Published: 6 June 2017

Stages of disclosure

By Paul Woodward

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

Paul Woodward explores the experience of HIV disclosure through a performative lens.

30th July 1999: A Disclosure Event Between Two Men In Their 30s Taking Place On A Sunny Day In London On A Bench Overlooking The Thames

I am 32 years of age. I am standing waiting for a train to pull in at the Eurostar station in London’s Waterloo.

My partner at the time, Simon, who lives in Paris, is in town for the weekend for my birthday, which is tomorrow.

I’m holding a bottle of champagne in my right hand, and a bunch of cut-price flowers from the corner shop in my left.

I’ve got something to tell Simon and I’m trying to control my nerves.

I’m resisting the urge to: a) run away very, very fast; b) jump on a train to Belgium; c) down the bottle of champagne very, very quickly.

Simon said retrospectively that he knew something was up by the sheer fact that I’d bothered to meet him from the station in the first place.

The champagne and the wilting flowers confirmed this suspicion. It’s all terribly out of character, apparently.

I took him out into the deep July sunshine and down to the Southbank, outside of the National Theatre and overlooking the sparkling water of the Thames, one of my favourite places in my home city, where we sat down on a bench and I opened the champagne and took a deep breath …

Paul: We have to be really brave boys now …

I remember starting with those words as I proceeded to tell him that, unbeknownst to him, I had taken a test for HIV the previous day and that it had come back positive.

I had only had less than one day to get used to the idea when here I am disclosing to my first person.

Paul: I am HIV+.

What happens at the moment of disclosure?

It’s an interesting sequence of words really. It’s a declarative statement in the first person, yes, but it’s also an utterance which does something – something changes in the world when it is spoken – as it did that day for both me and Simon.

It was English academic J. L. Austin who first coined the word ‘performative’ to describe the way in which our utterances can be performative: i.e., to say something is to do something.

In uttering certain sentences people perform acts (like the words ‘I do’ in a marriage ceremony, for example) that have the potential to change our worlds.1

An HIV-positive disclosure functions like one of Austin’s ‘performatives’ in that it is both an act of speech and an act in itself.

It also has a duality of meaning and affect, where the sequence of words, ‘I am HIV-positive,’ describes a medical condition while also signifying a narrative event of diagnosis through to some level of acceptance.

In other words, we perform both a revelation and a checking in of where we are in ourselves about it at the same time: a classic example of text and sub-text.

Concurrent with this revelation is a transgression, or breach in the personal boundaries we might erect for protection’s sake.

We make ourselves vulnerable out of care for another. I’ve been thinking about the word vulnerability recently – if you break it down it becomes vulner which is latin for wound and of course put it with ABILITY we get something like woundability.

I like this, to have the ability or skill to show ones wound to the world, and in doing so, one can either infect the wound or let air get to it and so promote healing.

I think of the performance of disclosure in the same way. I think it’s a performance in which we take a risk to be known, and in this to elicit a certain knowingness in response from others.

Yet I haven’t been able to find the words that adequately describe this process.

Seeing as my background is in theatre, it made sense to me to look to existing theories in the field of Performance Studies to help me find an appropriate vocabulary to understand what actually happens when we perform a disclosure.

Disclosure as a performative act

The word ‘performance’ typically brings to mind images of detailed costumes, dramatic lighting, extraordinary sets and characterised actors.

However, the American performance academic Richard Schechner takes Austin’s notion of performativity in language and uses it to argue that ‘performance’ can expand beyond the confines of traditional stages to exist in the everyday world where everyday people perform in everyday spaces.

Our actions, movements, clothes, rituals, even our gender are seen as performances of ‘action, interaction and relation’ which serve to ‘mark identities, bend time, and reshape and adorn the body, and tell stories.’2

Looking at a HIV disclosure through this lens I began to see the rehearsed aspect of my behaviour that day of my first disclosure.

It was, in other words, a constructed storytelling event in many ways. A story that changed both of our lives that day.

The celebrated sociologist Erving Goffman argues in his ground-breaking book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) that everyday performances of the self follow scripts learnt from an early age, such as gender-specific expressions, vocal qualities, facial displays, gestures, and walks.

This daily interaction is explained by Goffman through the exploration of the connection between theatrical performance and social life as ‘stagecrafts’.3

My first performative disclosure (breakdown)

So what were the ‘stagecrafts’ exhibited in my example?

Well, if there is going to be a performance there needs to be some kind of stage or setting.

Mine happened to be London’s Southbank, and the set consisted of a significant bench.Goffman suggests that one’s behaviour alters depending on their location.

Accordingly, my stage and set I chose was considered and not random as it was both intimate as a place of respite from the traffic of the city, yet open enough to make sure that we kept our emotions on a public register.

Further evidence of ‘stagecraft’ can be seen in my ‘uncharacteristic’ bottle of champagne and cheap flowers.

They were both symbolic and intentional, so can they be seen as the equivalent of props in a theatre show?

How about costume? Well I did wear my tightest t-shirt, so as to signify health to my lover so he wouldn’t fear my status as in any way degenerative.

And what about the words I used to disclose with? I had certainly thought about them beforehand, so in some ways was ‘we have to be brave boys now’ part of a script?

And then beyond that, how was my voice operating in a distinct way in terms of accent, tone and volume to achieve a successful disclosure?

And how about my body? How about my propensity to enact gesture, to touch, to look deeply and searchingly into my lovers eyes so as to keep being human, to maintain as much human contact as possible in this rite of passage?

he final key player in the theoretical mix is the celebrated anthropologist Victor Turner, who suggests that we all experience significant acts of personal or social transformation as ‘rite of passage’ and that the processional structure of these creates new identities.4

Turner observes that a rite has three discernible phases: a separation phase of preparation; a transition phase where we perform an act which changes us; followed by reincorporation phase where we return to everyday life with a new identity in place.5

These phases, I believe, are similarly present in my processes of HIV disclosure.

Like an actor ‘warming up’ before a performance, I prepared myself by spending some time contemplating the Thames in an attempt to steel myself before meeting Simon.

In the moment itself, I was nervous as all hell but paradoxically calm and focused.

I remember how I was aware of my surroundings but extraordinarily focused on the event.

Turner calls this crucial segment in time a ‘liminal period’; a moment where the performer is ‘betwixt and between … two realities [that have] intersected and meshed’.6

It is only once the performer truly attains this liminal moment that he/she can achieve actual, definitive change.

As for the third phase, well, now we had transformed ourselves into fully disclosed individuals, we felt bonded, secure in our relationship, and ready for the world together.

It was a unique and extraordinary moment in our relationship.

Turning theory into practice

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

In an academic’s world that translates as: it’s all very well coming up with fancy theories but it’s only when you apply it to the real world that it’s worth anything.

So I set out to observe as many disclosure events as I could.

I did this by interviewing people about their experiences of disclosure, firstly in London, and then (after winning a scholarship to study for my doctorate at Monash University) here in Melbourne, and in countries in Africa (South Africa, Malawi, and Swaziland).

What has been interesting about this intercultural investigation period is how, despite radically different contextual factors, the actual processes of disclosure employed by HIV-positive people had the similar remarkable defining features of my first disclosure moment.

From the enactment of ritual; to the conscious choosing of place and set as ‘staging’; the rehearsal phase of premeditated behavior; the appropriation of props, gestural body language, and even costume; all these ‘stagecrafts’ were present in the performance of disclosure.

But how I could best apply these findings in a useful way?

The second phase of my research was to take all these ingredients for effective performative disclosures and explore them in creative workshops using storytelling, theatre, writing, and art.

The participants in the workshops held in the UK and in Africa were mixed HIV-positive and HIV-negative people who had an interest in the practices of disclosure.

Some people wanted to gain strategies to disclose more successfully and with greater confidence in real life, others wanted to know how best to respond to being disclosed to.

These skills were expanded through a third phase in my research where I started to work with participants to devise full-length performance pieces for the theatre in which my performers could showcase their acquired skills in empowered disclosure.

Among these shows were two performance storytelling events.

The first was I Speak My Story Africa, which used a potent mix of storytelling and music to explore young lives profoundly affected by HIV/AIDS.

This performance was produced in collaboration with the charity Possible Dreams International, and premiered in July 2012 in Sitegi, Swaziland, Africa.

The second was The Haunting, a performance devised and performed by nine gay men aged between 40 and 65, exploring the complexities of mature gay life in the city.

This performance was created working with a gay men’s self-development agency called The Quest, and premiered in London in October 2013.

Although these shows were worlds apart, they shared the same creative processes and structure (three acts based on Turner’s three phases of a rite of passage) and were in themselves ceremonial processes of ritual disclosure.

What I found entirely wonderful was how this enacted ritual then provoked an extraordinary mirroring of its processes by the audience after the shows had ended.

In other words, seeing empowered disclosers on stage disclosing powerfully acted as a stimulus for empowered disclosures from the audience.

Of course, it’s also important to put one’s money where one’s mouth is, and so earlier this year I premiered a solo show called Fathers & Feathers – first in London (October 2013), followed by a short tour in Melbourne (April 2014), with myself as a performer/ discloser tracing my own journey towards acceptance of my HIV status along with my late father’s acceptance of me as a wayward son.

Paul Woodward in a dress rehearsal for his solo show Fathers & Feathers

I did this because I wanted to know how my theories felt in actual practice for myself.

At the key moments of disclosure built into the show I experienced all the same sensations and feelings I had that sunny day on a bench overlooking the Thames.

It was a very odd experience reliving my life through a series of disclosures to parents, friends, lovers, partners, but the enacted memory of each of these made through the theatrical lens made me realise that in stepping across the thresholds identified by Turner and Goffman in ‘fear and vertigo’, I felt myself becoming a ‘ritually transformed subject’.7

I experienced first-hand how the power of staged performative disclosures could strip away any residual internalised stigma surrounding my positive diagnosis.

The future of performative disclosures?

Since February 2013, I have gone on to further this process of discovery and empowerment in my work for Living Positive Victoria as a sexual Health Education and HIV Awareness Speaker for the Positive Speakers’ Bureau in Melbourne, where I am commissioned to speak to schools and community groups about HIV.

This work is incredibly rewarding and brings my research full circle, in that what started out as an intimate real life disclosure event transforms into a system of enabling strategies to help foster performative disclosures to audiences in desperate need of experiential education around HIV.

Of course, we live in a time in which draconian laws exist in New South Wales and Tasmania that continue to require disclosure of one’s HIV-positive status before engaging in any sexual act, with a legitimate fear of prosecution if a successful HIV disclosure is not enacted.

I personally think that, rather than wasting time and money on what amounts to a form of persecution of the already stigmatised, it would be a more fortuitous venture to spend money on enabling HIV-positive people to disclose with greater ease, confidence and clarity.

I am convinced that the way forward in this might well be in the dissemination of the aesthetics of disclosure, using the theories of performativity outlined above, as a way of enabling everyday people to enact powerful disclosures in a way that empowers both the discloser and the disclosee alike.

I hope we can all find our own benches, rivers and flowers in our lives and celebrate the power of this moment instead of being consumed with the fear and dread that can be the overwhelming experience of disclosure. I think real change can happen in this shift of perception.


1 Austin, J. (1975 [1962]). How to do things with words. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

2 Schechner, R. (2003 [1988]). Performance Theory. Routledge, London. New York.

3 Goffman, E. (1959 [1990]). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Penguin Books, London.

4 Turner, V. (1982 [1969]). From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. PAJ Publications, New York. London.

5 Turner, V. (1995 [1969]). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Aldine de Gruyter, New York. London

6 Turner, V. cited by Schechner, R. in (2006 [2002]). Performance Studies: An Introduction. Routledge, London. New York.

7 ibid.