So in order to, in a sense, increase the comfort level again ...
Yes: I told them, "This is what's going on, this is what happened." And I didn't lose anybody, so... The people who had children were a little concerned, but they said, "Well, she's been with us already."
In your book, you outline the tremendous outpouring of support you've had from friends, family and business clients since you began telling others you have HIV. Have you had any negative experiences?
From my high-school friends. They said they couldn't foresee how anybody would want to be intimate with somebody who has HIV. And my closest friends were freaked out. They're better with it now, because it's been 11 years, and I look much healthier. I've gained weight, finally. I was really skinny. I was like in a size 0, a girl's 14. I've gained weight now, after menopause. Praise God!
At what point did you decide it was OK to start trying to date again?
Danny died in March of '97. In September, I went to a UCF football game with my high-school friend Don. While we were there I met a man who was visiting from England. We struck up a conversation and he asked me out. I said "Yes." I figured, OK, I'm going to be dating sooner or later. So we went to dinner. I waited until after we ate and then told him about my HIV. It didn't go too well after that.
How did he react?
He just said, "Oh, you're a much stronger person than you think you are," yada, yada, yada. And then he didn't even walk me to my car. He just sort of, like, left! I know people from England are not that rude.
What made you decide to tell him on the first date?
He didn't live here, so I figured I needed to use him as a guinea pig, to see how the reaction would be when I did really get ready to start dating. I figured, OK, this is the way it's going to be. And sure enough, when I had my second date -- I haven't dated much, so this'll be really short -- when I had my second date, I waited six weeks into the friendship to tell him. After we ate dinner one night we went for a walk, and then I decided to tell him. He responded very well, and he started telling me things about himself -- like, "Well, I got a broken foot when I was 10" -- and then he said he wanted to get some information from one of the local HIV/AIDS agencies. I thought that was really cool. Anyway, I didn't hear from him for a week. I called him a week and five days later, and he said that he got the information and got the answers that he wanted. And I was like, "Great," and didn't press him. Then he said, "Well, I gotta go." I never heard from him again. So I figured this is just the way it's going to be. But then I have met some men that had no problem dating me.
And that's gone well?
Yes, I've been in several relationships since then. I saw one very private HIV-positive man. Then I dated a musician well-known in the Orlando area. He was hot, the first man who really made me blush. He was from Venezuela. Oh, he was hot! I never did kiss him. He kissed me once. I just knew from my history that he was very sexual. Since I was HIV positive and he knew I was positive, I just didn't want to go that route. He made me feel beautiful, but that was that.
Then I went out with this one young man. He was fifteen-and-a-half years younger than me. I was 40, and he was 24. He didn't know quite how old I was. He was so nice and a very good cook. He was the first man that I ever let stay in my house. This young man, named Dylan, was the first young man that my family, even my extended cousins, met. It was at Thanksgiving that they met. We're talking eight, nine years since I had brought any male companion to any family event. I finally allowed somebody in my life. That was a big hurdle, a very big hurdle.
I met my current boyfriend at a Super Bowl party back in 2004. I saw him there, and I thought, "Oh my God, this guy's obnoxious!" Then I met him again for Fourth of July. He knew I was widowed and he asked how [my husband] passed away. So I said, "He passed away from complications of HIV and I have HIV, too." I just wanted to get that out of the way, since I thought this guy was obnoxious anyway.
He said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I'll take care of you. I'll feed your cat if you get sick." I kept that in the back of my head. Any guy who wants to take care of my cat is a keeper.
So, were you right?
Yes. I'm finally dating a good man -- a good man. Have you read The Purpose Driven Life [pastor Rick Warren's guide to finding divine guidance]? He is that. He is the perfect man. He doesn't get irritated and nothing inconveniences him. I am the opposite.
We've been dating for three years now. I met his family, and they don't know I'm positive. I'm usually upfront about my situation, but since dating him, I've learned to keep my mouth shut. I tell you, it's not easy.
Why can't you tell his family?
He asked me to not share it with his family, and I respect that. At first I was uncomfortable about it, but now I'm used to it.
It's been two-and-a-half years and I think he's getting a little bit more comfortable with it. We're working on it. It's one of the reasons we're not ready to get married yet.
It sounds like you have been very open about your status with your friends, your partners, your colleagues. I understand you also recently spoke to your church about being HIV positive. What was that like?
After being a member of my church for nine years, I was given the opportunity to share my testimony to my congregation. It was very eye opening to a lot of people. We are talking about 2,500 people who saw me speak. So the Lord opened up that avenue.
I came out. [Laughs.] It was my coming out. After [the minister] introduced me and I went up to my church family that had seen me all these years, people were like, "Oh, my gosh, she's living with AIDS!" It's not a gay person; it's not a drunk person; it's not a prostitute. I'm somebody who looks like everybody else. In fact, afterwards I was able to meet two other men in my congregation who told me they have HIV. Later women came up to me and told me they had gone out to get tested, because [they thought], "If she has it, then we could, too."
It was very healing. My parents came. I got friends who hadn't stepped into a church in years to come. It was a very powerful five minutes. It's amazing what five minutes can do when you chose the right words.
What's the best piece of advice you could give to single women with HIV?
Don't give up. Don't give up! Find some good people to surround yourself with, a good church family or good friends. Especially people who are newly diagnosed -- don't give up.
I met some awesome HIV-positive women at this panel [at the University of Central Florida] last night. I was thinking that my next book would be about me, but now I'm thinking its going to be about them. Oh, awesome women! Sometimes when you are newly diagnosed, you don't realize your inner strength. This one woman, she grew up on the streets of New York City. She hasn't tapped into her inner strength yet, but she's survived a lot. This other woman, she's tapped into her inner strength. She's a rock. We just have to tap into that strength.