At Vlada, a gay bar in Hell’s Kitchen, a crowd gathered for POZ, a new weekly party for H.I.V.-positive men.
On a recent Thursday night at Vlada in Hell’s Kitchen, the conversations unfolding over house music and beneath portraits of shirtless muscle boys were similar to any others at the neighborhood’s gay hot spots.
But sprinkled among the arguments over Lady Gaga versus Madonna, questions like “Who’s your trainer?” and whispers about the hot It Boy in the corner, there existed small but significant variations on the same themes: the side effects of Isentress versus Truvada, questions like “Who’s your doctor?” and whispers about whether the hot boy in the corner has it. It being H.I.V.
The 30 or so men — mostly white — who gathered at the bar’s second floor were there for POZ, a new weekly party for H.I.V.-positive men. Overseeing and tending bar at the free event, held every Thursday at Vlada, was Jacob Pring, 35, an event producer and promoter who brought the concept to New York from Washington, where he has hosted regular parties for men with H.I.V. at gay bars since last November.
Poznyc.com, a Web site run by Mr. Pring, advertises POZ as a “comfortable, affirming environment with lots of very friendly guys,” where even the D.J.’s have H.I.V. (The party is not related to POZ, a magazine about living with H.I.V., or its Web site, Poz.com.)
Mr. Pring said he hoped the POZ parties, which he plans to expand to Philadelphia and other cities, help remove some of the fear and anxiety that H.I.V.-positive gay men feel about disclosing their status to friends, potential dates and sexual partners.
“Being H.I.V. positive, people are scared to go out,” said Mr. Pring, who found out he was positive in 2003. “They’re depressed. Every time they meet somebody and tell them they’re H.I.V. positive, it’s a big hoopla.”
The fear of rejection or judgment over having H.I.V. makes it difficult for him and other friends with H.I.V. to date, Mr. Pring said, a situation that inspired him to create an event where disclosure is removed from the get-to-know-you equation.
“I’m an attractive guy, confident and cocky,” Mr. Pring said. ”But I meet the perfect boy, have a great night out and tell him, and he’s like, ‘Sorry, I can’t handle it. Have a nice life.’ That’s happened to me like 20 times over the last seven years. It’s taxing.”
Tad Barnes, a 37-year-old film producer who learned he was H.I.V. positive six years ago, said that to avoid the “huge amount of fear, stigma and ignorance” over H.I.V. disclosure he preferred to “serosort,” meaning to date — or have sex with — only other H.I.V.-positive people.
“I don’t deal with guys who are H.I.V. negative,” said Mr. Barnes, who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. ”It’s hard enough to find H.I.V.-positive guys in a bar. It’s not like everybody has a little red plus sign on their foreheads.”
POZ is one of the latest outreach efforts in New York aimed at enhancing the social and sexual lives of men with H.I.V. On almost any night of the week people with H.I.V. and AIDS can find opportunities to socialize in public, from support groups and speed dating at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center to life skills workshops at Gay Men’s Health Crisis to potluck dinners and bar nights run by Strength in Numbers (SIN), a volunteer organization with chapters across the country.
POZ is the only event of its kind in Hell’s Kitchen, a stone’s throw from Broadway theaters and the tourist-clogged arteries of Times Square, said Josh Grimm, the manager of Vlada.
The party is further evidence, said several men at the party, that H.I.V. has become a manageable disease that doesn’t prohibit people living with it from dating or just being open about their status.
Josh, a 29-year-old who declined to give his last name (“My mother doesn’t need one more thing to worry about”), said he was enjoying himself at POZ but worried that such parties — even though there were no visible signs at the bar announcing it as an event for H.I.V.-positive men — could keep away some young gay men who, like many of his own friends, were still not ready to so publicly come out of a second closet, marked H.I.V.
“A lot of times the guys who you might call the cute guys, they don’t come to things like this because they’re afraid of talking about it, of owning up to it,” said Josh, who learned of his status two years ago at the age of 27. “There’s still a sense of shame associated with it.”
Still, he said he would probably return to POZ because “there’s a comfort in knowing other people like you.”
“We have this thing that connects us that’s unique, and in a way special,” he said.