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opinion

j wallace skelton is a PhD candidate in Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

We put our loved ones at risk. It’s not a comfortable reality, but it’s true. Our very closeness puts our friends and loved ones at risk. And when there is risk, the best thing we can do is to talk about it – openly, freely, with as little blame and judgment as possible.

As COVID-19 case counts continue to rise across the country, many people will need to have those difficult conversations with friends and family members. This holiday season, distance may be the best gift we can give each other – and when we can’t give distance, we need to give the gift of disclosure.

The first step is learning to make disclosures. You call the people you may have exposed and you tell them what you know, and when you knew it. You tell them even if you feel guilty; even if you think they may be angry. See, your guilt will not protect them – the exposure has already happened. Telling people early protects them from having to make more of the same sort of calls you are making now. Telling them early lets them make informed choices about their health and that of their other friends and loved ones – the kinds of choices maybe you wish you had been able to make.

The next step is to practise being ready to say “thank you” when someone calls and makes a disclosure to us. “Thank you for giving me more information.” “Thank you for giving me a tool with which to make an informed decision.” “Thank you for giving me the ability to protect others.” You may have a different emotional reaction, but ideally you do not want to turn that against the person sharing their health information with you. You want to help them continue to tell their other contacts; you want to help them tell you next time; you want to help build a broad culture that values informed consent.

I think about the time our beloved friend, who had agreed to be a sperm donor and family member to any potential children (or as they now call him, their “spunkle”), came to visit to start the baby-making process. He said he had just started a new sexual relationship with someone he was newly in love with. He shared that they had had unprotected sex, but that that was fine as they had both done a full round of testing that came back negative for any diseases. But with further questioning, it turned out they had other exposures in the three months before their testing, and my knowledge of HIV and the state of testing at the time meant that they could have been exposed – and might be able to pass it on, but not yet be testing positive. We put things on hold. We waited three months, and tested again. And then we made first one, and then two, babies. I learned that our spunkle was able to tell me news he was aware I might not want to hear – but that he valued our well-being enough to do that. I was frustrated in the moment, but it also created more trust. I’m glad he told me – I still feel grateful. It taught me that disclosing risk is an act of love.

The best time to tell people is right away, but the second best-time is now. We’re not going to get this right all the time. For whatever reason, we may not make the disclosure we need to make. We may put others at risk. I’ve been that guy. I was sexually assaulted and did not tell my then-partner. Our relationship was already awful – I felt wretched, and I did not say into that hard place, “I need to tell you that I was assaulted, and I don’t know what I was exposed to.” In failing to disclose, I exposed my partner to whatever I had been exposed to. I can rationalize why I did that, but over a decade later, I still don’t feel good about the choices I made. I should have done better – and that moment galvanized me to do better afterward.

In October, one of the children in my child’s school cohort tested positive for COVID-19. The school closed down for a day, and then everyone except the child who tested positive were told they could come back. The letter from the principal was formulaic: “I wanted to provide you with information about a case of COVID-19 that has been identified in a student at …” The principal is restrained by privacy laws, and in the absence of information, we made guesses and tried to assess our risk.

The child’s mother disclosed in the school Facebook group that her son had COVID-19 and that his siblings were at home and being tested. She shared information about where her son had been exposed, and what the other children’s results were. That information was welcomed and helpful. People in the school community offered support. It gave others the opportunity to assess their own risk and to support someone they cared about. She demonstrated that disclosure is an act of love, and it enabled us to show that care in return.

In sex-positive communities, we use the term “fluid-bonded.” Being fluid-bonded means having barrier-free contact with someone else’s body fluids, and sharing each other’s risks. Right now, in terms of COVID-19, when we share each other’s air, unfiltered by masks, we share each other’s risks. Your choices may affect me. Mine may affect you. We are bonded by the air we breathe.

We need to know who is sharing our air so we can assess risks, make informed choices and exercise consent. We need to be able to share our choices, and be able to thank others for their disclosures. It’s not easy. We’re going to make mistakes along the way – but we’re also going to make better connections, build stronger communities and ensure safety for us all.

When you need to, make disclosures. Clearly, in a timely way. As acts of love and caring.

When you hear them, receive disclosures with a thank you, as an act of love and caring.

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