It can be a trying and difficult task to decide when is an appropriate time to reveal your status to someone that you are interested in romantically. It is usually best to tell them before you have sexual relations, and in fact it may be illegal not to do so where you live. However, should you have sex with someone without telling them your status, it is your responsibility to ensure that you have safer sex. Not having safer sex virtually ensures that your sex partner is going to be upset with you for exposing him or her to possible infection. And should he or she be positive, you are both exposing yourselves to superinfection with a different strain of HIV.
Before the situation I describe below came up, my usual scenario for disclosing to a potential sex partner was to tell him after the first date, but before having sex. I would usually try and have a wonderful first date, without any thought as to status, focusing instead on presenting my best qualities to my potential mate, and letting him get a glimpse of the "real" me, without his opinion of me being impacted by his knowledge of my status.
Dinner, a movie, holding hands, pleasant conversation, all of these can bring out a person's best qualities while keeping the focus on each other's company without getting into the heavy stuff. If the date did not go well, then I would generally not need to inform the date of my status. If it did go well, there may or may not be sex on the second date. I would always tell my partner either before or during that second date about my status. That is, of course the hard part. What I've found is that leading into the subject and tossing it into the conversation tends to work best. Mention condoms and safe sex, and you can find a lead-in to your status.
I feel that it's the best policy to tell a person before they become too involved. Wait too long and you risk losing a person's respect and trust. They will feel like you've misrepresented yourself. On the flip side, the person might feel as if you've just shared your deepest secret, which indeed you may have. He or she will also give you huge points on trust and respect.
Recently I had a situation where I met someone over the Internet before we had our first date. We talked on the phone and exchanged pictures, and our personalities seemed to click. I felt very connected to this person, and he felt the same for me. We had our first date, and it went very well. We held hands throughout the evening, had some very nice conversation, and strolled through the city together, getting to know each other. Although I had planned to disclose my status during this date, it never seemed the right moment. Also, I wasn't sure what effect "the talk" would have on our evening. Since it was going so well, I didn't want to ruin the mood.
At the end of a truly heavenly evening, we made another date for a few days later. I planned on telling him on the second date, but we had a few conversations both over the phone and through the Internet over the next couple of days and the subject came up. So even though I prefer to tell someone my status in person, in this instance I told him when the subject came up. Although he took it pretty well, he stated that it was the last thing he expected to hear, and that he needed some time to process it and decide if he could be comfortable with my status. I let him know that I understood, and would give him the time he needed.
It sometimes is not easy when someone I am interested in is uncomfortable with my status, but that is part and parcel of being HIV-positive. Most times people are fine with it, but in this particular instance it made the person I told feel too uncomfortable to be intimate with me.
I sent my friend a long e-mail describing how I felt about him and letting him know that I didn't blame him for not being with me. He sent a beautiful reply, complimenting me on my personality, and telling me that he is not moving on, he just needs time to think on it and make a decision. I told him I would honor this, and if he chose not to be with me, at least we could be friends. As of this writing, it's been a few weeks since that first date, and we've talked a few times. It's become clear to me that he's too uncomfortable with my status for us to be more than friends. I know that I did the right thing and at least he knows that I cared enough to be honest and up-front with him, and run the risk of not being with him, rather than hide my status.
I've had many other dates since I've become positive, and frankly, most have been met with positive (no pun intended) results upon my disclosure. Some have also been HIV-positive, others have been negative. Many of them have resulted in repeat dates, others have not.
I have learned some very valuable lessons out of these experiences. A person must consider all aspects of someone they are considering a relationship with, including HIV status. If the other person is uncomfortable with the way you dress, your mannerisms, or your personality, then there is a good chance that the relationship won't work. Same goes for HIV status. People have different comfort levels with it and the bottom line is, if someone is not comfortable with a part of you, then there will be problems if you try to have a relationship. If you are HIV-positive, then your status is a part of you, just like your personality, your mannerisms and the style or manner in which you dress.
The decision to tell or not tell one's status is different for everyone. However, if you don't disclose when it is appropriate, the person you are interested in may feel that they didn't get to know the "real" you. Apply the same reasoning to another aspect of yourself and you'll see what I mean.
I have also learned that just because someone turns out not to be what you wanted them to be, it doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. My new friend and I talk regularly and have plans to get together this week for coffee. As friends. And true friends are hard to come by.
Steve McMahon is a regular contributor to Body Positive Magazine.