What were you doing with your life at the time you decided to start up Hetero Pos Atlanta?
Well, I work full-time. I have a lot of hobbies. I'm very close to my family -- I spent a lot of time with them -- and I have a lot of great friends who are negative, so basically this was just an extra thing to add to my list of things to do.
Has it really changed your lifestyle?
Not my lifestyle, but it's definitely changed how much spare time I have. Like I said, I had no idea what was going to happen; after I started out with nine people I thought, well, you know what, maybe that'll be OK, just 10 of us. But now I hear from people every single week, so it grows and grows and grows. It's a lot of work, because I'm trying to keep personal information on people, I'm trying to schedule our monthly events, I'm trying to figure out what could best be delegated out. And just like with any club or organization, you're going to have a core group of people who are always going to be there and who are going to be the ones who are interested in helping or maintaining the group. So that's the point we're at now; I'm delegating stuff out to people, like, you manage the Web site, you open the bank account, little things like that, so hopefully that'll take some of the weight off of me. But I also feel like this is my little baby, so I'm not willing just yet to let it all go.
So you really are kind of in the process of formalizing the group, in a sense.
Yeah, and we had a big meeting in August and took a vote on which way we wanted to go with this: Keep things the way they are or really try to expand? I don't think it should be my decision; it has to be a group decision. And 28 out of the 32 people said, "I want to keep it private, but it needs a little more structure." Right now, I mail out a personal information sheet, I mail out a confidentiality statement, I mail out a "What are your ideas?" list, and I get all that back from them and just keep that on file.
It sounds pretty well-organized. Did it start up that way?
Oh no, oh no. Before I started the Web site, I had a good six weeks where I was typing things up, shaping what my vision was for what this group was going to be: that it wasn't a formal support group; there was no counselor or therapist; there was no dating service. So I had a lot of the initial stuff very well organized before I even met with these other people in May.
Have you noticed any difference between the way men and women act during meetings, or the way they deal with their HIV in general?
What I've seen is that men are much more excited to see other men who are heterosexual. Because they have found in the past that, though they all have become friends with a lot of homosexual men, they just really wanted to connect with someone who really knew how they felt. They talk a lot about disclosure; and a lot about dating -- much more so than the women.
What do the women mostly talk about?
Just life in general, about anything. We've become pretty close friends. I say it's not a support group, but we derive support just from being around each other and talking to each other about whatever's on our minds.
So meetings don't really have agendas or anything.
Once a quarter I have planning meetings, where I get dinner and we discuss what's going on with the group. But every other thing is a function: bowling, a laser show, a barbecue, things like that. Just like you'd go out with any of your friends. And to get back to your earlier question, there's a lot more men than women, too.
Really? What's your breakdown?
We have 13 women, so that's 17 or so men. And I hear from more men that have yet to make an appearance. So they're not quite ready to, I guess, come out and take that step. But I hear from people every week.
How do you help people to take that step into the group? I'm sure there's a significant difference between people who have been going out with you guys since May vs. people who have just joined.
The May meeting was actually pretty easy, because everyone was going for the first time. Now we always have new people coming. I'm the first point of contact; usually they get in touch with me through e-mail. I send something back to them through e-mail. I give them my phone number and say, "If you'd like to call me, please call me." And eight times out of 10 they call me within two days, and I just try to give them the rundown of what's been going on, tell them it's a great group and a great group of people, and this is our next event. I offer to meet up with them at some point before the event, if it's a few weeks away. You try to kind of reassure them that they're safe and it's fun, a nice group of people, and to really encourage them to come. And then, like I said, eight times out of 10 they're at the next event. And then when they get here, when they're at the event, I try to take the lead and introduce myself, because they're usually looking for me -- they're like, well, where's Mindy?
Do they know what you look like?
Sometimes; it depends. A lot of times I will let the new people know, say, that I'll be there 15 minutes early, or what I'll have on. At the very first meeting I brought a balloon with me. [Laughs.] I was like the big idiot with the mylar balloon. But I thought, how else are people going to find me?
So, yeah, it's their own personal decision, but most of the people I talk to come out to the next event. And everyone is very receiving of them. They show up. They introduce themselves. They blend right in. Though there was one event, I think it was our third, we had two new people come. One blended in real easily, but the other one was having a really hard time. He got pretty upset. He said to me, "Well, obviously you guys all have a little niche here." So now, when I do talk to people before their first event, I say that some of us have now known each other since May, so we're more comfortable with each other, we know more about each other, we know each other's stories. You have to give it time. And I've also talked to the group about that: please, really, really try to go out of your way to make sure this person is included. I also ask every person when they start to do their very best to commit to six months of coming to events.
Do most people stick to that?
Yeah, they all have. I haven't actually had anyone who told me, "No, I don't think I can do that." I've learned that you at least have to go to something three times before you can make a judgement on it, so I ask people to make a six-month commitment. Then you'll have an idea, and I'll respect it if you don't want to come back or you let me know what's making you uncomfortable, or if it just wasn't what you were looking for. We haven't really run into that yet, though.
Do you get new group members through doctor referrals or other support organizations?
Yeah. I've gone out to different ASOs, and typed a generic, "This is Hetero Pos Atlanta, this is what it is," and told them if you get a call or you have a client who is heterosexual, just let them know and send them on to me. People who don't have access to the Internet, their caseworkers will give me the person's phone number, and then I'll go ahead and call them. We'll take them however we can get them! [Laughs.]
How large would you be comfortable with Hetero Pos Atlanta getting?
That's what we were talking about at our meeting in August. I don't want to limit what could happen. I'm sort of shocked just to know that there are 32 people out there -- and, like I said, I've probably heard from 10 others who I have yet to have second contact with -- but I also know there are more and more people out there. I'd love to grow to 50 people in the next few months. It was a gamble from the beginning, and I have no idea what will happen next.
Do you network with other support groups around the country?
We're in the very beginning stages of doing that. There's Heterochat; the founder's out of Maryland, and he basically started out just like we have, and they now are just huge. They have an annual heterosexual retreat for HIV-positive people; they just had one in Atlantic City in August. It's going to be in Atlanta next year. We're kind of in the process of talking to those people; they're going to give us space on their Web page to plug ourselves. And some of our members have already been asked to take part in the planning and organization of next year's Atlanta retreat. I'm glad it's going to be here, because I've always had to fly to California or Atlantic City, etc., and it seems to me that Atlanta would be a pretty smart place to have things, 'cause we're kind of in the middle. [Laughs.]
Well, especially at the beginning -- when you realized you wanted to reach out and find others like you, and were flying across the country in order to do it -- it must've been not just expensive and time-consuming, but kind of frustrating as well.
It was very expensive, and it was very nerve-racking, but I just kind of said, "You have to: What's the worst thing that can happen when I go?" And, you know, one of my closest girlfriends now I met five years ago in California. She lives in Washington state.
How involved in the group are your members' friends and families?
We voted at our first meeting, because we do have members who have children or are in relationships, so we have certain events that are open to friends and family. They can bring their kids, their parents, they can bring their roommates in my case. They can bring siblings, anybody, as long as they're HIV-friendly and they know about us -- we don't want anyone coming who's going to be blown away all of a sudden when they realize they're in a room with 30 people who have HIV.
Right: You don't want it to turn into a daytime talk-show episode or something.
Exactly. But that's really worked out, and it's actually allowed us to meet other people.
How long have you been with your current roommate?
[Turns to roommate.] How long have I known you? Too long. [Laughs.] I think we've known each other six years, and we have lived together for five years.
That's a long time to have a roommate.
Yeah. [Laughs.] But I did the gamut. I lived with my boyfriend for quite a long time, and lived by myself, and right now I'm not involved with anyone. This works out well.
How are you feeling about dating these days?
I am on a hiatus from dating. My personal preference is to date someone who is also positive, but sharing a virus does not make two people compatible. I keep an open mind, but as time passes I become more and more disheartened and realize that I may never meet the man I envision myself with. I believe in compromise, supporting your partner, growing together, etc., and realize [that] all people despite their HIV status face the same challenges in seeking and maintaining relationships. I am realistic that my chances and choices may be limited. I am happy with who I am independent of a man but the romantic in me still longs for the "click" when you know there is a connection and spark between two people.
Was your last boyfriend HIV positive also?
You said that your support group is not a dating service, but have you had any coincidental dating between members?
Yeah, we have.