Earlier this year, gay porn star and escort Kayden Gray posted a video on his YouTube channel where he told fans that he is HIV positive and undetectable. Ahead of World AIDS Day 2017, Kayden spoke to Luke Till about managing his mental health, status disclosure and how learning to live with HIV has made him a happier, healthier person.
Hi Kayden, how are you?
I am good. I’m not too bad… Actually I’m a little depressed, but I’ve been depressed for most of my life. I do deal with it; I go to therapy and these days I’m realising that HIV has not… It’s contributed to it but it’s not itself that bigger deal. But because I came out as HIV positive this year I’ve started dealing with it, finally. It’s also very public, which I guess isn’t ideal, but it’s my doing.
Do you see a counsellor regularly?
Yeah I do, at 56 Dean Street, and he’s amazing.
And how have things been since you went public with your status?
I had a bit of a meltdown initially because I’d kind of buried the problem and [since] I’ve been forced to deal with it on daily basis – actually facing living with a virus that’s high contagious if not treated. And that does something to your head and it’s something you have to deal with because living in denial I don’t think is healthy. And this is regardless of what job you do.
So has it felt like a weight’s been lifted off your shoulders?
It has, yeah. But it’s been a gradual process.
You said in your HIV ‘coming out’ video that you were diagnosed positive three and half years ago, and nine months into your porn career – had you tested regularly up until that point?
Yeah. I’ve had to. Not because of my work, but because I was very promiscuous. I had a lot of sexual partners. After I broke up from my boyfriend at the time I kind of went crazy…
In the period leading up to you being diagnosed?
Yeah. And I’ve always had a lot of sexual partners, up until now, but now it’s just work; in the past I was exploring and having a lot of sex. And some of it was obviously unprotected. But I had been getting tested regularly.
In the video, you said you contracted HIV at a sex party where you had unprotected sex with multiple guys, and then you said that afterwards you ‘got sick’. How did that manifest itself?
Was it like a heavy cold?
No… Which is why it was very confusing to the doctors I saw. Some people have asked me, ‘Why didn’t you get tested [for HIV]?’ And I say ‘I did get tested’, but obviously I was still in the window period where the virus is undetectable. I couldn’t be sure what it was, but I had a very strong feeling it was HIV. It kind of looked like a cold, then I got better, then it got so bad that my digestive system got really affected, I think I had gastroenteritis. And I should have been hospitalised, like I did when I was on PEP once and Kaletra just destroyed my insides. I should have been hospitalised but I was unlucky enough to not have registered with a doctor because I’d just moved towns.
You just said you kind of suspected it was HIV, which leads me to my next question, which is: how did you feel when you were told that you had HIV?
I wasn’t surprised. I took it pretty well. There were some tears but I didn’t break down. I immediately started to think what I could do so that other people don’t end up in my place, because it’s not necessary. And I think I started burying my issues then, so I felt like no one will ever love me again, no one will ever want to have sex with me – and I didn’t have sex for a long time afterwards. I think I felt lonely. Yeah. Very lonely. Probably the most alone I have ever been. I guess I didn’t have the support system I have now. I think it’s a very important message to know that that support system exists and you can have access to it.
Some people might say that you must have known the risks you were taking when you were getting fucked bareback by several guys, strangers, at a sex party…
So why did you take those risks?
This is a very big question; why do people do anything really? Because a lot of the time humans like to think that we are such reasonable creatures, when in fact most of the decisions we make are… In psychology you have two systems: system one, which is instinctual, intuitive and full of biases; and system two, which is logical thinking. And a lot of the decisions we make, we make impulsively. And that’s what that was. I didn’t understand why I was doing those things. Now, in retrospect, I see that it was because I wanted to explore, I was curious, and – I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in saying this – but when you connect with another person, and you’re high, things like condoms and safety are not really that present. At some point I thought ‘I shouldn’t be doing this’, but obviously it wasn’t enough to deter me.
Do you think something like low self-esteem or when one questions one’s self-worth, can those lead to someone taking risks with their sexual activities?
Yes, I do believe so.
Was this the case with you?
Definitely. I’ve had low self-esteem since I can remember, and that’s still the case. It’s better now, but it’s always been questionable. First of all, I think that’s where drugs come into it, because they absolve you of those fears and inhibitions, and you don’t worry about whether people like you because, especially on the party scene; it’s an environment where you feel accepted, you don’t worry so much about what you look like, you’re not so anxious, you can actually enjoy yourself, which is why I’ve done a ton of drugs in my life.
The second point is when you have issues with your self-esteem or any mental health issues that are affecting how you value yourself, you feel like the kind of sex you’re negotiating isn’t going to be received well, so you don’t risk it. And I knew that at the party – and this is not me blaming anyone, because I totally like unprotected sex, a lot – but people were a little pushy towards it. And I didn’t have enough guts to actually negotiate; I didn’t think it was a very sexy thing to do, so I just went with it.
So there was circumstantial pressure?
Yeah, but it’s not from anyone in particular. Sexual health isn’t something you talk about in open conversation. Even if you go to a party where everyone is HIV positive, a lot of people are still very apprehensive towards the conversation about it. It kind of ruins the whole thing. Brings you back to reality. And talk of a condom does exactly the same thing.
So there wouldn’t be a conversation around anyone’s status?
It’s a heavy burden on someone’s psyche to be HIV positive because of the enormous stigma that still surrounds a diagnosis like that. And I’m not saying anyone is wrong to do what they’re doing, people have all kinds of ways of dealing with it or not dealing with it, but part of the survival and preservation of your mental health is denial, and so a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. And I’ve been there. I was having sex, I wasn’t using protection, my viral load was very low – close to undetectable and then undetectable – and I didn’t tell anyone. So I’m guilty of that too.
What has been the most challenging thing you’ve had to overcome about living with HIV?
It has emphasised my attitude to myself. It has clarified how low my self-esteem was, how weak it was. A lot of very basic human flaws crystalised in me. It’s a challenge to deal with and we’re scared of it for a reason, because there used to be no medication and we’re still living with the ghosts of that time. And I was ill prepared to deal with my own diagnosis. All my skeletons came out of the closet because of it.
Do you think that you thought would get HIV at some point?
I think so, yeah. I hoped I wouldn’t. I think this is where denial comes into it again because I preferred not to think about it. I really wish that our community was at the stage back then where we could talk about this really openly, because this is only just beginning. It takes a lot of education and conversation to take away all the damage that has been done by HIV and AIDS. There’s a lot of damage control you can do now. You can take PrEP. If you’re comfortable you can have conversations about it. I was doing none of the sort. And I didn’t even go on PEP, because again I was uneducated about the fact that I could have had the [PEP] medication changed. I didn’t think that was possible. I spent a month on Kaletra, after which my digestive system has never been the same again, but that was years ago. So instead of going on PEP again, I thought I’d chance it, because I thought I was going to be so sick again.
So you took PEP years ago?
About six years ago.
But then at the point when you really thought you needed it again…
I didn’t. I should have. Had I known I could negotiate what medication I could take, that it could be adjusted to my body, I would have done it. But I didn’t know that.
Why did you decide to acknowledge your status publicly back in May?
Because I think it’s necessary. I have HIV positive friends who are really warming up to the fact that I’m doing it, because they are so uncomfortable with themselves having HIV. And there is so much silence. Again, I understand why it’s there, because I’ve been there, I understand the fear. But I’ve stopped being scared. Impulse has played a big part in that, David Stuart as well; he’s become a very good friend of mine. Knowing these people, seeing that part of the community, took away my fear. I was in the position to do it mentally, so that’s why I did it.
Do you wish more positive guys would be vocal about their experiences?
I do wish so and I believe it’s going to happen. Someone needs to lead the way. I’m not scared, so it makes sense for me to open up about it. I wouldn’t want anyone who’s not ready for it to come out publicly because it could destroy them.
You started treatment pretty much immediately, is that right?
Yeah, within four weeks I was on treatment.
How did you find taking the treatment?
It was fine. I actually started working in Ku Bar three days after I found out, minus ten kilos of my original weight, tiny, scared, paranoid, I felt like I had [my status] tattooed on my face and that everyone knew.
Did you have any side effects from the medication?
I did. I had diarrhoea on and off, mostly on, for over three and a half years.
Wow. So the whole time you’ve had HIV?
Yeah. And it was caused by the meds. Now I’m at Dean Street and they changed my meds and now [the diarrhoea] it’s over. I have no more diarrhoea. It’s like a new body. Previously I had my care somewhere else and even though I told them regularly that I had diarrhoea, there was always an excuse why they wouldn’t take me off those drugs. And they were a research team so they really insisted that I stay on the medication, even told me that I had a high resistance and that I may not be able to be on any other drugs. Now it turns out I have no resistance, never have, so I was actually lied to. Which is infuriating because I had diarrhoea for three and a half years and I had no power over what medication I was taking.
How long have you been undetectable?
It took me about nine months because my viral load was very large. It was over two million. And I was also doing a lot of drugs at the time, sometimes missing my doses – not a good idea if you’re not undetectable. Missing your doses is never a good idea, but especially when you’re transitioning from seroconversion to undetectable, you need to be regular with your HIV drugs, because while recreational drugs may not necessarily interact with the HIV meds, if you’re partying a lot they will make you forget. You need to take care of yourself and I didn’t do that very well, so it took me about nine months. I’ve made all kind of bad choices. And I still do, sometimes.
But generally you take better care of yourself now than you did three and a half years ago?
Oh for sure. And therapy really helps too because it’s helped me appreciate myself and be kinder to myself now. I’ve definitely turned a corner.
Good. Has your diagnosis affected your career?
Yes. There are still some studios that won’t shoot an HIV positive actor. Most studios reacted wonderfully, they’ve been very supportive, and I don’t really have much to worry about. But some people are more apprehensive about watching me because it’s not so much fun anymore, because I’m HIV positive. Some clients as well; I’ve made a rule this year that I tell everyone I’m HIV positive and undetectable, we have that conversation, and I’ve lost some clients because of that. After I published the video I had the two most quiet months I’ve ever had since I started taking it seriously and advertising and so on. But that passed. Some people said ‘You know what, I can’t’, and then they came around and said ‘The fact that you actually told me made me research and I understand it now, so why don’t we meet?’ So I get to one-on-one help people change their perspective on HIV, which means more than anything.
It’s also helped me realise that I don’t want to be a porn director. I thought it would be the right thing to do: the success story is you become a porn actor, then you don’t disappear but you have your own production company, which I wanted to do, or I thought I wanted to do. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to produce porn. I have a huge passion for visuals and stepping away from porn and starting to do something else has made me realise that I want to do that, I want to do film, and I’m actually considering going to film school next year.
So you’ll start to phase out the porn acting?
Very much so. In all honesty right now I’m not interested in doing it anymore. Even though it’s always fun, but I’ve never done it for the fun; I think it was a quest for some validation and I was trying to break myself into being comfortable with my own sexuality. I still struggle with being gay, then HIV positive came into it, sex worker, a lot of things that marginalise you socially, so living it all out like that helped me to come to terms with my sexuality. And definitely validated me. Right now I do it only because I don’t want people to see me come out as HIV positive then disappear because that’s just going to support what they’re already convinced of that HIV positive people shouldn’t be having sex, which is absolutely untrue. So I just want to make that statement. Which is why I still accept jobs.
Do you find it more of a challenge to disclose your status in your private life? Is it a case of the more you do it the easier it becomes?
For sure, yes. That’s a definite. For me it was a slow process and I started doing it quite late. There are still moments when I do hesitate because if I don’t tell him, while I’m not putting him at any risk [because I’m undetectable], but that’s not what it’s about. I want to tell him because I don’t want him to freak out afterwards. Because, if you think about it, I know he’s not going to “catch AIDS and die”, but that’s what he will be thinking if he’s not educated enough, and no amount of reassurance is going to take that away, at least for a period of time. I’ve already put someone through that, which I regret; it destroyed our relationship, which was very fresh and I really liked him. Never saw him again.
So you like to give them the opportunity to let them make an informed decision?
Yes. I just don’t want them to go through… I’ve been there in the past when someone would tell me [that they were positive undetectable] and I had this panic, because I didn’t understand. It takes a while for someone to get comfortable and find out the information from a source they’re going to trust. A guy who has just fucked you bareback telling you you’re going to be alright is not that source, because he already lied to you. Not telling someone something you should be telling them is a lie. So yeah, I don’t want to lie, because I want to protect people from hitting that point where everything’s just going to look black.
So when you were on the receiving end of that, when the guy told you his status after you’d fucked, was he undetectable?
Yes. He had been positive for very many years. But it doesn’t matter – I mean, of course it matters – but it didn’t matter to me because I didn’t know what that meant, so how could it put me at ease? I thought “catch AIDS and die” still applied, so I was terrified. And to do that to someone I don’t think is very kind.
What is your message to readers this World AIDS Day?
I understand where the fear is coming from. I do get it. I didn’t in the past, which caused me a lot of grief. But I do get it. Anything that threatens us, we’ve evolved to reject it, so I get it. But I think it’s high time that we start engaging out intellect into how we look at HIV, that we start being smarter, that we wake up to the amazing news that HIV infection rates [in the UK] are decreasing majorly in the last two years. HIV is something to be cautious of. It’s not something to panic about anymore. I’m not saying don’t wear a condom; in fact do wear a condom. But it’s not as bad as it seems, at all, and that’s due to the medical advances we’ve seen over the past 20 years.
Towards the end of your HIV ‘coming out’ video you say ‘HIV isn’t all that bad’ and that it’s ‘an experience that has taught you so much’ and that ‘you wouldn’t change it’…
Why wouldn’t you change it?
Two reasons. First of all, HIV unravelled a whole world of issues most of which I already had – problems with my self-esteem, my sexuality, a lot of anxiety, drug use – HIV amplified those things, they surfaced and I had to deal with them. HIV forced me to face my demons. The second thing, which I learnt this year, is I didn’t think I had this kind of spirit. Out of all the people to catch HIV, I think it’s good for HIV that I did, because I feel very passionately about eradicating it, and I’m coming out the other side of it now, so I intend to pay attention and give my time to the issue so that it becomes less of an issue.