His idea was to have a group that was not based on a formal support group, where there are guidelines about keeping personal relationships equal with all members of the group. Harris envisioned this new group as "a social club or professional association," which allows -- even encourages -- people to have whatever level of personal involvement with which they're comfortable.
A few friends and a few hundred dollars later (including ads in Body Positive, the Village Voice and New York magazine), Guys and Girls began. Members happy with their experience gave flyers to their medical providers to pass on to other patients. The group's been going strong for 10 years now. With few -- if any -- exceptions, they're the only group of its kind in the country. They were so successful, gay men approached the group about starting one for them, and Nothing But Guys took off six years ago.
"We create a place of community, filled with friendship and camaraderie, where people with the virus can meet. It has normalized the experience of living with HIV," Harris says. "It gives people the opportunity to walk into this safe space and see other people with HIV who are living normal, well-adjusted lives. You see that HIV cuts across all groups. You walk in and see the librarian, the truck driver, the lawyer, or someone who's disabled, but you can't tell their profession by looking at them. People new to the group often remark how healthy people look, and this is very helpful and powerful for the newly diagnosed."
Participants are encouraged to reach out to potential new members, even if there's no sense of connection with them. They may connect with someone that person knows or that person may connect with someone else in the group.
"It's giving people a positive-positive sero-sorting option," says Harris, "not to make people lepers [by separating them out], but by taking away the stigma."
Harris says the group provides an important advantage over the Internet: face-to-face contact in a room full of friendly people. "We have a 'group date.' You can talk to someone and make an assessment. You don't have to buy them dinner and they don't have to buy you dinner." Plus, he says the problems of Internet photos and stories are well known.
While Guys and Girls has led to approximately a dozen marriages and several babies (and other people go AWOL after finding a special someone), Harris says that just as important is the ability of members to share their experiences in living with HIV. He says family and friends can empathize and give support, but don't have the understanding of what it's really like.
There's also medical care to discuss. Says Harris, "This virus, more than most other conditions, requires a great deal of medical knowledge. So a community like Guys and Girls becomes a professional association of sorts. People not only find empathy, but they are also able to find a source of medical information from others living a comparable life. Someone might talk about a medical procedure they had that your doctor is recommending for you."
Heterosexuals from around the country often reach out to Guys and Girls expressing the wish that they had as big a population as the one found in New York City with which to start their own association. Says Harris, "If you're committed as organizers, sensitive to the needs of your local community, and innovative to adapt to them, you too can make this sort of social networking association happen in your area."
Do, however, set up a written code of conduct before problems arise. Guys and Girls found the same problems popping up over and over, distracting the organizers and disrupting the function of the group.
Harris says that more than anything else, the group must serve the community, not its organizers.
For more information, call 1-212-462-9009, e-mail email@example.com, or write to G&G, P.O. Box 251, New York, NY 10014.