S. Anthony looked at B. Goodman’s face and smiled—in spite of himself.
At first glance, Goodman seemed an exceptionally good guy to date. With tired gray eyes, a scruffy beard, and a handsome face, Anthony felt that Goodman fell right into the “dorky cute” category. Goodman worked as an educator and a queer activist, professions that Anthony held in very high regard.
And if his endearing personality wasn’t enough, Goodman also had the gift of the gab, peppering his words with the most random, ridiculously funny things that left Anthony in stitches. Anthony loved a good sense of humor. With an almost perpetual smile on his face, Anthony was easily prone to anything from quiet giggles to loud guffaws.
With a slight stubble on a boyish face and short, close-cropped hair, Anthony didn’t look anything like his 35 years. He could have easily passed as yet another twenty-something on the streets of New York City. Goodman may have been easy on the eyes—but Anthony wasn’t too bad either. While the good looks came in handy in his career as a theater actor with a flair for music and dance, Anthony also had a day job as a paralegal at a law firm.
It was a June night, and Anthony and Goodman (full names have been withheld as per request) had started their date with dinner at Vynl, a popular and relaxed bistro in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. They had then crossed the street for dessert at a coffee shop, where they continued to make conversation over some exceptionally good chocolate pie. As third dates went, Anthony knew that this one was going just great.
Later, Anthony and Goodman walked toward a little park between West 49th and 50th streets, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, where they sat, talked, and eventually kissed. Anthony was a little taken aback by the public display of affection—as a naturally shy guy, kissing in public made him feel “dirty,” in a strange, unexplained way. But with Goodman, Anthony was surprised at how natural and easy it felt.
The two men then went on to watch a Broadway show with singers performing covers of Tori Amos hits. Through the concert, Goodman’s steady whisper of funny, snarky comments kept Anthony thoroughly entertained. After the concert, they made plans to meet again soon and parted ways on the subway. On the train ride back to his home in Queens, Anthony felt excited and happy.
But there was also a persistent, nagging feeling in the back of his head. After all, it had been his third date with Goodman. And Anthony was fully aware of the complexities of the “Third Date Rule.”
The third date in the process of courtship is often considered to be the “decision point” in a new relationship. Dozens of discussion boards on the Internet run amok with simultaneously nervous and excited people looking for advice on what to do on the third date; and the validity of “Third Date Rule.”
Although Wikipedia.com dismisses the “Third Date Rule” as a mere “dating rule of thumb,” UrbanDictionary.com blatantly calls the third date the “sex date: it is the average number of dates until it is deemed proper and acceptable to have sex with a new mate; therefore, the Third Date Rule is the implementation of this theory.”
But for Anthony, sex would have to wait until he revealed an important truth about himself. Anthony would soon have to tell Goodman that besides being a perky, multi-faceted Virgo, he also happened to be HIV positive.
In a November 2011 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV infection. The report says that, despite increases in the total number of people in the United States living with HIV infection in recent years, the annual number of HIV infections has remained relatively stable. Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM) of all races and ethnicities remain the population most severely affected by HIV, with white MSM accounting for the largest number of new HIV infections.
But, contrary to the early eighties when being HIV positive was deemed to be a death sentence, being HIV positive now is considered a “manageable chronic disease,” thanks to the advent of anti-retroviral drugs. Although a cure for HIV/AIDS remains elusive, these drugs, or a cocktail of such drugs, have been able to successfully help HIV positive people live longer lives, by keeping the amount of the virus in the body at a very low level while boosting the number of T-cells, the white blood cells that fight infection in the human body.
Anthony has been HIV positive for more than six years now, and he swears by the drug he takes, a combination drug called Atripla. “I take one pill a day, and I’ve never been sick a day of my life because of it. I’ve been sick for other reasons, but not anything ridiculous tied to that,” he says. When saying “ridiculous,” Anthony is referring to exotic diseases like cat flu that struck, and killed, people with the disease in the '80s when people were just beginning to learn about HIV and AIDS. “It’s not like that now,” he says. “It’s so manageable.”
While figures and studies in the United States validate Anthony’s view, there still seems to be a stigma attached to people who are HIV positive, despite strides made in treating the disease and information on the same being more readily available on the Internet and elsewhere.
As an HIV positive man dating in the city, Anthony has been subject to a number of varied reactions when he tells this truth about himself to a potential mate.
“Some people have no problem whatsoever; they’re like, ‘No biggie,’” Anthony says. Then, there are others who don’t want to seem uncomfortable and so, turn apologetic instead. What irritates Anthony further are people who turn him down and then go on to tell him that there are “tons of other positive people” he can date, just so that they feel better about themselves.
“I would respect them if they say, sorry, I am not interested,” Anthony says. “But if you go on this litany, this whole list of reasons why they don’t want to, I’m like, okay, I got the no! I’m okay with a no! You don’t have to tell me why, you don’t have to assuage your guilt with me!”
Anthony pauses for a moment, before his grin returns to his face. “Dating is hard,” he says. “It is hard for anyone. With me, I just have that one additional moment to handle.”
A Gettysburg, Pa. native, Anthony is a man of varied interests and talents. He is a performer, looking to get back into the world of arc lights, now undergoing a strict training regimen with a voice coach. The day job chains Anthony to his desk when his law firm assigns him to a particularly difficult litigation trial. Besides being a yoga and gym aficionado, a creative writer and a loving uncle to his young niece and nephew, Anthony is also learning sign language to better communicate with a hearing impaired friend.
Despite such appealing qualities, Anthony is still single. Anthony uses the extremely popular online dating site, OkCupid, to find people to date. Besides being “completely free,” OkCupid, billed by The Boston Globe as “the Google of online dating,” calls itself the fastest growing online dating site, aiming to match people based on their profiles and interests.
Anthony’s profile on the site, while informative, seems to be geared more at showcasing his sense of humor. For instance, under the section “the first thing people usually notice about me,” Anthony writes: My charming personality or maybe my hunchback. It’s a tossup.
On scrolling further down the profile, under “the most private thing I’m willing to admit,” Anthony writes: I was lying about my hunchback!
Although Anthony says he doesn’t have a formula to look up potential dates on the website, he does showcase a few tricks that make him seem a master of sorts at using the website. When he is logged in to the site, he edits his profile a little bit every now and then, which ensures that his profile appears in the “Recent Activity” section of OkCupid users online at that moment. This means his profile gets more visibility and increases his chances of being checked out by a potential date.
Anthony taps slowly on his laptop, checking out different profiles. His small eyes narrowed at the screen, he quickly dismisses profiles that contain pictures of people in states of undress. He also frowns at people who seem full of themselves in their profiles. For his own profile, he has made a conscious attempt to keep it funny, and not too serious.
Anthony realizes that on OkCupid, you need to sell yourself as a kind of prop and while doing that, Anthony prefers to be comical and self-effacing rather than be like people who are vain and boast about their suitability as a potential mate in their profile. “And, I’m like, really?” says Anthony. “If you need to say it, then it’s really not.”
“I’d rather be funny and make someone laugh, because that’s just who I am, that’s what I like to do. And if someone likes that, if someone gets it…” his voice trails, as he points at a section in his profile where he says he should have been a part of Cop Rock, a short-lived American musical police drama TV series in the early '90s, ranked eighth on TV Guide’s list of the 50 Worst TV Shows of All Time list in 2002.
The show “was so bad, that it was absolutely genius,” Anthony says, laughing. “If someone gets that reference, they’re in!”
However, there is no mention of his HIV positive status on the profile, and Anthony says that he likes to keep it that way. While he admits to having told a few people about his HIV positive status even before meeting them for the first time, Anthony prefers to wait until at least after a few dates before talking about his disease.
“Most of the times now, I wait till after like the third date to make sure that there’s a connection there first,” Anthony says. “Because, if there’s no connection there just as people, then why bother telling them if we’re not going to go further in the relationship, to get to that point where something sexual might happen. Because until then, my HIV positive status doesn’t matter.”
“There are challenges to [HIV positive] dating; but the thing I like to emphasize is that we really have a public health education issue on our hands,” says Ken Howard, a therapist based in Los Angeles with a clientele that focuses on HIV positive issues and on gay men. Howard, who has been HIV positive himself for more than two decades, says that a lot of HIV negative people have a “disturbingly profound misunderstanding” of HIV/AIDS.
“There’s a lot of stigma and extremely irrational fear that the virus is easily transmitted. And this goes back to public health misinformation,” says Howard. “There really needs to be a call for education. Most people just don’t know that having protected sex [with an HIV positive person] is not a high-risk activity.”
Citing examples from the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the eighties when people were afraid to use public water fountains or shake hands over fears of contracting the virus, Howard says that the lack of public education has allowed such hysteria to trickle through to the present day. This has therefore led to issues when HIV positive people look for relationships with HIV negative people.
“It’s a myth to say that serodiscordant relationships don’t work or don’t exist, because they certainly do,” says Howard, using his decade-long relationship with his HIV negative husband for ten years as an example. Howard says that he and his husband have had a very happy life together, with no major complications due to Howard’s HIV positive status.
In fact, Howard says, “We have been more affected by the recession than by my HIV status!”
“It's very common for HIV positive people to date, marry, have children, et cetera,” says Jennifer Morton, managing editor at Smart + Strong, a publishing house that brings out a number of health-focused magazines and websites including POZ magazine, billed as the nation’s leading publication and website about HIV/AIDS. POZ has, in a number of articles, reiterated the fact that if safer-sex techniques are practiced, HIV positive people can have an intimate and sexual relationship with anyone.
In September 2011, the magazine featured an article titled, “Finding True Love with HIV,” where the author, Tim Murphy, encouraged HIV positive people to be fearless while in the quest for love and relationships. Murphy writes that “though isolation and stigma—not to mention the challenges facing ongoing health concerns and navigating how and when to disclose your status—can be obstacles, they are not closed doors.”
Anthony’s dating life since becoming HIV positive has had its share of closed and open doors. Shortly after he tested HIV positive, he got into a relationship with a HIV negative man in Philadelphia, with whom he had a healthy, but safe, sex life. While the relationship lasted only three years, the reasons for their break-up had little to do with Anthony’s HIV status.
The experience of having had such a long-term relationship despite being HIV positive added to Anthony’s exasperation at dates that would cut ties with him once they knew of his HIV positive status. “I just don’t think people are educated enough in the fact that they don’t know what it means to be positive,” Anthony says. “They don’t understand how you can protect yourself against it. Like I said, I was with my ex for three years, and he’s not—he’s still not positive.”
In December 2010, Anthony went on a series of dates with a number of people with whom he thought he felt “real good connections with.” But, as soon as he reached the third or fourth date with them, and told them about his HIV status, each of them totally cut him off, giving him the apologies that he has since become used to.
“After the fourth one of those [in a row], I just got so fed up, I was, like, are you serious? Are you serious, right now? And it was driving me insane,” Anthony says, a desperation still reeling in his voice as he remembers.
The breaking point, Anthony recalls, was when he told the aforementioned date about his HIV positive status. “He came back to me and said, ‘Why does this keep happening to me? Everyone that I’ve been interested in has been [HIV] positive, and this keeps happening to me…’ And I was, like, to you? This keeps happening to you? This is not about you, this is about me!! I found that whole thought process so absurdly funny… That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
And that’s when Anthony began chronicling his life and dating adventures on an online blog, Positively Dating. In the blog’s “About Me” page, Anthony writes:
I am a 34 year old HIV positive, single, gay man living in New York City. Any one of those would be daunting on their own, but adding them all together makes for quite an interesting dating life. I have decided to journal my dating life because we as a community do not really talk about HIV any more. If we do we talk about it, it is how to prevent it or how to live a “normal” life with it. Never do we talk about how it affects us socially. So I send my trials and tribulations out through the web not only to help spark a dialog that I think we are desperately missing but to help with the stigmas about being HIV positive that are put on us from other people and more importantly the stigmas that we put on ourselves. Also, it gives me an outlet to rant about my dating woes.
Although Anthony says that the blog came out of “real frustration,” Anthony’s early posts on his blog deal mostly with his dating escapades. His writing is simple, friendly and easy; a facet of his shy, but endearing, personality shines through his very personal style of writing. The early posts have a commendable mix of entries that include reminiscences about the yoga instructor he fancied, his “walk of shame” from a hotel in Mexico, and scenarios with dates who had issues with his HIV positive status.
But, in an entry from March 2011, Anthony writes an emotional post about the mini breakdowns he has every now and then. An excerpt:
Sometimes, out of the blue, I will be hit with a single thought. I am HIV positive. This thought strikes fast and strikes hard. The reality of living with this disease presses upon my entire being. Everything that I have ever seen or heard about HIV or even worse, AIDS, begins to fester in my mind. Feeling like an outcast in my own community. Feeling like I will never get my Jane Austen happy ending, which I, being a hopeless romantic, am desperately looking for. For me, it is almost like reliving the day that I tested positive.
The blog has offered Anthony a place to talk freely about his life while being HIV positive to a receptive audience. While he did have his friends, Anthony used to be closeted about being HIV positive because they, being HIV negative, couldn’t understand his troubles. But thanks to the blog, he now had a new community to talk to.
In fact, Positively Dating became so popular that PositiveLite.com, a Canadian website for HIV positive people, picked up the blog and began featuring it on their website and affiliates in July 2011. With the help of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, the blog began to get a larger audience and Anthony was suddenly in a community of “friends,” where he could talk and write about being HIV positive with ease.
“And that’s probably the best thing that has happened with me,” Anthony says. While he enjoys and appreciates the actual writing of the stories and people liking his stories, it is his own self-acceptance, to be able to talk about being HIV positive without cringing every time he thinks about it—“that’s the best,” he says. “It makes me feel very a part of—no, I don’t want to say a part of something. Basically, I am normal. I am just like everyone else.”
Self-acceptance has also made a significant change in the way Anthony told dates about his HIV positive status. He used to be apologetic about his status, telling dates that he would understand if they didn’t want to continue dating. “It was, like, ‘I know there’s something wrong with me, so it’s okay if you don’t want to date me.’ It kind of made me seem a little unworthy.”
But, once he started writing his blog and getting a community of like-minded individuals, Anthony began to change his outlook on himself, and the way he decided to tell people about his status. “I knew this whole group of people who know me from this blog, and it makes me feel very a part of—no, I don’t want to say a part of something. Basically, I am normal. I am just like everyone else.” And from then on, Anthony stopped being apologetic about it.
“I am still understanding about it,” says Anthony. “But to say, I am so sorry I am HIV positive? That’s ridiculous for me to say.” Anthony now has a “here, this is me, take it or leave it, and I am okay with it” attitude and he is happy about the change in the tone of his HIV status disclosure. He also feels that it has helped him in his dating expeditions as well.
“It’s funny,” Anthony says. “I have no idea if there’s a relationship between the two. But ever since I made the switch—and I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve just been meeting the right guys—but, everyone I had dated after that, I haven’t had that many denials because of it. I am not saying there’s a relationship between the two, and I haven’t been dating as much as I was when I started this blog. But, you know…”
It was through OkCupid that Anthony met Goodman. They exchanged emails for a while before they actually went out with each other on a date. After their third date where they watched Broadway singers doing Tori Amos covers, Anthony had fallen for Goodman’s “goofy goofball” personality and wanted to take things further.
As he put it on his blog, Anthony wanted their relationship to “evolve past the goodnight kiss and into the land of carnal knowledge.”
Since Goodman was HIV negative, this meant that Anthony would have to reveal his own status, and “the art of telling” is something he’s still trying to master. It’s a difficult thing to say face-to-face for both parties, since while Anthony is faced with the prospect of instant rejection, the other is put in a difficult situation if they are uncomfortable. “So, that is weird; it’s just weird all around,” he says.
It is because of the weirdness involved that Anthony has resorted to another method of confessing his status, which he calls “the coward’s way out.” After a really good third of fourth date which ends with a potential for “something” to happen in the next date, Anthony tells them of his status via an email or text.
“Because it’s easy for me to tell them, and it’s also much easier for them to reject me,” he says. “When you are with someone face to face, then it’s different, because they want to save face, they want to be nice about it. But when you’re doing it online or text, they don’t care, they are not seeing you, and they’re not seeing your reaction.”
With Goodman, Anthony took the coward’s way out. As he walked back to his apartment after his third date with Goodman, he opened his phone and sent a message to Goodman:
I am really having an amazing time with you (and your Jew fro) but before anything goes any further, I need to tell you that I am HIV positive. I am always upfront about my status.
But despite Anthony’s apprehensions, Goodman responded just as Anthony hoped he would.
“I wrote back to him almost immediately,” Goodman remembers. “I said I really appreciate you telling me, that I’m sure this is not an easy thing for you to have to do, but this doesn’t change a thing. I have some questions for you. I said we should talk about it more, it doesn’t change a thing and I think you are great.”
Goodman thinks that he reacted well to Anthony’s positive status because of his own circle of friends, some of whom were HIV positive as well.
“I have a decent amount of friends who are HIV positive, and I work with a bunch of people who are. I also have one very good friend who is positive and he talks about dating all the time,” says Goodman. “And so, I have some insight into what it must feel like to date and sort of have to come out that way and how badly people can react. It was important to me to react the best way I could.”
Goodman reflects for a moment. “For him to acknowledge it, it sucks if he has to do that,” he says. “I don’t know why, I suppose it could have freaked me out, but it didn’t. Maybe that’s because I know people and I am somewhat educated.”
When Goodman graciously accepted Anthony’s HIV positive status, Anthony felt he had found his very own “happily ever after.”
Anthony says that he has what he calls the “Cinderella complex” on his dream of an ideal relationship. “I know some people don’t want to get married, or whatever, but I do. I want to get married. I want to have kids. I want to have a family. I like flirting with guys and whatever, but I would rather be in a relationship. I’d rather have that one particular person who kind of challenges you as much as they support you,” he says.
But, as much as Anthony would have liked Goodman to be that one person, their relationship wasn’t meant to be. Although they dated for a couple of months, they eventually broke up. “We had a lot in common, but we are very different people,” Anthony says. “He is one person I wished we had worked out, but we just didn’t have that chemistry, the spark, you know…”
“There was nothing wrong with him,” Anthony says. “It was just something wrong with us.”
But, although they didn’t get to become a couple, Anthony and Goodman became, and remain, steadfastly good friends.
“I have only very positive feelings for Anthony,” says Goodman.
It has been nearly a year since things cooled off with Goodman, and Anthony has been on a number of dates since then. His Cinderella complex remains as strong as ever, and Anthony refuses to allow his HIV positive status to change that. “Being HIV positive shouldn’t affect what I want to do with my life, who I want to spend my life with. It just adds another component to who I am, it doesn’t change what I like or what I am looking for,” he says.
One suggestion Anthony repeatedly gets from people is that he should “find other HIV positive men to date.” Barring the fact that he gets this suggestion mostly from dates who have said no to him, Anthony refuses to specifically look for such a dating subculture.
“I would never date someone because of it; I would never search for someone because of it,” Anthony says, quite emphatically. “I am not going to date someone just because he is HIV positive. That’s like me dating someone just because he has brown eyes. That’s kind of stupid. I am sure there are other HIV positive people, but that doesn’t mean I am going to fall in love with them,” he says.
But, wouldn’t dating a HIV positive mate possibly be easier? Anthony laughs at the question. “Maybe. But when has dating ever been easy?” he asks.
Anthony’s grueling patience and persistence in the hunt for an ideal mate and family seems to be related to his own tenuous family life. Anthony has had a tough life even before he became HIV positive—his mother died while he was young, and his father and step-mother threw him out of the house when he was eighteen for being gay. Yet he seems insistent to brush off issues with his family, talking instead of memories of his mother teaching him to dance to Madonna.
Anthony says his writing helps him stay upbeat and look forward to the future. “The more and more I write, the less and less it is about me being HIV positive. And I think the whole growth of my blog kind of shows the whole growth of my self-acceptance. And at this point, I don’t think it’s no longer a big issue for me as much as it was before, which then allows me to handle things a bit differently, and allows me to handle rejection differently. Whatever some might have said to me before is now no longer blog-worthy!”
Reflecting on his blog, Anthony says he can see how much he has changed. “A lot of it has to do with finally accepting myself and finally feeling accepted into a community, not just bloggers, but this whole HIV community out there. It makes me realize I am not the only one; I am perfectly fine; I am okay with who I am.”
And as Anthony gets on with accepting himself, he gets on with dating in New York City, looking for “that kind of everyday nothing that turns into a life.”
He’s on another first date today. And he is excited.