A HIV Valentine's Day Love Story
Valentine’s Day shouldn't feel like April Fool’s Day to people living with HIV, but stigma and concerns about disclosing one's status make the entire prospect of dating feel more like a mean-spirited prank and less like a delicious box of chocolates. It can be particularly hard for positive singles to connect to the overly simplified and romanticized annual bombardment that is Valentine’s Day.
Making peace with my HIV status
I was diagnosed with HIV just as puberty hit and my earliest love stories included the third wheel that was my HIV status. Where disclosure was concerned, I didn’t exactly rise to the occasion. My earliest strategy was to ignore my status. I resolved to think about HIV down the road, and only when I had to.
Whenever someone I liked found out I had HIV, it was because someone else had ratted me out. Or a random circumstance, like the time that my girlfriend's grandparents' dog bit me on the leg, and my dad, had to disclose my status because there was a wound to be tended to. Then, later in high school, my failure to disclose my status led to some serious drama where my first love was concerned.
I was 15, and that was the moment that I realized that, if I wanted to really find and honor love, I needed to find a way to love and honor myself. Which meant that I needed to figure out a way to make peace with my HIV status.
Ready to open up myself
After high school, my attitude started to shift. MTV's The Real World San Francisco brought Pedro Zamora- who was HIV positive- into my living room. He fell in love with another young man, Sean Sasser, who seemed to be living just fine with HIV. Their love story was inspiring, as were Pedro's educational efforts. At 20, I was ready to open up myself.
My Real World audition tapes were ignored, so I put up a website where I disclosed everything on my own terms. I was actually surprised by the lack of HIV-positive voices online in 1996, and one of the greatest honors of my life is being one of the first HIV-positive authored websites on the internet.
I wanted my site to be about more than HIV, so I included a shrine to a few of my celebrity crushes: Sandra Bullock and Katarina Witt included... who knows, maybe one of them would stumble upon my site and find my dimple irresistible?
Disclosing my status in a public way
At that time, anything seemed possible. Because I never thought I'd disclose my status in such a public way. Finding love was one of the reasons for the big change. I figured that, by doing it this way, I’d never again have to worry about “the right time” to tell someone. If they weren't online, I could simply hand them my business card. It read: “Professional Sickboy: writer, musician, speaker, prop, pal.”
Now, come on, who could resist that?!
Catching the eye of a potential lover guided my hand as I plucked away on my website. I was becoming so comfortable in my new mantra. Even when I faced rejection in the real real world, there were always kind comments online that kept the pep in my step.
When I started writing for POZ Magazine, my reach expanded and my support system within the AIDS community was vital. A lot of my gay friends within that community let me know what a catch I was, and that any straight girls that didn't get that weren't worth my time anyway.
I got to meet so many of my heroes... sadly, Pedro Zamora passed two years before I was ready to open up about HIV. But I did get to stay at Sean Sasser's place in San Francisco. When I found out he was a fan of my writing, it blew my mind!
Healthy relationship and HIV
So what changed after my decision to disclose? Well, literally everything. I discovered my love for writing. I realized that how I viewed myself and my HIV status was way more important than worrying about the potential rejection that my diagnosis could bring.
Today I’m 47. For just over half my life, I've been in a healthy relationship with the love of my life, Gwenn. She's HIV-negative, and we've shared our love story in so many different ways over the years. From conferences to classrooms. We even followed loosely in Pedro's footsteps, appearing on a few educational programs on MTV and our relationship was actually the inspiration for a fictional couple in the MTV series, Shuga!
One of the greatest honors of my life has been the opportunity to show people that those living with HIV can- and do!- have healthy relationships.
And what’s not to love about that?
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