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D.C. Gay Group Battles 'AIDS Fatigue'

Shawn Henderson, 32, leads D.C. Young Poz Socials, an HIV support group for gay men, who account for a large proportion of new HIV diagnoses.
Shawn Henderson, 32, leads D.C. Young Poz Socials, an HIV support group for gay men, who account for a large proportion of new HIV diagnoses. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

For months, the headline of Josh's Manhunt profile read "22yo BB." "BB" translates to "bareback," or unprotected sex. He recently changed the headline, though the message is still clear: Unprotected sex is okay. Members of Manhunt are asked to reveal their HIV status by checking "positive" or "negative" or "ask me" in their profiles. Under HIV status, Josh's profile reads "ask me." But Josh says most men still don't ask.

He's a wisp of a man, with smooth, tanned skin and oil-dark eyes, representing his racially mixed background. He is an only child, reared mostly by his mother. He was teased a lot while growing up, Josh says, and he dropped out in ninth grade and got his GED. Kids called him "faggot," so he tried to stay out of their way. The more he felt alone, the more he chatted online, he says.

Late one night last November, Josh, at home in Sterling, was chatting with a guy from the U Street corridor. He doesn't remember his name, just that he was "29 or 30 years old," looked racially mixed, lived in a "nice condo."

So, Josh says, he went to his place and had sex. He was lonely. He didn't use a condom.

"You're closer to someone without it," says Josh, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used. He's never had a boyfriend. "I try to date, but it doesn't work out," he says.

It was during that November encounter that he believes he was infected.

"I thought maybe I'd get gonorrhea or I'd get herpes or something like that," he says. " . . . I just never thought I'd get HIV."

How could he not think about the risk? "It crossed my mind, I guess," Josh says. "But I just didn't think about it."

Does he worry about infecting others?

Says Josh, "I am careful who I bareback with."

The Big Mistake

Henderson of D.C. Poz remembers that it was on Feb. 20, 2003, a Thursday, about 3 p.m. The doctor was saying that the results had come back positive and Henderson remembers replying no, that can't be. He was 29.

"I was [expletive] off that I didn't protect myself," he says.


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