There is a relatively new phenomenon sweeping the current social scene: dating. Dating seems to be appealing to increasing numbers of gay men (as evidenced by standing room-only crowds at an event dedicated to dating held at the lesbian and gay community center on a recent saturday night). For much of the gay male community, dating is a concept that was ushered in by the HIV/AIDS health crisis. These days, of course, it is not only a gay men's health crisis, but one that affects increasing numbers of heterosexual men and women, and lesbians. Dating is not a new phenomenon, per se, but it sure seems to be enjoying a renaissance of popularity now, partly in response to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Dating's popularity seems to be a backlash from the carefree, promiscuous, and often anonymous sex days of the 1970s and 1980s. During these periods of time the virus seemed to be spreading almost unchecked as a result of the permissive lifestyle led by many gay men. In the 1990s, however, women, heterosexuals, and people of color have the fastest growing rates of infection. The line of thinking about dating is that it might be the best way to explore and develop healthy relationships. This believe is being followed by a diverse group of people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. Since dating has always been a tradition in mainstream culture, heterosexuals and bisexuals have had a head start on it while lesbians and gay men are catching up on learning the ins and outs of it. For the experienced dater or the novice, there are trials and tribulations involved. As Greg Louganis has said, "Dating is weird if you are straight or gay."
Dating brings up some particular fears for people who are HIV-positive. Among them are: 1) Fear of infecting another person whether safer sex is being practiced or not; 2) Fear that their physical condition may interfere with their ability to maintain a relationship; 3) Fear that they or their potential partner may die or become physically incapacitated, and that they or their partner will be unable to handle the situation; and 4) The ultimate fear: that they will be rejected by a potential partner because of their positive status.
This writer interviewed several people for this article to gain their views and opinions. Patients, friends, and social acquaintances honestly discussed their perspectives on the perils, pitfalls, and pleasures of (what I like to term) "positive dating."
Fear (or lack of fear) of infecting another person
Tom, a gay man in his fifties, found out about his HIV-positive status four months ago. He says that his major fear concerning dating is that he will infect the other person. Tom stated, "I would really prefer to date other men who are HIV-positive because it removes the fear I have of infecting the other person. I would never willingly infect someone. Of course, I usually only practice safer sex, but there is still that fear."
When researchers discovered that AIDS was caused by the HIV virus, guidelines for having safer sex were emphasized that reduced the risk of sexually transmitting the virus. Using a condom in vaginal or anal intercourse was suggested as one of the main methods for avoiding transmitting the virus. Unfortunately condoms are not foolproof.
José, a young, gay, Puerto Rican, HIV-positive male, stated, "Yeah, man, I use condoms, but I've had them break a few times. My partner was lucky in that he didn't get the virus from me, but we went through a few tense months to see if he turned positive or not."
Not all gay men who are HIV-positive are using condoms like José, nor are all HIV-positive heterosexual men and women. Take, for example, Rhonda, an African American woman in her 30s, who states that she doesn't use (and refuses to use) condoms with her HIV-negative boyfriend whom she has dated for several months. When asked about using safer sex (i.e., condoms) when having sex with the man she is dating, Rhonda responded, "Yeah, I know we should and all that, but we've discussed it and he doesn't want to. Besides, he hasn't gotten it (the virus) yet. You know, when you have to go, you have to go. He figures that since he loves me, if I have it and die, it doesn't matter if he gets it. He'll just die with me."
Sometimes, people don't use condoms because they are tired of using them for so many years or because they buy into the media hype that the new protease inhibitors are so effective that the health crisis is over. In fact, in some quarters, it is believed that AIDS is now a chronic, but no longer potentially fatal, illness. This attitude seems to be greatest among younger gay men. Trevor, an African American male who has sex with men but does not identify as gay, stated, "I'm popping pills anyway. What difference would it make if I had to take a few more?"
Protease inhibitors and the so-called "three-drug cocktails" are making progress changing HIV/AIDS from a life-threatening disease to a chronic one. Yet, these drugs do not work for everyone, and not everyone has the discipline to take them on the strict regimen that they require to be effective.
Limitations on one's physical condition
Ed, a forty-something Puerto Rican gay male who looks healthy, admitted privately that he is constantly plagued by neuropathy (nerve damage characterized by sensory loss, pain, muscle weakness and wasting of muscle in the hands or legs or feet). An HIV-positive person's physical condition affects positive dating. Ed proudly states that he has had six lovers in his lifetime. Ed is dating someone now, but they don't have sex. Here's a short conversation with Ed about his dating life.
BP: Why did you choose to be celibate?
Ed: For a couple of reasons: first, I just didn't have the energy for a physical relationship with sex and all that. Second, I just wanted to concentrate on me.
BP: So have you stopped dating and going out?
Ed: Oh no. I still go out socially once in a while, but I don't pick up anyone to have sex. I just go out with friends. But I do have a constant companion.
BP: Do you have sex with him?
Ed: No. He wants to, of course (he laughs). But I don't want it. I get tired of him always kissing and hugging me.
BP: Why? Because his affectionate behavior might turn you on and challenge you to break your celibacy?
Ed: No. It's not that. I just don't want all the attention. Sometimes I want more time on my own. When he gets to be too much, I just send him home [the lover doesn't live with Ed]. But then he calls me again in a few days and begs to see me.
BP: How would you characterize your relationship with your lover?
Ed: We love each other but there is no sex. He is free to do what he wants that way, as I am [It's an open relationship].
Fear of death of a partner
Ray is a gay man his late fifties who lost his lover of ten years to complications from AIDS in July 1996. Ray is HIV-negative but has many friends who are HIV-positive. He believes that the issues concerning positive dating are relevant to HIV-negative people who are dating also.
BP: You told me that you recently started going out socially after mourning your lover for the last year.
Ray: Yes. That's right. I'm still going through bereavement, but I am going out once in a while now with friends.
BP: How does someone being HIV-positive affect your dating?
Ray: Well, I think one should always assume someone is HIV-positive if you are going to have sex with them.
BP: What does that mean for you?
Ray: Simply that you must have safe sex with everyone. That way there isn't any risk to anyone. But there is something I have to say to your HIV-positive readers.
BP: And what's that?
Ray: Just to remember that it isn't all that easy for people who are HIV-negative to date either. For instance, for me, I feel a lot of guilt that my lover died but I didn't. I often think, why am I still here and everyone I care about is gone?
This issue, known as "survivor guilt," is one that may affect HIV-positive people when they are dating. Sometimes the HIV-positive person meets someone, like Ray, who has lost a lover to the virus (or maybe the HIV-positive person him or herself has lost a lover to the virus). Some of these "AIDS widowers" (or "widows") are hesitant to date another HIV-positive person because they are afraid they might lose a loved one again. Dating for these people can bring up serious fears of loss.
The death of a partner may affect the HIV-positive person in other ways too, such as contributing to a depression that makes it hard for them to reach out and date again.
Ron, an African American gay male in his late thirties who is HIV-positive, has trouble connecting to the community and meeting people. He would like to meet someone and date them, but is hesitant to reach out.
BP: Ron, how are you doing meeting people? Have you gone down to Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) yet?
Ron: Not yet. I've been meaning to. But I just can't seem to get down there. I'm too busy with doctor appointments and whatnot.
BP: Why do you think you have so much trouble going places where you might meet someone?
Ron: I don't know. I would like to meet someone again, but sometimes I feel like it is all just too much. I just can't seem to get out of my apartment to meet anyone. After losing Harry [his former lover], I just can't seem to get myself interested in anyone.
Fear of Rejection
Fear of rejection seems to be the hardest issue to face in positive dating. Ed [interviewed earlier in this article] stated that "it had never been a problem" telling people he was interested in dating that he is HIV-positive. However, the majority of the HIV-positive people interviewed for this article listed the issues of disclosure of their status and the accompanying fear of rejection as their biggest problem in meeting people and dating.
The experience of Sam, a Chinese thirty-something bisexual male, seems to be somewhat typical of how this fear plays out:
BP: Sam, how do you handle telling someone you are HIV-positive?
Sam: It is really on a case-by-case basis.
BP: How do you decide in each case?
Sam: Well, usually I just tell people the first time I meet them in a bar, or wherever.
BP: And what is usually the result?
Sam: It varies. Usually people don't just walk away, but I can tell when people are uptight about it.
BP: How can you tell?
Sam: They usually find a way to walk away later in the conversation -- like they say they want to go get another drink, but they never come back.
BP: How has that affected you?
Sam: Well, it sure has knocked down my confidence. I now think that it will be much harder for me to find a lover now that I know that I'm HIV-positive.
BP: Have you thought of telling people you are HIV-positive at some other point if you think you may want to date the person?
Sam: Oh yeah. I've considered not telling them at all. In fact, I was warned by a friend, "If you keep telling people you are HIV-positive, everyone will walk away from you." So sometimes I wait to tell a person I am dating that I am HIV-positive until after we get more involved. If we have sex before I tell them, I make absolutely sure it is safer sex, so it doesn't matter so much that I didn't tell them.
BP: Does that work for you?
Sam: What? Not telling people? No. I don't feel right about it.
BP: So what do you think your solution will be?
Sam: I don't know. I'm still fairly newly diagnosed. So it hasn't changed my dating habits too much, but I will tell you that I am less aggressive in pursuing people than I used to be.
The fear of rejection can have many forms for the HIV-positive person. It can lead to depression and isolation, or worry [Sam told me later he has developed an ulcer from worrying about how to tell people he's HIV-positive], or to a myriad of other psychological, emotional, and/or physical symptoms. So what can one do to make positive dating easier?
Positive dating strategies
How can someone engaged in "positive dating" minimize their fears and get the maximum out of their dating situations?
Mindframe and self image
With almost everyone, HIV-positive or not, one's frame of mind and self image are very important in meeting someone to date. Not that looks are everything, but one's self image through physical fitness can be very helpful.
Just as important are emotional and spiritual fitness. This includes keeping a positive attitude when going out to meet someone. If you find this is impossible and isolate yourself on a regular basis, it might be worth consulting with a psychotherapist and/or a psychiatrist. The latter would be if the depression is more serious, and you feel you might benefit from taking an antidepressant medication. (These medications are not just for someone who is "crazy." They have helped many people break out of their self-imposed isolation, and some of them sometimes have the added side effect of reducing peripheral neuropathy, a medical condition defined earlier in this article).
Spiritually, one can take care of oneself in a variety of ways -- meditating, praying, attending church, or just sitting quietly outdoors and communing with Nature.
One way that we can break negative feelings about ourselves or dating can be affirmations. Affirmations are "as if" statements that help someone move from a negative state of mind to a positive one. Affirmations are always stated in a positive way. For instance, if one always feels shy about meeting people, one could say the affirmation, "I feel relaxed when I meet people." Also, if one has a goal, such as finding a lover, one could say an affirmation to help manifest someone in their life, such as, "I am a perfect lover now [affirmations are always stated in the present]."
You can combine the affirmation with a visualization. This means picturing an ideal outcome to a situation (with your eyes closed) while repeating an affirmation relevant to the situation. This combination of techniques can be highly effective in accomplishing your goals, and making you a success with positive dating.
Deciding what I want out of dating and where to meet someone
Many people find themselves unsure of what they want to accomplish by dating. For many people the goal is to have a lover or long-term companion, for others it may be to only have a steady partner in what may or may not be an open relationship (i.e., other sexual partners are allowed). It can be helpful for you to take an inventory prior to beginning to date about what you want in a lover. Otherwise, if you are unclear, the person you decide to date may be unable to give you what you want.
Once you have an idea about the type of lover and relationship you would like, the next thing to consider is how you want to meet someone. Bars have been the traditional way for people -- gay, lesbian, transgender, or heterosexual -- to meet. However, if you would prefer to not to date people who have active addictions, a bar might not be the best place to meet someone. Many people try to avoid bars for other reasons -- the bar crowd is younger than they are, they find too much sexual activity occurring in bars, etc. Whatever the reasons for looking for alternatives, there are many.
One is the personal ads. For HIV-positive people, Body Positive's "Positive Connections" is an excellent place to advertise and/or answer an ad from another HIV-positive person. Also, there are Body Positive dances and socials, Tea Dances for gay men, and other events such as BP's Homoerotic Tours of the Metropolitan Museum and the Gay Tupperware Party. Also, according to Rafael Risenberg, the coordinator of Date Bait, a social event held at the Lesbian and Gay Community Center, an event will be occurring in November for HIV-positive men and their friends. (Although there is not a Date Bait specifically for lesbians who are HIV-positive, there is a monthly Date Bait for lesbians). In addition, another place where people who are HIV-positive might meet someone to date might be at a social group for those who are. Some of these include Fred's Night Out, or HIV-positive Brunch Buddies. Finally, there are always dating services, like ManMate.
When to disclose one's HIV-positive status
A significant factor that concerns HIV-positive people who are dating is when to reveal one's positive status to the person you would like to date. The decision to take action in this area is closely linked to the primary fear of positive dating: fear of rejection. There is no firm and fast rule, but people tend to disclose their HIV-positive status at one of the following three stages: 1) Upon first meeting another person (or even before meeting if you are answering a personal ad); 2) Before you have sex for the first time with the other person; or 3) When you decide you want to get more seriously involved with the other person.
Obviously, there is no one correct answer. What you decide to do in any dating situation should be according to what you feel is right for you. You can read articles, talk with friends, see a therapist, or whatever; but in the end, the only way to be truly successful with positive dating or in any situation is to follow the dictates of your own conscience.
When I was a teenager, my father used to say to me: "This above all: to thine ownself be true." I didn't realize the meaning of that statement until many years later, which is, that your being happy with the decisions you make is what is ultimately important.
Many people (gay men, lesbians, transgenders, bisexuals, or heterosexual men and women) have fears that complicate or enhance their status. But they can turn them around and present a positive image when they have an idea of how and where to meet people, and keep their dating goals in mind. Just remember to be kind to yourself, particularly if dating is a relatively new experience for you. If you don't like you, how do you expect others to? Give others a chance to meet the positive person that you truly are.