All my boyfriends have been HIV negative. Doctors and infectious disease specialists call these relationships “serodiscordant,” a word that describes partners with differing HIV status. My boyfriend, Brent, is HIV negative and on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a daily pill that prevents HIV infection. As a rule, he and I never use condoms. If a late-night visitor wants to use one, we ask them to leave. Most of our sex happens with strangers, because we both prefer the thrill of anonymity over sex with people we know—including each other. That doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. Quite the contrary: I love him because he is mine and not mine.
I met Brent in Savannah, Georgia, in the spring of 2016. He was visiting town with a group of friends from Atlanta. They were dancing in a deserted gay club. I saw them across the floor—we were the only people there—and joined in. At closing time, I suggested he and I go back to my place. On the way there, I told him I was HIV positive and undetectable. I braced for rejection. He only said, “OK.” He said he was HIV negative and on PrEP. He said he hated condoms. I said I did too. Years later, he told me I was the first person he had bareback sex with who he knew was HIV positive. Although he showed no sign of this, he was nervous that night, for a second. But he overcame it. He crossed that threshold with me.
It is a powerful thing to beat your fear. He knew the science: I couldn’t transmit HIV, and thanks to PrEP, he couldn’t get it. All that was left was the hesitation, the mental block, something science can’t overcome on its own. I’ve been positive long enough to know that scared people don’t care about science or facts.
Today, he is the most sexually fearless person I know. His sexuality is like a dragon clawing its way out of a cave. He challenges me to never stop exploring.
Kal and Tab are another gay couple who, like us, met in Savannah, Georgia, and still live in the South (I’m using their pet names for each other, by request). Kal is HIV positive and works in health care. Tab is HIV negative. When they met, Tab was not on PrEP.
“When we started having sex, I wouldn’t let him bareback me until he was on PrEP,” Kal says. “I knew being undetectable meant zero risk of transmission, but I wanted that extra layer of protection.”
“He loads me up once a week now,” Kal says.
They have experimented with sex toys and have started the discussion of involving outside playmates: “We’re very sex-positive and believe sex is something that should be shared.”
Wanting that “extra layer of protection” and feeling responsible for your partner’s safety is something I and other HIV-positive people in serodiscordant relationships are very familiar with.
Tim in San Francisco met Adam when he was 44. Adam was 25. With 19 years between them, the men had very different perspectives on HIV.
“Adam was HIV negative, and that was a big hurdle for me,” Tim says. “He wasn’t bothered by my status and didn’t want to use condoms. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s and saw what AIDS did, so I was not comfortable with unsafe sex. I didn’t want to infect him.”
Tim adds: “PrEP had just come out, and no one knew what a game-changer it would be.”
Today, Tim and Adam are married—and enjoy lots of bareback sex. Adam is now on PrEP. They also are in what we call a triad—a relationship between three people—and consider themselves polyamorous (“poly,” from the Greek, meaning “many,” and “amour,” Latin for “love”). Their third, Doug, came into their lives three years into their relationship. Doug is also HIV positive and has some years on Adam, who remains the youngest and HIV negative.
“In the beginning, the three of us had a very sexual relationship, but it’s evolved into something else, something like family,” Tim says.
I ask him to explain that.
“Well, Adam likes rough sex and wants to be fucked and abused. I am more connection-focused and enjoy exploring my kinks with men I have a special connection with. Adam and I have struggled at times to communicate these differences and work through our jealousy and insecurity, and we’ve used Doug to moderate. We’ve put him in the role of ‘fixer.’ And that’s not fair.”
Tim says they now see a therapist together, and Doug has taken a warm, almost parental role to both of them.
Nikhil and Ryan asked me not to specify where they live, since Ryan is not open about his HIV-positive status, but they are proud to say they just bought a house together. They met a year ago on Tinder, a dating app marketed primarily to straight people.
Nikhil tells me about their first date. “When we made plans to meet up for a drink, [Ryan] said openly that he wanted me to know that he was HIV positive. I told him that wasn’t a problem for me. I work in public health and am on PrEP, so I’m generally very informed about HIV.”
That degree of knowledge has made sex communication easier for them, Nikhil says. They’ve communicated effectively about the kind of relationship they want—an open one.
“We have to be honest about when we play with others. No secrets,” Nikhil says. “We can’t have sex with friends or anyone where it could turn into something more than sex.”
What makes these relationships similar? Yes, they’re serodiscordant—but look deeper.
Serodiscordance is, if nothing else, a communication challenge. Consider it a gate: Once unlocked—once you reject and overcome the stigma of HIV—the floodgate opens to more open and honest communication. From there, it’s an easy jump to embracing the philosophy of radical intimacy and barrier-free connection (barebacking). Then it’s easy to explore new forms of sex—sex involving toys and outside playmates. From there, it’s easy to navigate the complex and complicated world of kink and BDSM together—and to know when it’s time to consult a professional in order to keep your relationship healthy.
Couples might then find it easier to challenge the antiquated dogma of monogamy. From there, it’s easy to explore polyamory—a concept that rejects the false myth that you can only love one person at a time.
Serodiscordant relationships require open-mindedness and a willingness to reject the narratives our culture teaches about HIV-positive people—that we’re “dangerous” or that we intentionally infect people or that we were all trying to get infected. A willingness to seek and see the truth is a foundation for a great relationship—one built on honesty, facts, and mutually beneficial exploration.
That doesn’t mean that all is perfect in serodiscordant relationships or that everyone overcomes fear at the same pace. Josh in Chicago is in a quad, a relationship between four men, and is the only one with HIV; the rest are HIV negative and on PrEP.
“My status was brought up as a topic of conversation before we agreed to start dating,” Josh says. “Two of them have no problem with it, but one still has a mental block. Even though he knows the statistics and the data, he is worried on some level. We continue to have conversations and try to get his conscious and his subconscious to meet and understand that I am actually the safer choice because of my medication adherence.”
I ask him how it feels to navigate his partner’s fears.
“Hearing those words, ‘I am afraid of having sex with you because you’re positive,’ is hard. Especially when it is someone you are supposed to be in a relationship with,” Josh says. “It was literally my worst fear when I tested positive, that I was no longer lovable, or that it would interfere with my ability to find someone. We are working on it.”
In nearly all serodiscordant couples I spoke with, the HIV-negative partner was on PrEP—an expensive medication, one that it is not available to those without good insurance. Lower-income people and communities of color often do not have the same access to PrEP as white, cisgender gay men. My HIV-positive friends of color say serosorting is more common in these communities.
“Serosorting” is the practice of only dating/fucking people with the same HIV status as you. This means if you’re HIV negative, you only date/fuck HIV-negative people, and if you’re HIV positive, you only date/fuck HIV-positive people. The problem with trying to do so is this: It is impossible to tell who has HIV and who does not.
The practice of serosorting is rooted entirely in the myth that you can tell someone’s HIV status by seeing them—a lie that has been repeated over and over by the misinformed public, anti-LGBTQ lawmakers, and HIV conspiracy theorists.
Some queer elders who lived in the ’80s say serosorting was never widely practiced. Others say that once more and more people knew about HIV, serosorting became the law. Regardless which version of events is true, serosorting is nearly impossible to do unless you stay with the same partner, whose HIV status you know, and neither of you have sex with anyone else.
That’s exactly what my friend Mark did (Mark is something of a mentor and father figure to me). Mark is 63 and says his previous 30-year relationship is the reason he survived AIDS.
“I had a doctor friend tell me in 1978 or ’79 to stay out of the cities,” Mark says. “He said they have a bug they cannot kill.”
He and his partner moved to a small town, where they ran an antique shop for many years while AIDS ravaged the queer communities of large urban meccas like San Francisco and New York. That relationship ended 15 years ago, and when that happened, Mark believed he would live the rest of his life single.
He became actively involved in local LGBT rights and got sober. And then, nearly five years ago, he met his husband-to-be, also named Mark, at a gay campground.
Mark and Mark are 63 and 57, respectively. The first is HIV positive, the second is HIV negative.
Mark tells me a story: “In 1989, a friend named Jerry and his partner moved to town from Buffalo. Jerry was positive, and progressed through [AIDS] here. He loved the beach and the sun, but once the lesions on his body became noticeable, he didn’t want to go to the beach anymore, so we bought a plastic children’s wading pool with cartoons on the bottom and spent the summer laying in it. Jerry’s partner was with him the whole time until he passed. His family didn’t even come to the memorial.”
I ask Mark about his own love story—he and his husband got married two years ago, and they are a beautiful reminder that great relationships can come later in life. Mark says their age and collective trauma from AIDS certainly adds weight to the discussion of HIV that folks in my generation (and all later generations) cannot grasp. But at the same time, he says, it is simply remarkable that we are here now, talking about this, discussing the power of serodiscordant relationships as a force of goodness and education in a world that desperately needs us.