Aaron Anderson (right) with Claire Gasamagera and their son Calvin. (Credit: Michael Pirrone)
I knew there would be challenges to dating after I was diagnosed HIV positive, but I didn't know of the many hidden nuances to dating when you are a person living with HIV. Of course, there are the overt challenges, mostly due to stigma. However, I discovered that dating while HIV positive is much more challengingly nuanced than I had realized, and this is rarely discussed. Here are a few of the nuances that I experienced.
Before I begin, I must explain a few things. See, before HIV, dating was everything to me; or should I say, finding someone to spend my life with was everything. When the doctor told me that I was HIV positive, it shook me to my core. When speaking publicly about living with HIV, I often talk about how the doctor's words were equivalent to being struck with a bat. I was crying uncontrollably, I was in and out of consciousness -- it was a very bad scene.
Things calmed down in the weeks that followed, yet sometimes I found myself lashing out at anyone and anything. I began measuring progress by the amount of time between lash-outs. Immediately following my diagnosis, lashing out was a daily occurrence. In time, I lashed out once a week, then every two, then three, to where eventually lashing out became fewer and more far between.
All I wanted was to feel normal. I was no stranger to dating sites before my diagnosis, so a few weeks after my diagnosis it occurred to me that there must be dating sites for those living with HIV. To my relief, I found several dating sites -- some you have to pay for, and some that are free. Personally, I find it reprehensible to profit from HIV-positive people's need to feel loved and not scorned. With all the money in HIV activism and programs, there ought to be many free dating sites. This is as necessary to our care as the medicines itself.
I registered with several of the dating sites and, immediately, I began to meet women. What a relief! Apparently, there are few viable men on HIV dating sites, and I was a breath of fresh air to many ladies who, unfortunately, found themselves in the same boat. Before HIV, I struggled with dating. Now, I dated more than ever. But, keep in mind, I was still lashing out -- and in reality, I was nowhere near ready to date. But I plugged on anyway. I thought I was ready and thus "normal," and I set out to prove it.
Before I continue, I need to pause here, because it is very important to note an unintended yet very important function of the HIV dating sites that I've discovered that I don't think anyone had planned on or intended. See, at this point in time, I had not met another living soul with HIV, despite repeated pleas to my doctors to connect me with a peer who has HIV or a support group. I mean, I knew HIV-positive people exist. I knew I passed by them every day on the street; yet, without knowing that I saw or met someone with HIV, I felt I was the only person on the planet who was living with HIV. It felt like I was all alone and that I was the only one. There were no early intervention services, even as recently as 2012 when I was diagnosed. Today, I'm into activism and advocacy, so now I know a ton of people who are HIV positive, but back at the time of my diagnosis, I knew no one with HIV. I thank God every day for the dating sites. If it weren't for the dating sites, I may not have ever met anyone else who is HIV positive; at least at that time.
When I found that HIV dating sites do indeed exist, the first thing that I thought is that I had just found a community of enlightened people. I mean, surely, people living with such a socially crippling affliction (or so I thought) as HIV must be enlightened and therefore sophisticated individuals, right? Boy, was I wrong. That was completely my mistake. I erroneously assigned some sort of superhuman-like quality of enlightenment to people living with HIV, and in doing so, in a way, I dehumanized them. They were human before HIV, and they are human after HIV; complete with all the foibles and fallibilities found in any person.
In short, if they were an asshole before HIV, they were an asshole after HIV, and that is perfectly normal and okay.
I thought of attempting to date someone who is HIV negative, but very soon you find yourself in this conundrum: How soon or long should you wait to tell someone that you are HIV positive? Do you tell the person right away? Should they have the right to know immediately? Legally, they certainly have the right to know before any sexual contact. The danger in this is, if you tell people that you are HIV positive very early upon meeting and they decline to continue in a relationship with you, very soon you will find yourself in a position in which the knowledge of your HIV status is now held by too many random people who have not demonstrated the trust necessary to hold this very personal knowledge about you. As the amount of people who know grows, the amount of control over who knows lessens. Not to mention, you lose control over how the message is delivered and thus how it is received. And, what about if you wait and date someone for a while before you tell them your status? Is it really fair to ask someone to give six months or more of their life to you when in the end they cannot accept your HIV status? As well, how fair is that to the person who is living with HIV? In the end, I chose to only date those who were also HIV positive.
So, I began using the dating sites and, to my delight, I did find dates. Around this same time, I thought about coming out about my status. While making conversation with my potential mates, I would sometimes mention that I wished to come out. The mere mention of coming out shook my potential partners to question, "Are you out? Did you say you are out?" I could hear the fear in their voice. It became clear to me very quickly that out of respect to any potential mate's anonymity, it would be wise to keep my status to myself. It seemed, for good reason, no one was interested in dating someone who was open about their status. So, I kept quiet. I feared I was doomed to spend my life alone.
But, in late 2015, I met a very dynamic and talented woman. We courted, and in early 2016 I left my home in Cleveland, Ohio, and I moved in with her at her home in Detroit, Michigan. Suddenly, I found myself on the opposite side of the very same issues that had sometimes previously perplexed me. See, my girlfriend is Claire Gasamagera, a very outspoken and very public activist and advocate who was born with HIV and has worked around the world. I followed Claire into advocacy; however, I was not public at all about my HIV status. A simple Google search of Claire will reveal seven to eight pages of articles and interviews with her in which she speaks very openly about her positive HIV status. Because of this, I was very reluctant to even mention Claire on my own social media pages. I rarely acknowledged Claire at all. Claire and I talked often about it, and she was okay with it, but I feared our mutual friends would see me as an uncaring, unloving boyfriend who wouldn't so much as mention my girlfriend or post any pictures of her.
For two years, my relationship status read "single." I know my friends, and I know my friends are nosey, and if they saw on social media who I live with, they would Google her and very quickly see that Claire is very publicly HIV positive. It would not take long for my friends to put two and two together and assume that I am HIV positive too. Even if it would be wrong for my friends to make that assumption, I knew in my heart that it would be a correct assumption. I did my best to hide Claire's significance in my life.
One of the positive things that have come out of me being HIV positive is that I have more real and lasting conversations with women now. Pre-HIV, my interactions with women seemed real and lasting on the surface, but in the back of my mind, there was always this little agenda of wanting to sleep with every woman I met. Hoping for a sexual relationship was almost always my motivation for any type of engagement with a woman. In the streets, they have a name for guys like me, "Captain Save-a-Hoe."
I was good at being "The Captain." I seemed genuine, but I always had a hidden agenda. HIV helped me to realize this. Now, post-HIV, my interactions with women are very real. Pre-HIV, I never knew how fake and phony I was with women. I thought I was the most sincere guy on the planet. Now, I genuinely care what a woman and I talk about, and gone is my hidden agenda.
I'm in a better place now. I'm in a relationship with Claire that has lasted three years and counting. We welcomed our son, Calvin, in October 2017, and we have a son, Aaron Jr., due in late March 2019. I'm very lucky to have contracted HIV very late in the epidemic -- when the medications are good, we know about undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U), and we can have children who are HIV negative. I can honestly say that thanks to HIV, I found love, which led me to my two new sons. Thanks to HIV, I have some of the most awesome friends now. Thanks to HIV, I am now active in activism and advocacy, which has given me a very real purpose in my life that I did not have before HIV. I have even been to Capitol Hill and lobbied before Congress. And, thanks to HIV, I am living my dream of becoming a writer. Claire and I have even been profiled in POZ Magazine, and our story is still used to promote their free dating site. None of this would have ever been possible without HIV.
So I'm not bitter, I embrace HIV. In today's world, it is more manageable than diabetes, and I am fully expected to live a totally normal life expectancy. Life is good. Life is certainly much better than before HIV. Can you believe that? Six years ago, I would have never believed that I could say that. I even have a friend who is a 75-year-old woman who is HIV positive. She met a man in his sixties who is HIV negative, and last year they married.
For the newly diagnosed and the not-so-new, don't fret. You are going to be just fine. I and my friends are living examples that life and love are still possible. It's not easy with the public's stigma, I know.
But I am here to tell you, St. Valentine is pulling for you, too.
Aaron Anderson is an activist, consultant, and former talk show host. Aaron is also co-founder of ARISE (Association of Refugees, Immigrants, and Survivors of Human Trafficking Engage). He is from Cleveland and is now living in Detroit.