This Month in HIV: Tips and Tricks for Coping With HIV/AIDS
A Psychologist and Three HIV-Positive People Share Their Wisdom
Larry Bryant: I understand and respect the decision-making process that goes towards to whom we disclose to, and who not. But we deny ourselves the opportunity to develop a certain level of self respect and bravery, in just living with the disease and just talking about it, in the context of the "I" statements. It also denies other individuals the opportunity to be educated, to be absorbed, and to understand the complexities that are the life of an HIV-positive person.
Sherri Lewis: It also depends where you are in life. As I was married and I had that part of my life secured, and I had a support system and 12-step fellowship, I was able to disclose. I had a foundation and a world around me that gave me the strength to be able to speak out and be out.
Everything changes. Over 15 years later I still have my support system, but I'm single and I've relocated. So the friends are relatively new, but I have good, solid relationships. But it makes it much more difficult. I'm having to practice not being so up front about HIV, because my therapist will say to me, "Why don't you give him a chance to get to know who you are first?" Because it's not exactly a date maker. And that's been work for me. It's an exercise.
Let's discuss finding love when you have HIV. Larry, can you start? Dating is about disclosure, but it's also about feeling that you deserve to find love. There have been polls of HIV-positive people who have decided to be abstinent because they didn't want to deal with all that comes with dating.
Larry Bryant: Then there are people who decide to be abstinent because of all that comes with AIDS. I think a lot of times, when we're diagnosed, and we see ourselves -- you know, we accept the life, willingly or unwillingly, of being an HIV-positive person -- it kind of knocks us, in our own minds; it kind of knocks us outside of the normal orbit of the dating scene.
I was diagnosed at 18, on account of, I was captain of the football players. I'm in the middle, or the beginning, of my dating life, or whatever, and never really experienced it, because I just automatically subtracted myself from the equation.
Over time, it's like I'm Haley's Comet. I feel like I should be dating maybe every six or seven years, and then, even then, it's tricky.
Dr. Robert Remien: Where are you now? Are you coming back in?
Larry Bryant: I think I'm in the Aquarian line of the stars; I'm not sure. I think, first of all -- and it's easier said than done -- but we have to understand that dating, in general, is tricky. It takes a kind of special skill of listening and understanding who we are as people, and what do we bring to a relationship.
Like I said: It's easier said than done. But being able to accept ourselves, and knowing what we want as an individual first, knowing who we are as an individual, what our needs are, what our wants are, what our desires are. Then, after that, deciding: What is it that I want?
Because there's no way, positive or negative, that you're going to be able to identify love if you don't know where the map leads, or you don't know what your needs are. You talk about this vulnerability that we put ourselves in, in disclosing, and when you have yourself in a vulnerable state, sometimes you're easily swayed to the first person that gives you a sympathetic hug. That, again, positive or negative, may not always be the best thing.
I think the first part is just understanding who we are as people, where we are, what we need to be, what kind of happiness we need, what kind of likes, who we are and then have a sense of what we want and who we want and if we're truly serious about that relationship. When you have those things in place, I think once you meet someone, it's easier to identify those qualities within that person if we already know what we want. But what we do, I think, whether it's on purpose or whether it's just kind of a self-conscious act, is that we feel like we have to prove ourselves.
We already hope -- as a guy especially -- we already hope that the woman likes us. You go back to in grade school, or in high school, when you have the school dances in the gym, and all the guys are standing up on one side, and all the girls are standing up on the other side, and you got to be that one guy that walks all the way across the gym to ask, and chances are you're going to get disappointed.
It's just like: How? And how fast? How would I look, going back by myself? Those same fears exist now; only that we dress up in this bright red suit, like the ultimate scarlet letter when we go out on a date, and we feel kind of overly self-conscious at times. Because we kind of put out a preemptive strike. Then we may not even give ourselves the best of chances, because we expect to fail, with the added weight of the diagnosis, of the HIV shadow.
Sherri Lewis: Women have the same feelings of rejection. Will he like me? And talk about a scarlet letter. Women are so much more accepting of men who are positive. That's been my experience.
Larry Bryant: Question: You said that in your perspective, women are much easier to accept?
"As a positive man, there is the trust issue. There's still the stereotype of: It's a gay disease, or close to a gay disease. If you're positive, then you're probably gay, if not now, then at one time. Or, because so many men have been -- especially in the black community, people of color -- HIV is tied very closely to being incarcerated, to having some kind of drug history. There are all of these 'what ifs' that come attached to that diagnosis."
-- Larry Bryant
Sherri Lewis: Women have been, in my experience. My HIV-positive friend has been dating, and been in relationships, all with negative women. They have all been extremely loving, long relationships of several years, even looking at the possibilities of getting pregnant or having a family. I mean, really invested, supportive, loving, caring, nurturing, all of those things. A man does not go that -- in my experience, hasn't gone that distance.
My ex-husband did, but the problem for us was not being able to have children. It was just really painful. Then, with me being an activist, the stigma of coming out and, publicly, people looking at him ... He was in the community, pretty out in the community, not about HIV, but just in general -- and people looking at him and wondering, "Does he have it? Or did he get it from her?" You know.
So that broke our marriage up. And he wasn't positive.
Larry Bryant: I'm not going to say you're wrong, but I know in the black community, in a lot of the communities that I have been a part of, it's much more the other way around.
Because, as a positive man, there is the trust issue. There's still the stereotype of: It's a gay disease, or close to a gay disease. If you're positive, then you're probably gay, if not now, then at one time.
Or, because so many men have been -- especially in the black community, people of color -- HIV is tied very closely to being incarcerated, to having some kind of drug history. There are all of these "what ifs" that come attached to that diagnosis.
Sherri Lewis: Well, that is true. Yes.
"The most important thing is that people need to feel that they have a right to love, a right to sex, a right to being a parent, to even having children, when living with HIV. Everyone has that same right. And while there are challenges to doing it, love is out there for people with HIV."
-- Dr. Robert Remien
Larry Bryant: So it kind of lends itself to a very, very distinct distrust in who this man really is. Hell, that even goes beyond status, because of the book, a few years ago -- this thing about the down low, how that just really propelled the distrust between sexes, particularly among black couples.
So every woman was looking at her man differently, because this guy wrote a book that has these symbols and you can tell your man is this, and you do this.
It really boils down to it has nothing to do with the whole down low thing; it has nothing to do with any of those specific things. Individually, what it has to do with primarily is the level of trust and understanding, and communication. If you have any breaks in either of those avenues, then you can label it whatever you want to, and it's going to prevent the actual connection of happiness.
Dr. Robert Remien: I think it's important to comment that, what I'm hearing is that the reality is that in different settings, different communities, in different contexts, and across different people, there is a reality of there being stigma and prejudice, and all kinds of, everyone, in their own minds, thinking what this must mean, why this person's HIV positive. That's real, and that's what makes it so challenging for a lot of people, particularly when it comes to dating and finding love.
But I also think -- the way you posed the question, Bonnie, and I think the way Larry started answering -- is that the most important thing is that people need to feel that they have a right to love, a right to sex, a right to being a parent, to even having children, when living with HIV. Everyone has that same right. And while there are challenges to doing it, love is out there for people with HIV.
And also, we can't get into it now, but the whole issue about becoming a parent when one is living with HIV is becoming more and more of a reality for people. So people need to remember. They still have a right to their sexuality, and to their livelihood.
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This article was provided by TheBody. It is a part of the publication This Month in HIV.
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