What's Love Got to Do With It?

The Emotional Side of Serodiscordant Relationships

"I have a question for you, Keith," Roxanne interjected as we were concluding our interview on serodiscordant relationships (see When Opposites Attract, March/April issue). "Is it love? When someone who is HIV-negative decides to get involved or have sex with you after you disclose your HIV status to him or her, does that mean that they love you?"

The logical answer, I would think, would be yes. In an ideal situation, if someone who is HIV-negative chooses to become intimate with someone whom they know is HIV-positive, it should be safe to assume that the person's primary motivating factor is love or at least a fairly deep like for the other person, right? I mean, for what other reason would someone risk contracting a life-threatening, heavily stigmatized virus such as HIV?

Well, while working on that article, one of the underlying themes of more than a couple of the interviews that were conducted did, in fact, suggest another possible reason. And, while for the most part it was HIV-positive women who seemed to fall victim to this disturbing phenomenon, the HIV-positive gay men who were interviewed also alluded to having experienced it as well.

The "it" which I am referring to here is the "power dynamic" that seems to exist in many relationships where one person is HIV-negative and the other is HIV-positive -- also known as a serodiscordant relationship. It can be best described as the pressure an HIV-positive person feels to conform to whatever structure the HIV-negative person desires for the relationship, simply because he or she wants to feel or be loved. Not surprisingly, the common risk factor among those who became trapped in such desperate situations appears to be a lack of self-esteem and self-worth that is the result of the ever-present stigma associated with HIV.

Roxanne, who spoke of how her sex life vastly improved after she was diagnosed with HIV and found no shame in discussing her rendezvous with multiple sex partners, admits that what she really wants more than anything is a solid, committed relationship with one man or woman.

"But people try to take advantage of you when they know you are HIV-positive," she claims. "I've even had men flat out ask me to pay them to be with them, telling me 'you know that nobody else is gonna be with you 'cause you got this virus.' The sad thing is that for a while I believed them and sometimes I went along with it. Until one day I thought, 'he must be crazy. I don't have to pay nobody to be with me.' "

Tony Stackhouse, a nationally recognized poet, author and vocalist, has never had anyone demand money of him, but confesses to frequently feeling expendable in his relationships because he is HIV-positive. "Dating brings out the best and worst in everybody," he claims. "HIV-positive brothers, myself included, have so many issues related to a lack of self-esteem and self-worth that we are, more often than not, impossible to date in any serious capacity. But, in all honesty, I think that HIV-negative men present just as much of a challenge. They come with a whole other set of issues."

Tony actually decided against having his most recent experience with dating an HIV-negative man printed in the original article because, at the time, they were facing serious complications in their relationship. They have since parted ways and, while he was still very skeptical about sharing the specifics of their breakup, Tony had no problem admitting that the most pressing problem they faced was his HIV status.

"For the most part, I'm out about my status," says Tony, who speaks publicly across the country regarding life as a Black gay man living with HIV. "But he made me feel like I should hide it. He was so uncomfortable with me being openly HIV-positive that he would never come to my shows. In the beginning, he didn't even tell a lot of his friends that we were dating because he didn't want them to think that he was HIV-positive as well. It was wild."

Tony now realizes the emotional toll that this relationship, like many of the others he had been in with HIV-negative men, took on him. "It was really tough at times," he says in retrospect. "But I wanted to be in a relationship so bad that I was willing to work through it. And it didn't help that he was smart, fine as hell, financially secure, and willing to be with me knowing that I was HIV-positive. I didn't really think that I could do any better and he didn't do much to convince me otherwise."

Aside from the emotional compromises, Tony also talked about the compromises that he made sexually in order to make his partner feel comfortable. "From the beginning, I was clear with him that while I can be versatile, I am mostly a top. He said that he was versatile as well but, when it came down to it, he was so uncomfortable with bottoming for someone who is HIV-positive -- even with a condom -- that we never did that. So not only did I hold back from mentioning my HIV status as much when I spoke or performed publicly, I also stopped performing in bed the way that I really liked so that he could be comfortable and, hopefully, see just how serious I was about being with him."

"Obviously," Tony says in a defeated tone, "it wasn't enough."

Tamara Wilson could also relate to the sacrifices that many HIV-positive people articulate that they make when dating someone who is HIV-negative. Her story, though, is probably unlike any other that you've ever heard and yet it is probably no different.

At 29 years old, she was an office manager for a Jackson-Hewitt income tax agency during tax season and a receptionist at their corporate office through the rest of the year. She and her steady boyfriend of two years had just purchased a house together and all was well, or so she thought.

Tamara admits that she and her beau were a serious party couple who drank, used drugs and hung out just about every Thursday through Sunday. They never missed work, however, and made enough money to support their extravagant lifestyle and maintain a fairly happy relationship. Everything would change just a few months shy of Tamara's 30th birthday, though, when she was the unsuspecting victim of the first major tragedy of her life -- rape.

She was immediately tested for HIV following the incident but when the suspect was caught and found to be HIV-negative, she put the possibility of being positive completely out of her mind. That is until she received a visit from a Department of Public Health worker who informed her that she had, in fact, tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS.

At that moment, the fabulous life that Tamara had come to know began to crumble. Not only did she learn that she was HIV-positive, but she also learned that her boyfriend's daily trips to the trunk of his car and the subsequent short drive around the neighborhood weren't the result of a secret drug addiction after all. He was taking drugs, but not the kind that she suspected. He had known that he was HIV-positive before they met and had kept it a secret from her up until that point.

But that's a different type of serodiscordant relationship altogether -- another article in and of itself.

The point is that the depth of this series of traumatic experiences left Tamara heartbroken and clinically depressed. She stayed in the house for more than two months straight -- taking no visitors or phone calls, eating very little, neglecting her personal hygiene and not reporting to her job. It wasn't until her family orchestrated a strategically planned intervention that she eventually broke out of her shell, but only enough to allow her to regain some semblance of a normal life. The damage that had been done to her self-esteem would prove not so easily reversible.

Then in 2004, still extremely vulnerable and somewhat desperate for love after several failed relationships, Tamara met the man of her dreams -- or so she thought. According to her, he was the textbook description of tall, dark, and handsome. A devout Muslim and single parent to 11 of his 17 children, Ahmed (as we will call him) embodied everything that Tamara had prayed for. More than anything she wanted a family and this one came ready made -- big time. Throw in the fact that her newly found knight-in-shining-armor made reference to her as the queen of his throne and mesmerized her with the sex of her life, and Tamara was what many would call "hooked."

They dated seriously for several months and eventually moved in together. She even began to frequent the mosque with him. Though it didn't necessarily appeal to her, she studied and adopted the lifestyle of Islam in an effort to show Ahmed how sincere she was about being with him. He was okay with her HIV status, as long as she didn't tell any of his fellow Muslim brothers and sisters. Muslim people, she learned, view people who are infected with HIV as dirty (or at least the ones Ahmed fellowshipped with did).

In hindsight, Tamara believes that Ahmed was playing on her vulnerability from the very beginning. And, once he knew that he had her at his beck and call, she began to experience a side of Ahmed that she never would have imagined existed.

Tamara's self-esteem was so low and her desire for a family and love from a man so strong that she allowed Ahmed to convince her that she could be cured from HIV if she changed her diet and drank a daily concoction of herbs that he made for her. For almost a year she stopped visiting her doctor, stopped taking her antiretrovirals and became submissive and obedient to the life that Ahmed's Allah was mapping out for her. By this time he had officially become her husband.

Chastisement from Tamara's neighbor and friend, who was also HIV-positive, snatched her back to reality. She convinced Tamara to return to her routine doctor's visits so that she could at least know how she was doing physically. Tamara obliged, but the detour from taking care of herself and treating her HIV would cost her. Her T-cell count had dropped from over 800 to 202. Her viral load had gone from undetectable to somewhere in the tens of thousands. Not knowing how to leave, or even if she really wanted to, Tamara resorted to hiding her medication in the Weber grill on the back porch to keep Ahmed from knowing that she had disobeyed him.

Eventually, after much heartache and disappointment (and a couple of fights that placed both of them in the county jail), Tamara parted ways with Ahmed. Now she is struggling to regain control of both her physical and emotional well-being.

"I'm learning to love myself now," she tells me from her hospital bed in a suburb of Chicago. "I had to go through all of that to learn that nobody is going to really love me until I start loving myself."

Roxanne, Tony, and I could not agree with her more.

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