How I Make My Mixed HIV Status Relationship Work
I'm HIV positive, but my partner is not. And though science has rendered that difference medically negligible, it's hard to shed decades of stigma overnight.
Illustration by Jacqueline Lin
When I found out I was HIV positive in 2013, I thought my life was over. Like many people, I still thought HIV was a death sentence. I didn't understand the science.
I learned that I was wrong. I found a doctor. I got on ART, antiretroviral treatment, and I became undetectable, meaning that the number of HIV antibodies in my blood reached a level that tests could not detect. And I learned that people who are undetectable essentially can't pass on HIV.
I seroconverted in the age of PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis—a daily pill people who are HIV negative can take that greatly reduces the risk of HIV infection. And since PrEP's rise, suddenly everyone I know is barebacking. In LA, when I tell someone I'm positive, it's rare that the news will elicit a strong reaction. These days, people seem more fearful of herpes and syphilis than they are of HIV.
I cried when the CDC released a statement reiterating what HIV researchers and doctors had been saying for years: When an HIV-positive person is on ART and maintains an undetectable viral load, there is "effectively no risk of sexually transmitting the virus to an HIV-negative partner." It's hard to explain to someone who is HIV negative exactly what those words mean to us, to have them come from the CDC.
I reacted so strongly for a simple reason: We've come a long way. And we've lost a staggering number of people to get here. Worse, a staggering number of people are still seroconverting, despite everything we know and the mind-blowing tools we have.
I fuck a lot of guys who are negative. I'm always honest about my HIV status—it's on all my app profiles, and even if I'm sure someone knows, I still tell them. Because I have the right not to be ashamed, and they have the right to the truth. I'm always happy to wear condoms. Sex is supposed to be fun, after all—we should all be comfortable.
I remember the first HIV-positive guy I ever dated. His name was Clark. I met him when I first moved to LA, in 1999. He was this beautiful boy from Orange County with breathtaking green eyes; he lived on top of a hill in Silver Lake with a cat who also had AIDS. He used to tell me it connected them. He loved that cat with everything he had.
I remember a night we spent watching Harold and Maude together, falling asleep in each other's arms, waking up and fucking. That morning, I pulled the condom off. He looked at me. It just didn't feel right—it felt detached. It didn't feel loving. But we had sex anyway. Afterward, I remember freaking out. I made an appointment at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, where I was told I would have to wait 90 days to get tested. Three fucking months.
Clark broke up with me the night I got my negative test result back. We were on his balcony overlooking the lights of Silver Lake and downtown, and he told me he couldn't take the responsibility. The idea of "infecting" me was too much for him to bear. I begged him to change his mind. I told him I loved him that night. I remember driving home to Los Feliz, then walking up the dark hills around my house until all of LA lay sparkling before me. I stood there and sobbed, because it just didn't make sense to me. I was able to look past his HIV status. Why couldn't he look past mine?
But now I get it—the weight and fear of it.
Before I met my boyfriend, Noah, we spent months chatting on Growlr. I still remember clearly telling him that I was positive. He, of course already knew; he had read it on my profile and in various stories I've written. But telling him still felt like this huge moment. I was so sure he would be polite about it, maybe keep talking to me for a while, and then fade away because I was diseased, tainted.
Of course, that isn't what happened. I've been with Noah for almost ten months now. He's shown himself to be a patient, kind, man with endless tolerance for my anxieties and fears.
And I'm definitely full of fears. I am 49 years old and HIV positive; Noah is 31 and negative. I live in LA. He lives in Berlin. It would be all too easy for him to meet someone less complicated—someone closer to his age who lives in the same city and doesn't have HIV.
I remember dancing with Noah at a club in London not long after I first met him in person. The thought hit me like a truck, right there on the dance floor: "Will we have to wear condoms forever? What if I'm not worth it?" I wanted to send him articles about PrEP and TasP, but I just waited instead. He would ask me when he was ready, I thought. But it wasn't easy. In the end I think I'm the one who brought it up. Patience has never been my strong suit.
My friends Ricardo and Mike have been together for 26 years; they met when they were both 24. They got tested together when they first started dating, and Mike found out he was positive. Ricardo was negative. This was 1991, in San Francisco. Neither of them knew what it meant. But they made a choice, and they held on to each other, taking care of each other.
"Mike wouldn't let me fuck him the whole first year we were together," Ricardo recently told me over coffee. "He would lie next to me and kiss me while I jerked off, creating these really elaborate fantasies—these insane, dirty, stories. Once he said it would be okay if I fucked another guy while he watched, but I didn't want to do that. It wasn't until we were halfway through our second year that he began to blow me. But I wasn't allowed to blow him. Then he decided I could, but only with condoms. Then we could fuck. I never fucked the man I loved without a condom until like six years ago." He smiled. "But I'll tell you, it was worth the wait."
"I still play some of those stories in my head," Ricardo told me. "Mike and I did everything in those fantasies before he actually let me touch his dick. It was a terrifying thing, to think I might never be able to really be with him, but we found a way to make it work. Because the idea of losing him was more terrifying. And we're the lucky ones. Most of the guys we knew didn't make it."
I recently asked Noah if he was afraid of catching HIV from me.
"I want you to tell me if you worry," I said. "I want us to be able to talk about it."
"No," he said. "We are safe."
And he is right. We have found a way to be safe that works for us.
Three weeks ago, Ricardo told me he found out he has an aggressive form of cancer.
"All those years we thought it was going to be Mike who was going to die," he said at the café. "But we made it through. And now, well, he's undetectable and healthy. The world has changed. It gives me hope. That we will make it through this too. And you know, if we don't, well, eventually, right? None of us make it forever."