Personal Perspective: Dating and Disclosing
In this day and age, with HIV being so common in the gay community, I would think that talking about your HIV status would be a normal part of dinner date conversation. But talking about it while dating can still be taboo and awkward. I know it can be for me, especially if the other person gets uncomfortably quiet when I bring it up, or is not very educated about HIV.
Sometimes, educating a date can be a fun, flirty, and even freaky experience. It can also be a headache. But dating in general is not easy for anyone nowadays. There are so many places to find people you may want to hook up with or date -- where do you start? And when you throw being HIV positive into the mix, a whole other set of concerns arises. Some big things to consider are the right time to disclose your status and whether or not it is better to date someone with the same HIV status as you.
After getting HIV in 2005, I got into a romantic relationship with someone who was HIV negative. It was the best relationship I've ever had. Since I had just been diagnosed, disclosure was my biggest obstacle. I waited a few weeks before telling him because I wanted him to get to know me first -- but then I became eager to disclose because we were having deep feelings and I didn't want him to find out from someone else. All my friends know I have HIV and it's freely talked about in my social circle, but one of the worst things that can happen is having a potential partner find out from someone else that you have HIV. If that happens, he could get confused and might feel fearful and deceived.
So one low-key summer night, while hanging out in the living room, I got very serious and looked my potential new boyfriend deep in the eyes. My palms got sweaty and my leg started vibrating a mile a minute with nervousness. I asked him to let me finish saying everything I had to say before he responded -- to hold any questions until I was done.
I told him my story, starting with how I met the person who infected me, taking him through the journey of that relationship and the lessons I learned, then disclosing my status, and ending it with my feelings of self-worth and how my life has changed since becoming HIV positive. I made it a point to let him know that whether he accepted me or not, I would be a strong person because I refused to think of myself as weak ever again.
He accepted my truth, and luckily it was a bonding experience. I was so nervous, but I thought in my head, "If I truly care about this person then I should give him the choice of wanting to be with me without hiding any secrets about who I am -- better sooner than later!" Even though being HIV positive is not all that I am, I definitely embrace it as part of who I am.
The relationship was wonderful. I patiently taught him what was safe and what was not, because it was important to me that he stay negative (which he did). By the time we separated, my status was not an issue at all. There were many other factors, and HIV wasn't the big concern anymore. He was a great support for me in learning how to take care of myself responsibly. That's the cool thing about dating -- it often times helps you grow as an individual.
Sometimes growth happens after a break-up. It's not always an easy or pretty story for HIV-positive folks who try to have relationships with HIV-negative people. It can come with a variety of challenges, but I believe the power lies in how you handle those challenges.
Now that I am back in the dating world again, I do come across more fears when dating someone who's HIV negative or of unknown status than I do when dating other positives. Important questions come up like: When's the right time to disclose? Will he treat me differently? Will he think I'm leading him on if I don't tell him on the first date? How important should I consider this date to be? Will he be uncomfortable kissing me or having sex with me? If I get sick, will he support me? If he feels he can't date me, should I keep him as a friend? The list goes on and on! These are valid things to think about while dating anyone, but I try not to stress out over them because stress doesn't help anyone grow. It just kills T-cells!
Some people feel that people with HIV should only date other people with HIV, and that HIV-negative people should only date others who don't have HIV, but that's their opinion. It can be refreshing for people with HIV to date others with HIV because they don't have to worry about rejection or fear. For me, there is a heavy weight lifted off of my shoulders when I'm dating and being sexual with another HIV-positive person. When I'm with someone who already knows he's positive, we can relate to each other and bond in a way that's very attractive, comfortable, and supportive. There's also less worry about infecting the other person, and that can increase intimacy. I feel a different sense of freedom -- I joke about my status and I let down my guard. Safer sex is still encouraged for HIVpositive couples because there's a risk of re-infection (superinfection), which can lead to both people becoming resistant to one another's HIV meds. But the fear of infection is not present when the relationship moves from dating to sex.
But some question the idea of "sticking to your own kind". Could that be a form of internalized HIV stigma? Segregating yourself -- dating only those who are "like you" -- eliminates getting to know people for who they are inside and prevents you from exploring all your options in the dating scene. It's often preached in our community that we should be able to fall in love with anyone regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, or even HIV status. It's definitely possible to date someone who doesn't have the same HIV status, and to be very happy with that person. As I mentioned before, the best relationship I ever had was with someone who was negative. HIV-negative guys find me sexy -- I can't help it!
Whether it is better to date someone with the same status or a different status is really up to you. I've often heard that this choice is influenced by the disclosure experiences people have. Some folks are open to the world about being positive and mention it on the first date, while others are very private and would rather share their status only on a "need-to-know" basis -- say, if they are having sex that could be risky. People are at different places when it comes to accepting it and talking about it -- and that's okay. There are pros and cons to disclosing immediately or waiting until later, but my advice would be to make sure to have a clear and direct conversation when you do decide to tell.
Disclosure is a part of letting the person you're dating get to know the real person inside you, and getting to know the real person inside him. Whomever you decide to date, for whatever reasons, always remember that a person who is deserving of you will accept you for what you are and be willing to grow with you. Dating is not easy, but it is supposed to be fun and exciting above all. So don't worry too much; just protect yourself throughout the process and protect your heart.