Dating is hard enough at 16. But when you factor in HIV, you instantly shift from the innocence of sneaking a kiss in the hallway between classes to serious matters that most grown ups aren't even ready to deal with. There are lots of young people, however, who are dealing with it in one way or another.
I recently spoke with one remarkably brave young woman about how HIV affects her relationships with family, friends and, of course, boys. Raven Lopez is her name and she was born with HIV. Though her life has been filled with intensely dramatic ups and downs, it is her connection to other people and the support that she receives from them that keeps her walking tall with her head up.
KG: How are your relationships with your family and friends?
RL: Well, my family is excellent. No matter what, they love me. You know, I'm their niece. I'm their granddaughter. Nothing has changed. With my friends ... yes, I lost a couple of friends in school. But that was in elementary school -- now I'm in high school and I have all of my friends. When I was in junior high, when I was growing up, yes ... people used to make fun of me. Now that I have grown older, I know how to deal with it.
KG: How do you decide whether or not to disclose your HIV status to someone?
RL: If I see that you're very close and you're nice and you're not the type of person who will tell everybody, "Listen, that girl has the monster," I will probably pull you to the side and tell you up front, like, "Let me tell you one thing right now. I'm HIV-positive and either you want to be my friend or not." But some of my friends, they are like, "Oh, Raven, you are just saying that to make me feel sad for you." And I'm like, "No, it's really true." So I'll bring in a POZ magazine, and they will see for themselves and be like, "Oh, wow," and they get emotional and all that kind of stuff.
KG: How safe do you feel telling people about it?
RL: Um, I do get scared, because I don't know how they're going to react. Sometimes I think they might say, "Uh, Raven, get out of here. We don't want to be your friend no more." And I think that it will go around the school. But then again, I know how to deal with stuff like that now.
KG: What is the best response you have ever gotten from telling someone?
RL: All of my friends I told, they all got emotional and they all started crying. But all of them, they said, "No matter what, Raven, we will still love you and you will always be our friend."
KG: What is the worst response to telling someone?
RL: Oh, when I was in Catholic school, one of my teachers asked my mother if they had to wear rubber gloves in class. And kids used to make fun of me. One time a girl said, "You can't sit on that chair, 'cause we are going to catch it through your clothes." It used to be so much drama that I couldn't take it no more, and that's why I had to leave Catholic school.
KG: Where do you go for support?
RL: I get support from my friends, my family ... from everybody. Like when I'm down or depressed or whatever, all my friends -- they always have my back. They're like, "Listen, Raven, we understand." I have a loving family and friends.
KG: Do you attend church? How does your church address HIV?
RL: Our pastor, she's a lady. When I first told her ... well, it was my mom who told her ... she took it okay. She started praying for us and stuff, because at that time I was dealing with a little sickness. So, you know, she prayed and did spiritual baths for us and stuff like that.
KG: Do you feel accepted as a person with HIV there?
RL: Yes, they were very supportive.
KG: How has dating been for you?
RL: Well, I just got over this guy not too long ago ... last year. I disclosed that I was HIV-positive to him. At first, he had a suspicion because I told him how my mother got it. He used to always ask me, "Raven, do you have it?" And I always used to tell him no, because I did not want to lose him. But on New Year's night -- not the New Year's that just passed, but last year -- he came to my house and I told him. And it was like all of the emotions just came out of him. He started crying, I started crying. And like, he was scared that he had it at first. But my mother told him that he won't have it because, you know, this and that. And, yes, we did have sexual intercourse, but we used protection. But ... it was a lot of stuff that was going on between me and him, not just because of [HIV]. He didn't really know what to do with himself, so I said, "Whenever you're ready to come back in, you can come back." But right now he's dating another girl, so, I don't know. That's it.
KG: Have you faced much rejection from potential partners?
RL: No, not really. All of my partners I go out with now, I tell them from the beginning. I tell them, "Hey, I'm HIV-positive. Either you want to be with me or not." And sometimes they don't believe me. They be like, "Raven, you're lying. You just don't want to be with me." And I tell them the truth like, "Seriously, yes I am."
KG: Do you have a policy about if or when you tell a potential boyfriend that you are positive?
RL: No, because I will never go out with another boy at my school. Everybody in my school ... once you do something or go out with somebody, the whole entire school knows. I didn't think that he [former boyfriend] would do something like that, because he always told me, "No matter what, Raven, even if we hate each other, I would never disclose your business to someone else."
KG: Was he older or the same age?
RL: No, older. I was 14 ... he was 17.
KG: How do you tell someone who you want to date that you're HIV-positive?
RL: I sit down and talk to them. I always ask them, "If you had a girlfriend you really loved and then she told you that she had HIV, what would you do?" And at first, I hear how they act, like, "Oh, I wouldn't go out with her ... I wouldn't talk to her." And I'm like, "All right ... I know not to tell this person." And sometimes they are like, "Oh, if I really love her, I would stay with her." So then, right there I know that I could tell him -- and that's when I tell him.
KG: Do you feel that if you practice safe sex, it is necessary to tell a sex partner that you are positive?
RL: Yes. Because, God forbid, if something happens and he finds out before you even tell him ... so I think you should tell him.
Editor's note: The above interview is taken from a longer version in TheBody.com.
When a Youth Falls for Someone With HIV
Aaron Parker (not his real name) is the son of one of my classmates. His mother pulled me to the side one day and told me that he was dating a girl who is HIV-positive and she was concerned. I asked her if she'd like me to talk with him and she loved that idea. After speaking with him, however, I was sure that she had nothing to worry about. At 16, Aaron is smart, sensitive and unmoved by the pressure that most teenagers his age face to put as many notches on their belts as they can before settling down. Following are some of the highlights from our conversation.
KG: So tell me about your experience dating someone who is HIV-positive. How did she tell you?
AP: Well, one day we were talking and it seemed like something was wrong, but she didn't want to tell me what it was. And then she told me. She said, "You don't know what it's like being me because I have HIV." And then she felt really bad and embarrassed and she didn't think that I would talk to her any more.
KG: How did you respond?
AP: Well, this happened before we even started going out. But that didn't bother me. We still went out.
KG: What did you say to her?
AP: I actually felt really bad because at the time we were sort of fighting because I knew something was wrong and she just wouldn't tell me what it was. But I had no idea that it would be something this big. So I felt really bad and I said sorry about a gazillion times.
KG: Did you have any fear about dating her after you found out she was HIV-positive?
AP: No, not really. I knew that we weren't going to do anything or have to worry about that stuff right away. At the beginning of relationships, I don't just jump into things. So, I figured that I would worry about it later ... when the time came.
KG: So, if you guys were still dating five years from now and it was going strong and you were old enough to consider marriage and all of those kinds of things, do you think that it could have led to that? Could you have been deeply involved?
AP: Yeah, I think that it could have led to that. And I would have been okay with it. There are other ways to have children besides sex, so we could still be safe and have a family. But I can't really talk a lot about marriage because I don't really know a lot about that stuff. I'm only 16 and in high school.
KG: So are you holding out on sex for marriage?
AP: Um, not necessarily all the way until marriage, but at least until I am older.
KG: What do you know about HIV?
AP: I know that eventually it will lead to AIDS and that there is no cure for HIV or AIDS. I know all the basic "health class" stuff that you learn in school, like how it weakens your immune system and how it's not actually HIV or AIDS that kills you, but other diseases that your immune system can't fight off.
KG: How do you avoid the pressure from your peers in high school to have sex?
AP: Well, you take health classes once or twice in junior high and then you have to take one in high school to graduate. So, I took all of those classes and I knew the ways that HIV is transmitted and I knew that I didn't want to get that because it can ruin your life. So I made a decision not to go that far until I'm ready.
KG: What about your group of friends? What's their take on sex?
AP: I have friends who are all across the board. They're like yeah, go out and party ... have all the girls and stuff like that. And then I have friends who are like, "No, I'm waiting for the right person or the right time, or for marriage."
KG: Would you say that the majority of folks your age are already sexually active?
AP: The majority of my friends aren't, but I know that most of my school is.
KG: Do you think that they are as aware as you are about HIV and other STDs?
AP: Well, there are a lot of really ignorant people in my school. But I guess I can't fairly answer that because I really don't know.
KG: What was the conversation like with your mom when you told her that you were dating someone who is HIV-positive?
AP: At first she was really shocked. I told her that April (not her real name) was going to an HIV convention to learn more about it. And first she was like, "Oh, her mom is a nurse so she needs to know about it for her HIV-positive patients, right?" And I said no. But before I could elaborate she says, "Well, her mom has HIV." And I'm like no. And she says, "She has HIV?" And then she stopped, and then after a while she just got to a point where it wasn't that she didn't really like April, but she was just worried for me. She felt more relieved when we broke up.
KG: What kinds of things did you guys talk about?
AP: Well, we had the talk that every parent has with their kid. You're not supposed to have sex ... you're too young ... that kind of stuff. And she just explained to me again the severity of HIV and what it could do to me.
KG: So she was pretty open with you about it?
AP: Yes. And she said that if at any time I had any questions, to come to her.
KG: Have you talked to anybody else about it?
AP: I talked to some of my friends, but it's not really my business to share with them what she has. But April and I have some of the same friends and some of them know, so I was able to talk about it with some of them. They understood how hard the whole thing was for us.
KG: What was their reaction like?
AP: Well, I had one friend who I'm not sure if he was completely truthful to my face and gave me one thing and then behind my back was like, "Man, I can't believe that he is dating her because she has that." I don't know if he was suspicious of me because he thinks that I have HIV or what. But my other friend who knows, who is also friends with April, we talked about it and he was cool.