Who should make the first move? How do I tell if he has a boyfriend? When do I disclose that I'm HIV-positive? Where can I go to meet Mr. Right besides a gay bar, and how will I tell the difference between Mr. Right and Mr. Right Now?
As a 34-year-old, HIV-positive gay man, I have asked these and many other questions throughout my dating life, yet there is no public forum in which to air them. Most gay advice columns are campy and outrageous, written by cross-dressing vamps who focus on the fag-tag circuit boys. But what about those who aren't into mylar and look kind of silly in a dress?
I am a seasoned veteran of the New York dating scene since Xenon, Studio 54 days. Since testing positive, I have continued to date, both actively and responsibly. In addition, I have advised people for most of my life as an actor's/model's agent, a teacher, and, more recently, as a counselor for individuals who have recently tested HIV-positive. I think that I am in a perfect position to provide this kind of badly needed advice to the gay community. If you agree, feel free to contact me (see contact info at the end of this article).
I am a 28-year-old gay man. I came out when I was 18 and since then I've enjoyed a healthy, active dating life. I've always been comfortable with my sexuality. Three months ago, however, I tested HIV-positive and since then feel like I have to come out all over again. I haven't been able to start dating yet because I'm afraid of how people will react when I tell them about my situation. And I don't know what the rules are. What do I tell people? When do I tell people? And, if safe sex really is safe, do I have to tell them at all? And mostly I'm afraid (although I know it sounds crazy) that no one's ever going to love me again.
Dear Damaged Goods,
Disclosure is like coming out all over again. It helps to realize that the fear of being rejected for being gay and the fear of being rejected for being HIV-positive are one and the same. You did it once and you can do it again. On the other hand, knowing this and putting it into practice are two different things. Just as with coming out, there's no right way or wrong way to go about revealing that you're HIV-positive . . . How and when you tell people is a personal and instinctual decision, and I'm sure you'll find your own way to handle it as gracefully as you leapt over that first coming-out hurdle.
If you're dating, though, be aware that it's a crime in many states not to disclose your status before putting someone at risk. For this reason, and also because I believe that honesty is always the best policy, I always try to tell someone when I first encounter him, before we even make a date. And yes, you're risking rejection, but trust me, not from the people that you want to date. People who aren't empathetic enough to understand your situation are people who are incapable of love.
The reactions I've received run the gamut. For example, I met someone in a bar one night and we hit it off. I really liked him so I procrastinated telling him I was HIV-positive until we were walking back to my apartment. Immediately, I saw total terror and fear in his eyes and he literally ran away from me in the street. That night I cried for hours, because I felt like damaged goods. But then I realized that he's the one who's damaged. Somebody who allows his fear to overtake him to the point that he'll leave me standing in the street like that has got more problems than I do, and is definitely not someone I would want to date. What I started to realize then, and what you will come to realize, too, is that you are not damaged goods. You are not your illness. In fact, AIDS has enabled me to improve my life by forcing me to face my fears, and thereby free myself to my full potential as a loving, caring human being.
On the other end of the spectrum, I've met men who are so unconcerned about contracting HIV that they're willing to engage in unsafe sex. Anyone who has that little self-respect is hardly capable of a relationship.
Basically, being HIV-positive helps you to weed out the trash. The quality of the people in my life since HIV has greatly improved. My relationships have become more about quality than quantity. It's said that if you have five good friends in this life, you're lucky. Right now I've got seven, and I believe that if we follow our hearts, and are honest with ourselves and others, there's no reason we can't stretch that figure into the double digits.
I've been dating a man for about eight weeks now and it's starting to get serious, which is all right with me because I've been looking for a long-term relationship. Lately, though, a couple of things have started to bother me. For one thing, I only have his work number, and when I asked him for a home phone he got kind of evasive, muttered something about office voice mail, and changed the subject. And we never go to his place because he says it's the size of a large closet.
Do you think this is an intimacy issue, or does he have a boyfriend? I know that I could be worried about nothing, but it's happened to me before and I don't want to go through that heartache again. How do I find out if he's involved?
A Dog Lover
Dear Dog Lover,
There a quite a few "tells" to tip you off that somebody has a boyfriend. One pretty sure sign is a ring on the ring finger of either hand. Unfortunately, two others signs are not providing home numbers, and never going to his place. However, if you want to give him the benefit of the doubt, I'd use my method, which is a little crude and obvious, but effective. I ask. And I ask right away so I don't end up in a position where I'm trying to guess if some guy I'm already hung up on has a boyfriend.
Generally speaking, I've found that people who are in relationships are bad liars, so asking them right up front catches them off guard, and they're likely to give you a pretty good indication of whether or not they're already seeing someone. In fact, as far as I know, I've never had anybody out-and-out lie to me when asked point blank if they're spoken for.
About two-thirds of the guys who cruise me will admit to having a boyfriend. One guy not only fessed up, but told me that he would have brought me upstairs only his boyfriend hadn't left for work yet. Obviously he was in an open relationship, which is okay for him, but it's not what I'm looking for.
The other one-third I call wafflers, because they'll kind of stammer and pfumpfer around. You say, "Do you have a boyfriend?" and they'll say things such as, "Well, sort of, but, you know, not really . . . " Don't let that ambiguity fool you. Commitment is not a relative concept. These dogs definitely have a bowl at home, but they still want your Kibbles and Bits.
It's easier for people to commit a sin of omission than to tell a bold-faced lie, which is why I always try to get the married/single issue out into the open during the very first exchange. If you don't ask you could wind up being unpleasantly surprised, like I was when the psychic I was dating had some other guy's ID fall out of his pocket. (But I wasn't really that crushed anyway. I have a rule against dating psychics. Knowing everything in advance kind of kills the spontaneity in a relationship, and they never laugh at your jokes because they can anticipate the punchline.)
So, as hard as it might seem, just go ahead and ask him. Who knows, he might tell you, but if he says that he's single and you still find yourself feeling uncomfortable, trust your instincts, and put the mutt to bed. It's best to let lying dogs sleep.
Call me Nancy Nitpicker, but . . . I can't seem to find my Mr. Right. It's always the same story. We meet in the street, he looks great in a pair of hiphuggers, first date he's charming as hell, then we go home and he reveals some fatal flaw and I have to dump him. Like the lawyer I met last week. Gorgeous, smart, funny, good income, kind to children and animals. But the first time we kissed I got a whiff of something that had died a long time ago, and I realized that it was his breath. I haven't called him since. My friends say I'm too picky and that there's no such thing as the perfect man. I know it seems like a little thing, but I'm not sure I want to spend the rest of my life in a gas mask. Maybe I should buy him a bottle of mouthwash and hope for the best. I don't know. What do you think?
You can lead a horse to mouthwash but you can't make him gargle. And "a little thing," as most of us know, is a relative concept. It reminds me of a dentist I once dated. Same deal. Perfect guy. Cute ass, great legs, older gentleman, had money . . . and I thought, well, this is it. This is love. He's everything I want in a guy. And then we had dinner. And it was like eating with a wood chipper. You had to watch for fall-out. He chewed, I swallowed. And he was fast, with both hands; chicken, French fry, chicken, French fry, and talking and breathing and eating all through the same orifice. He spat through the entire main course, and when he came out with the Cherry Garcia for dessert, I got nervous, because I wasn't wearing a spit guard and because chocolate stains. I thought to myself, okay, so it seems like a little thing, but can I really spend the rest of my life sitting across the table from a human mulcher? And that's when I did the math.
(3 meals a day) x (352 days in a year) x (30 years) = 31,680 meals
I realized that if I stayed with the dentist I might have a beautiful smile, but I'd end up looking like a Jackson Pollock painting -- and I'm not that partial to Abstract Expressionism. So it wasn't that much of a little thing after all.
I've taken the liberty of doing the math for you:
(352 mornings) x (30 years) = 10,560 times you have to wake up next to a guy whose breath smells like a subway station in August
It all boils down to this. You have to go into a relationship accepting people as they are because you can't change them. And little things aren't so little once you do the multiplication. Most of us learn to keep dinner in our own mouths by the age of seven, so any guy who can't keep from decoupaging his dinner companion has some serious developmental blockages he's not confronting. Your lawyer is probably ignoring a serious dental problem. Your dumping him may be just the push he needs to go and get it taken care of.
By the way, if he needs a referral, I know a really good dentist . . . just tell him not to make an appointment at lunch time!
Since finding out he was HIV-positive, Andy Gale has facilitated the drop-in support group at Body Positve, and provides one-on-one counseling for individuals who have recently tested positive. Andy lives in Manhattan, experiencing each day to its fullest. Send mail to Andy at 134 West 92nd Street, New York, NY 10025. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.