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I'm HIV Positive And My Partner Is Not

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Illustration by Mallory Heyer
How many times have you decided to quit dating? How many times have you squawked “I’m done with looking!”? How many times have you come out of yet another break-up and questioned whether you’ll be single forever? It’s true: the seemingly futile search for love has populated the minds of many for generations, and it doesn’t feel any easier in the swipe-it-and-see dating culture of today.

The struggle is, indeed, real.

But now imagine you are HIV positive. In a world that ensnares the mind in endless conundrums and countless column inches detailing all the things you’re doing wrong in your dating life, imagine adding an HIV positive status into the mix.

Being HIV positive continues to carry with it endless layers of societal stigma. The basis for this stigma comes from a governmental and social negligence to educate the population about what HIV actually is, meaning all that’s left is ‘what you’ve heard’. And what you’ve heard, probably, is that HIV is a virus which you contract by having unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive, and that if you get it you’ve done something wrong, you’ve made a bad choice, and thus received a death sentence.

However, a more accurate account would be that, today, a positive HIV diagnosis is far more manageable than diabetes. Not to mention the availability of more advanced drugs; treatment that can often lead to undetectability (this is where your viral load becomes so low that you are no longer able to pass on the HIV virus to sexual partners, condom or no condom); as well as quicker, less painful testing methods which encourage more people to get tested and know their status. What is not manageable is the stigma attached to being HIV positive.

For that reason, for World AIDS Day we’ve decided not to focus on the stats surrounding HIV but, instead, to explore something that is rarely discussed: sex, love, intimacy and being positive. These subtle conversations need to happen in order to humanise those who are positive or in serodiscordant relationships (where one person is positive and the other negative). Because those who are so often seen as sites of sexual danger, those who are so often reduced to being just a virus, are probably also seeking intimacy – just like you.

Ilana, 34, UK

“We met eight years ago, we were friends at first then started dating. He disclosed his status two years after we first met, and after we had started our relationship. We had a great friendship before and an even better relationship after. I already loved and trusted him when he told me, so although it was a shock, I knew I had not been put at risk, and to be honest I was more worried about him than me.

"Some days I think it's affected us loads – especially in the early days. It impacted our decision to have children, it made me nag about him taking his meds (despite him having 100% adherence long before he met me), I worried about him changing cat litter because of the germs (I don't now!), I worry about his sugar intake, as well as life and travel insurance. But now, I go months without thinking about it.

"We always use condoms and I have annual tests, but what's important for me is attending my husband’s appointments with him, understanding his results. He tests undetectable, which means we could have unprotected sex safely if we wanted to, but neither of us have issues with condoms so we haven't changed. We enjoy a great sex life, there's nothing that we do differently that I wouldn't do in any other relationship.

"Once he disclosed his status to me we had a really open conversation about sex, which in some ways improved things because from there we felt more confident to talk about preferences, likes and dislikes. Essentially, we’re just us, in love and living our lives. We have the same problems as everyone else: money, work, ageing parents, disagreements about which sofa to buy next. HIV doesn't define our relationship in any way.”

Dan, 30, London

“I was diagnosed with HIV when I was 22. I distinctly remember the doctor telling me what it all means with phrases that meant nothing to me – 'CD4', 'Viral Load', 'Immune deficiency', 'disclosure' – and I said in return: 'Alright, alright – but can I still give blowjobs?' I thought love would most definitely be off the cards. But now, I still give great blowjobs and I am in love with a magnificent man. It took about five years for me to drag myself off my self-imposed scrapheap of a life and realise that, if you're going to be your own worst enemy, you've got to be your own best friend. So that’s when I acknowledged that HIV+ stigma was a societal problem, not my own.

"Love is an art – and you often have to suffer for art – so try not to see the tough times as an absolute, but as alchemy for growth. Now, I enjoy sex much more because I know to take nothing for granted. When you’re 22 and your face gets slammed against the window of life with an HIV+ diagnosis you can get fast-tracked onto a deeper meaning of love and life. And when you gain clarity on what you love – whether that’s romantic love, friendship or the incredible history of HIV and AIDS activism that enabled us to make love in peace today – you will fight for it.”

Juno, 50, London

“When I first discovered my status over 20 years ago, I was told that I had AIDS and that I had six months to live. And at that time the stigma around HIV – and there’s still stigma – made you feel like you had toxic blood, and you had to somehow keep that in at all costs. So the last thing on my mind back then was dating or sex. But I’m now of the mindset where I don’t want to have to persuade somebody to fancy me, or to love, or to have quick dirty sex with me. I’m undetectable, why should I have to lay it on the line when I pose no risk?

"And yet. I feel like it’s a part of currency: we have to convince people that we’re safe to sleep with. I have been on dates and told people that I’m HIV+ and they’ve gone completely ape-shit at me, and have told me to get off the dating site otherwise they’ll post photographs of me, and tell me that I should stop trying to infect people, when in fact I’m telling them that I have HIV – I’m obviously not trying to infect anyone. So there’s a notion of immorality that comes along with being HIV+.

"Should it be my right to ask the questions? If everybody is, then I’m happy with that, but they’re not. As a trans woman that is HIV positive I need to be really cautious about things that other people might have. I mean, my immune system – although I’m undetectable – probably isn’t that great after 25-odd years of being positive. But it just feels like we are still in that situation of explaining who’s toxic, and virulent, and catching.

"For goodness' sake, let’s have the real conversation about bodies, desire, sex, and HIV. Sex is intimate, even the roughest, most casual sex is intimate, and to be denied that is hard. For me there’s always been this idea that we as HIV+ people are denied our intimacy, we are denied that space around us to explore it and allow someone into it. Because we are told that we have to be watertight, certainly in relation to sex.

"You know there’s estimates that 19% of all trans women worldwide are HIV+. 19%. And yet hardly any research funding is dedicated to working out why. That speaks volumes about the lack of intimacy and care directed toward these people. We need to be talking about us as living, breathing, sexy, desirable people. I’m not somebody who should need to persuade people to be intimate with me because I’m undetectable. I’m somebody you should want to be intimate with because I’m fabulous. I do feel sexy now, but it’s taken an awful lot of years.”

Luca and Riccardo, 33 and 34, couple, Rome

Luca: “I didn’t disclose with my partner immediately. I never took the risk of unprotected sex (even if I was already undetectable) and I gave us time to know each other. I was so scared that this thing could have 'buried' my true self from him under tons of misconceptions and illogical, very deeply rooted fears. All my friends did not agree with my choice, they begged me to disclose my status for weeks. But I knew we were a great match, and I knew he wasn’t ready to hear it. When I finally decided it was time to pull the rabbit out of the hat he told me I had chosen for him and that that was deplorable.

"My answer was: I actually gave you the opportunity to know me, and to see if I was worth it. Now you have the choice, now you know me and now you know if this thing is bigger than me or not. After months he confessed to me he probably wouldn’t have dated me if I would have told him straight away, and he was grateful I took that decision.”

Riccardo: “At the beginning it wasn’t easy. As Luca says, he didn’t disclose his status until a few months into the relationship so when he told me I was surprised, upset, betrayed, and lost. With time and dialogue we got through it: he was great in guiding me through all this, setting up appointments with nurses and doctors to understand exactly what the risks were, and the kind of behaviour that should be avoided.

"I suppose that, to a certain extent, this was the first tough challenge we had to go through as a couple, and he definitely set the precedent of what it means to be a loving and caring partner. I try to support him the best I can: for example, we have lived in different countries in the past four years because of my work, and I made sure that access to treatment and care would be issues that we both worried about. In that sense, we are in this together. I think he’s right when he says that his HIV status has very much marked his life and identity, and I very much cherish that identity and battle.”

Luca: “It’s not easy for anyone to fall in love. But I don’t think an HIV+ person should look for love just in the HIV+ community. Being HIV+ is a struggle that can make you stronger, it obliges you to think about others in a way that many don’t, and it has really helped me to develop a deeper sense of empathy, for example, and many agree it makes you use your time with a voracity that you didn’t imagine before the diagnosis… and not because you’re sentenced to death, but because you have smelled it, even if just for a day."
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