By Aby Sam Thomas
“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.