|Illustration by Carlos N. Molina|
There's a new kind of "mixed marriage." It requires some new ways of coping with a virus.
Gay couples have faced the specter of HIV for two decades, and we've pretty much done well. We've risen above the terror of first discovering we're infected. We know that, today at least, being infected isn't necessarily a death sentence. Of course it's still no reason for a party, but take a bow, brothers and sisters; we've created community support organizations to help infected individuals, counsel them, and even provide meals, legal and psychiatric assists. I know. As a GMHC client, I've benefited from all of them.
Couples with mixed serostatus (one is positive, one is negative) present some challenges that have at times created some tragic situations, but many other couples have managed admirably. As with any dreaded STD, the basic quality, the fiber of the relationship, will generally be the factor determining how the partners go on with their lives. "I'll love who I damn please." Lovemaking is a beautiful thing, but the insidious aspect of HIV is that it might kill a person, and certainly change his life forever, at least so far.
Sex has always, at least in the beginning of a relationship, been an essential. So we've invented safe sex, safer sex, bareback sex, and no sex at all. Once it was thought that sex between poz men was safer. Less risk of being infected with HIV, anyway. Or so it was thought. Poz men feel generally more comfortable with other poz men. Most poz men feel not at all comfortable with men who aren't. Many poz men were interviewed for this article with the question, "how would you feel if your neg partner seroconverted?" Everyone I spoke with responded that he'd feel desolate, or worse. ("I'd dig a hole, crawl in, and pull the dirt over me.")
Many withdrew from having sex with partners they very much loved because of fear of infecting them. Sex that once was hot became not. "Even the clinicians have a word for it, 'serodiscordant.' It's horrible. We're speaking about love here, not stainless steel." "It's true that love around HIV is a tougher row to hoe. We like to think it's stronger, better, that it can survive with such adversity."
"It's no picnic." Joe, who has been infected 12 years, can't understand why men don't realize the danger. "These guys have no idea what a pain in the ass it can be. They still think that all they need to do is take 'the cocktail' and it all goes away. Stupid." As to sex with other poz men, he goes on to say, "I know it's dangerous, but I still have unprotected sex with other poz men. The jury is still out on that one. I don't want to give up my entire life to latex."
"Sex with a neg guy? Sure it's tempting, but I really never forget that I can infect him, and that always slows me down. It's a bummer. There are enough poz men out there, I'll stick with them, they're my brothers."
"Mark had told me to go out and find another neg guy, but the same thing will probably happen again, so I may as well stick with the man I've got. I genuinely liked him when we met, and his status didn't mean a damn thing. We grew to love one another, and I didn't want anyone else. We have great sex, we know the limits, and have ground rules and we even found new tricks and games to make sex even more exciting and safe too."
"They keep asking me these questions like 'do I know where I got it?', or 'How long have I been infected?' Like who gives a damn about that, it won't change a thing, and there's no point in being angry at anybody. Shit, I haven't got one decent break in all my life and now this."
Nick didn't want to be angry, but he was angry -- very angry -- and the person who took the brunt of it was John, who loved him the most. "He was impossible to live with. I wanted to help and be supportive, but Nick was shut down and unapproachable. I knew his anger was about his feeling 'why me' but his hurt was touching every corner of our lives."
Eventually they enlisted the aid of a therapist and a counselor at GMHC and found the way to remain together. "We learned how important it was to get down and open to talk about some really hard issues," Nick said, laughing at their success. "There was so much we had kept bottled up and unsaid, and that would have been the undoing of us. I guess we're the lucky ones." There it was. The way he felt abused by society and the devastating blow from a virus, and a government who looked the other way for years.
"I was tearing myself apart with guilt. Andy took me by the hand and made me realize that despite my status he loved me, and considered me the best thing that ever happened to him in his life. There was no question that we'd remain together."
Here was a couple that embraced support, encouragement, and love. Guilt, anger and blame had no place in their equation. For them it worked.
"Couples in gay culture need to feel free to stay or go, it's consensual," his former lover Eric was saying, "We saw a therapist, and I even joined a support group. Our sex life began to break down right away, and we were having fights over petty BS when the real issue was too frightening for either of us to admit it was there. To acknowledge it would have made both of us feel ashamed, but here it was, and there was no way around it." They decided to openly acknowledge their problem as well as their love, and their desire to remain the closest of friends. "There was no anger, it wasn't anybody's fault. He'll always be family, and I'll always be there to take care of him if he ever needs it." There it was, a breakup that ended up with love and embraces. "It hurt like hell at first, and we even met often for dinner, and there'd be the occasional sleeping over, but soon he met another poz guy, and they seemed to hit it off."
"I didn't know how to tell him I had HIV. We met in a bar, and went right home and made love right away. There didn't seem to be a right time. I sat there on the edge of that bed, agonizing over how I would tell him, and sure that once he knew he'd high-tail it over the next hill." Sam was reflecting on the night he'd met Peter. "We had perfectly safe sex. I made sure of that, not even a small risk, and the next morning over coffee I took a deep breath and blurted it out. He smiled, kissed me, and said, 'I'm not, but if that's not a problem for you, it sure ain't for me.'"
"Then he took me back to bed. We've been safe, and loving for three years now, and it looks as though it will go on a long time."
"I'm living in west bumfuck North Carolina, and no one's brave enough to admit he's gay and they sure won't say they've got HIV even if they do.
"They're liable to get their trailers burned to the ground. The only clinic I can go to has doctors who are homophobic and still deal with HIV-infected men as though they were dirt."
Calvin was a New York resident, and moved back to his home down south to be with his family. "Meeting another guy down here is as likely as me winning a lottery. Even my doctors are inadequate. They won't even see me when I need them."
Calvin is not in a relationship but he's isolated, and his fears of being alone were valid. The urban setting of most larger cities has a much larger support network than Calvin has available to him. Most cities have HIV support organizations, who serve a large number of persons with the virus, and who provide meeting venues for men to meet others with whom they can share experiences. Calvin found a few chat rooms on AOL where he met others with similar isolation situations. He also managed to speak with his doctor and got the name of a group not very far from where he lives where he managed to make a few "buddies."
My personal experience with HIV has taught me an important lesson: always tell any potential sex partner way in advance. This avoids an uncomfortable edge-of-the-bed moment. I learned it the hard way: My lover JP and I had been having protected sex up to the time I found out, but the news still burdened me with the fear of infecting him. JP is a brilliant, sensitive, supportive man. Instead of sharing the news, and choosing to deal with it together as a couple, I isolated myself, and took a stupid route. I never told him, and began to withdraw from making love with him. At first I made lame excuses. I even faked headaches. In short order he began to become frustrated, then angry. He started feeling there may have been something wrong with him.
It was cruel and unthinking of me to let him feel rejected. I feared I'd be abandoned. Knowing JP, that never would have happened. I felt as though I wasn't desirable any longer. He even returned from a job in Paris to be with me. Eventually, to protect him, I precipitated our breakup. I still have ambivalent feelings as to whether I should have done so. He was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I'm more sure now than ever we'd have made it as a couple despite the 'bug.' We're still like brothers.
"A good relationship, gay or not, will withstand adversity. HIV adds yet another major hurdle for a couple, but not an insurmountable one. The wars brought many soldiers home as so-called damaged, and in some ways even more so than HIV can do. Love survived in many, and in others it just wasn't strong enough. Still, I'm terrified of being ultimately abandoned." Robert was discussing how he and Tom had started to break away from one another.
Many gay men have the fear of growing old alone when their looks and sexuality are gone. The HIV just makes it worse for them. "When I realized that there were so many places I could find support, my fear began to subside, and Tom and I began to grow closer, and to deal with our lives in a more positive way. If I was single and starting all over, I'd look for another man with HIV. It's just less complicated, but we're together and I want to make this work. When we vowed to love one another it was the happiest day of my life. We restated that vow when I converted, and no virus will ever change that for us. Period."
Being in a gay partnership has never been easy. More straight marriages are ending up in the divorce courts than ever before (nearly half) and although there are no statistics, the odds for gays are far worse. HIV has dumped another whole truckload of challenges on top of the heap, but it is possible to cope, and even to thrive. Some of the following have worked for me and the people I've spoken with:
Remember that you love one another. There was a very good reason for the two of you to have joined as a couple. You may need to remind one another of this at times.
Communicate openly with your other half. Share your feelings with one another, never deal in blame, anger or guilt. Neither of you created this, and you can work it out as a couple -- together.
Be realistic. Don't be fooled. Your situation is not an easy one and some people simply cannot deal with it. It doesn't make them weak or bad people and it doesn't mean they aren't in love. If you can't hack it, don't try to fake it.
Stay safe, and create guidelines. Plan to discover new ways of eroticising your lovemaking. Make it fun. Laugh more, and don't be so serious. Share fears and feelings about certain modes of sex play.
Get a support network. Some community organizations sponsor groups which offer couples counseling. It helps to have someone you can both talk to. "We've jumped so many other hurdles, and this one won't stop us either."
Michael Safdiah, who has been surviving with HIV for over a decade, lives in New York City.