Cruising With Lazarus
I'm single. I'm gay. I'm living with HIV. I want my own reality show. Someone from the BRAVO television network, or even VH-1, should call me. Seriously. These are the people who gave us Project Runway (temperamental wannabe fashion designers are judged by haughty experts) and Breaking Bonaduce ('70s Partridge Family child star Danny spectacularly abandons sobriety, undermines his marriage and shoots up steroids in a show with all the subtlety of an AMTRAK derailment). I want to be the star of TV's first HIV-related dating reality program.
Here's the concept: cameras follow me on dates. That's it. I don't eat bugs and nobody gets a makeover. I don't dance or skate with any celebrities and no one gets to be my boyfriend just by winning an immunity challenge. No, instead, I just meet potential partners for coffee and stuff. Now, I know you're probably thinking it would be more interesting if I were trapped on an island or confined to a mansion with two-dozen guys and had to pick and eliminate, but it's already been done, people. I'm telling you, just turn the camera on and follow me; you won't be disappointed.
I mostly meet guys online through personal ads. Placing a personal ad -- or responding to one -- used to be considered an act of desperation. Not so much anymore. Now, Hollywood makes cute movies about it and there are all kinds of popular online dating and relationship sites. The leader, Match.com, welcomes gays and lesbians looking for love; upstart eHarmony.com does not -- founder Dr. Neil Clark Warren has stated publicly there's no reason to match gays and lesbians since the United States does not legally recognize our unions. For my part, I recognize that, credentials aside, Neil Clark is probably just a run-of-the-mill homophobe who thinks queer love is sinful and icky.
I've been single four years now. That's like, twelve, in gay years. And I'm fortysomething. That's like, dead, in gay years. Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but being gay, single and HIV-positive in your 40s is not for sissies. You might think (or at least I did) that dating would be easier and come more naturally with age. After all, don't I have a better sense of who I am and what I really want and need now than when I was younger? I've approached dating pragmatically, with a kind of healthy self-awareness. I've placed my personal ad on about a dozen websites. I've been honest about height, weight, age and HIV status. I've been witty and specific in describing my interests and my life. I've used current photos. I've even confessed to having a kinky streak and a weakness for big, hairy guys who look damn fine in a baseball cap.
I've really put myself out there. But I'm still single. So I recently asked two people -- a therapist and an old friend -- what I might be doing wrong. The therapist said, "It sounds like you aren't willing to settle and that means you just have to kiss a lot of frogs." My old friend said, "Your problem is that you have too many dealbreakers." Dealbreakers? That mental checklist we keep, the one with all the reasons why not to get involved. Apparently my list is way too long. And according to my friend I'm never going to find a partner as long as I reject young guys, smokers, cat owners, liars, HIV-negative guys, slobs, men who can't kiss or the ones who love their trucks too much. Frankly, I don't think it's such a long list, and I did go out with a 31-year-old, HIV-negative smoker not long ago. He said my HIV didn't bother him. That sounded less magnanimous when I found out he had no money to pay for his own dinner and drinks. If I had my own reality show you would have already seen me out there with a variety of men. There was Always-Been-Gay-But-Got-Married-To-A-Woman-Anyway Guy. Didn't work out for him. Let's call that Brokeback Mountain Syndrome. There was the guy who freaked out when he thought the man who infected him with HIV was in the same restaurant where we were having dinner. I quit seeing him and he got involved -- I'm not kidding -- with Always-Been-Gay-But-Got-Married-To-A-Woman-Anyway Guy. I also went out with Posed-Nude-For-Gay-Magazine Guy ... and he probably ought to stop using those pics in his personal ad now since they're ten years old.
Painfully-Quiet-But-Hot-Computer-Geek Guy was a looker, not a talker. Over the course of an hour and a half, I tried to get him to converse about something, but ran out of questions and finally asked "Which do you like better, those Star Wars movies or the Lord of the Rings trilogy?" He couldn't decide, though, not surprisingly, he owns them all on DVD. Private-School-Teacher Guy double-booked our date and a tutoring session -- guess who got stood up? I think everyone needs to know how that feels at least once. Then there was I'm-Negative-And-Immune-To-HIV Guy. Yes, he assured me he'd been exposed to HIV repeatedly over the years and never tested positive so it was okay for us to have bareback sex. Oh, and has anyone else out there ever dated Too-Much-Information Guy? A first date might be a little soon to reveal that you're adopted, dyslexic and your mother killed your father with a shoe.
I joke about a lot of this -- God knows a sense of humor is mandatory for dating -- but some dates these last few years have left me very disheartened. About two years ago I got a response to an ad I'd placed on an Internet site designed specifically for HIV-positive individuals. He sent me a photo, we chatted on the phone and finally scheduled dinner. At the restaurant he was barely recognizable from the "recent" photograph he'd sent me. HIV and combination therapy had ravaged his face and body. I could not help but wonder what version of himself he saw when he looked in a mirror. And would that be me someday?
I had another date not long ago that left me feeling sad. I met this fair-haired fellow for coffee and soon learned why he was so accepting of my HIV status: he had tested positive himself barely four weeks earlier. And eventually, right there in the Starbuck's, he confessed that he hadn't wanted to date me; he just wanted someone to talk to about having HIV in his body. It wasn't a date at all, but rather a peer counseling session. Poignant, funny and sometimes harsh ... that's the reality of dating with HIV.
Americans have been exposed to about 300 reality TV programs since 2000, but the last time any relevant depiction of the virus occurred was way back in the 1994 season of MTV's The Real World featuring HIV-positive housemate Pedro Zamora. The application for CBS's Survivor asks potential contestants to list physical illnesses and medications -- how far do you think you get in that process if the answers include HIV and Viramune?
Just imagine how much more Americans might learn about HIV or other STDs if pozzies were given a reality show. So once again, I'll say it: I want to be the star of TV's first HIV-related dating reality program. Let people see it all -- the high school melodrama, the rejection, and my dealbreakers (like guys who kiss their dogs on the mouth). I wish cameras had been there last summer when my date blurted that he was getting over a bout of syphilis and asked me if I knew you could get it from oral sex, as he had. Yeah, dude, I knew that ... though it might have been very educational for viewers who didn't.
David Salyer is an HIV+ journalist, educator and activist living in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads Conscious Sex presentations for men and women and has facilitated workshops for people living with HIV since 1994. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.