that originated with the community, not with professional public health programs. Is this what is happening with the UB2 phenomenon? If so, it’s great if it results in fewer new HIV infections. But it’s an unreliable and risky method, to say the least.
When I see the UB2 code mentioned, I’m always concerned for two things. One, that these HIV-negative men who are admittedly looking for dates, relationships, or just tricks to combat loneliness, isolation, or boredeom, are cutting themselves off from the entire population of HIV-positive men who could be wonderful partners for them. The other concern is that these negative men may be putting themselves in a fool’s paradise, engaging in unsafe sex simply because their partner “said” (or maybe even genuinely believed) they were negative, when they weren’t. This system only really works as an HIV prevention method when people are totally honest and informed of their HIV status at that moment, and there is little guarantee of that. Plus, even with unsafe sex among two positive people, the jury is still out about transmitting drug-resistant strains to another person that could harm their ability to successfully fight HIV.
My point is that if you’re looking to improve your life by having an active dating and sexual life as a part of your overall social support system, you need to give more careful consideration to behaviors and choices beyond “UB2” – the stated HIV status. And, since I’m just old enough to remember a time in America when African-Americans and Whites were systematically segregated, I believe that nothing good can come from an “us versus them” mentality among gay men based solely on HIV status. This promotes stigma, and in an age when 11 states just banned equal gay civil rights in their constitutions, we don’t need any more divisions in the community. We’re all in this together, guys. I’m educated about HIV transmission and the confusing, multi-faceted aspects of the relative risks involved in sexual activity, and I know that compatibility among partners goes way beyond any one exclusion criterion. I’m educated…UB2.