What you need to know when you have HIV and are on the market
By Diane Anderson-Minshall
Dating is tough in general, but being HIV-positive while seeking a mate presents a whole host of unique questions and issues. We answer some of your most pressing relationship questions, from dating to marriage and babies.
Can I meet people online? Are there dating sites for HIV-positive people? Yes, there are many HIV-specific dating sites, including HIVDatingOnline.com, HIVPoz.net, and PositiveSingles.com, which has over 15,000 members—all of whom are positive for either HIV or another condition they specify (for instance, HPV or herpes). Some sites, such as HIVNet.com, began as community sites in the ’90s and grew into dating sites as more members joined; that kind of start offers a sort of friendly, self-policing (no spam!) environment. Plenty of sites specific to other parts of your identity make disclosing your status easy. Gay.com (which is owned by the same parent company as HIV Plus) is aimed at gay and bisexual men and women, and it allows users to share that they are HIV-positive or search for other HIV-positive people. It’s not uncommon to see profiles that begin with “I am HIV-positive” along with the poster’s other interests, as they do on the pet-lovers personals site LoveMeLoveMyPets.com, or JDate.com, which is for Jewish singles. Often disclosing on a website is an easy way to take the fear of rejection out of meeting new potential dates.
When should I tell my date I have HIV? Remember you don’t have to tell anyone about your HIV status until you’re ready emotionally or are about to engage in behaviors that could put someone at risk (such as sex). There’s no one way that works. Some people like to come out casually between dinner and dessert, while others mark it as a serious conversation to be had after the first date but before things get serious. Heck, Mondo Guerra came out on national TV. “When I came out as HIV-positive on Project Runway, I was afraid of how people would react,” he told Everyday Health. “I thought about it the next day and I was really frightened of the backlash. But then when the episode aired, it was amazing how many people responded in such a positive way, and how people were so willing to share their own personal stories. And also through Facebook I get so many different emails from my friends…who share their personal stories about living with HIV.”
What is important to remember is that you are not alone: You are one of the nearly 1.2 million Americans living with HIV, according to 2008 data (the latest available) from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Living with HIV is like living with many other chronic diseases. While you can’t transmit diabetes or lupus to a sexual partner, there are effective ways to ensure potential partners are never at risk for contracting HIV from you. There’s no shame in having HIV and being honest with a prospective date about it. If he or she balks, that’s just not the right person for you.
Do I have to tell my date I’m HIV-positive? You do need to come out about your status before you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex. According to the Center for HIV Law and Policy, 36 states and two U.S. territories have HIV-specific criminal statutes. Each of those states has reported proceedings in which HIV-positive people have been arrested and/or prosecuted for consensual sex, biting, or spitting, so in some states even a hand job can be a risky act if you haven’t told your sexual partner your status. A report from the center documents 80 prosecutions in a recent two-year period, such as that of an HIV-positive Iowa man who had used a condom (he had to register as a sex offender and is not allowed unsupervised contact with young children, including his nieces and nephews) and a Georgia woman who was sentenced to eight years in prison for failing to disclose her HIV-positive status, even though two witnesses told jurors that her sexual partner was aware of her diagnosis. Knowing the laws is important, protecting yourself from prosecution even more so.
How do I get over my fear of rejection? Face it, everyone in the dating world is afraid of rejection, whether it’s because we have baggage (kids, exes, trauma), we don’t fit social expectations (of age, size, appearance, cultural background), we’re awkward at socializing (nerdy, shy, introverted), or have one of the myriad of other characteristics that make us unique. For people with HIV, dating can be intimidating and fear of rejection might keep you from disclosing your status to dates. The experts at AIDSInfoNet.org recommend that you remember every situation is different and you don’t have to tell everybody. If you aren’t going to be in a situation where HIV could be transmitted, there’s no need to tell your date, but sooner or later, in any relationship, “it will be important to talk about your HIV status. The longer you wait, the more difficult it gets,” the website notes. For many folks, like Greater Than AIDS ambassador Marvelyn Brown, having that conversation is easier over the phone early in the relationship. That way you haven’t invested too much energy in the relationship when you find out whether having HIV makes you a no-go for your potential partner. Disclose first, fool around after.
If we’re both HIV-positive, do we still need to use condoms? Yes. This is among the most common questions, says Mark Cichocki, a HIV/AIDS nurse educator at the University of Michigan’s HIV/AIDS Treatment Program and the author of Living with HIV: A Patient’s Guide. “Sexual contact between two HIV-infected people most certainly requires a condom,” Cichocki wrote on About.com. “Different strains or types of HIV can be passed between two HIV-infected people, making treatment of the infection even more difficult. This transfer of one HIV strain to another HIV-infected person is called reinfection. For instance, if person ‘A’ has an HIV type that has been responsive to therapy and person ‘B’ has an HIV type that hasn’t, passing that type of HIV from ‘B’ to ‘A’ will make it harder to treat person ‘A,’ possibly making therapy ineffective in person ‘A’ as well. Also keep in mind, condom use is also important in preventing the transmission of other sexually transmitted diseases.” Reinfection with HIV makes treatment more difficult, and you could end up with a skyrocketing viral load in no time.
What if the condom breaks? Don’t panic. If it breaks before ejaculation, pull out and put a new condom on. If it breaks after ejaculation, pull it out slowly and carefully, then go take a nice soapy shower or bath. But do not douche or perform an enema—both set the stage for infection. If you’re both HIV-positive, you should both see your doctors and talk to them about possible reinfection. If only one of you has HIV, the negative person should explain to their doctor that they had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive person. Either way, this info helps your physician monitor your treatment and, if needed, order tests or medication to prevent further complications.
We’re in love! Can I get a wedding license if I have HIV? Yes. Most states have stopped requiring blood tests for couples getting married. Many states do require that anyone applying for a marriage license be offered an HIV test or information on HIV, but no state requires a premarital HIV/AIDS test. If you’re going to put a ring on it, you need tell your future spouse, but you won’t have to tell the government.
Are there retreats or cruises to meet other HIV-positives? Yes. Paul Stalbaum, the HIV-positive travel agent behind Cruise Designs Travel (CruiseDesignsTravel.com) orchestrates an annual Caribbean cruise for HIV-positive men and women, both gay and straight. This year the ship will sail from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to St. Thomas, St. Maarten, and Grand Turk October 28 through November 4. Like many cruises, it will feature snorkeling and suntanning, but this cruise is also packed with guest speakers, from scientists to entertainers, talking about HIV. Many previous cruisers admit they learned more about HIV in the week on board than they had all year with their physician.
There are also retreats, like the WORLD Women’s Retreat, held semiannually on the Northern California coast (Women-HIV.org) for HIV-positive women, or July’s International Poz Brotherhood Retreat (PozRetreats.com) for gay and bisexual HIV-positive men, held annually in Pennsylvania’s Poconos Mountains. All of these retreats and cruises offer something hard to find at home: a community of HIV-positive people relaxing, having fun, and not having to hide their HIV status in any way.
How do we handle being a serodiscordant couple? Serodiscordant simply means one of you has HIV and one of you doesn’t. There’s very little research on how successfully serodiscordant, or mixed, couples cope with the complications of HIV. According to TheBody.com, an online HIV resource guide, “research of this nature tends to measure the most negative aspects of positive/negative couplings, telling us primarily how HIV complicates our lives. It tells us very little about the rewards, the discovery of inner strengths, the emotional ties, the opportunities for developing better communication skills, or the joy generated when a mixed-status couple does create a happy, strong, fulfilling relationship.” What you need to know if you’re a mixed couple is that you can have a happy and healthy relationship, but, like all relationships, it requires work and commitment, because love does not conquer all. The HIV-negative partner may want talk to his or her physician about pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP; research has shown anti-HIV drugs such as Viread (tenofovir) and Truvada reduce the risk of HIV infection in the negative partners of serodiscordant heterosexual couples. However, health experts warn that PrEP should never be the first line of defense against HIV infection, instead recommending regular condom use. Couples might also want to see a couples counselor who specializes in coping with HIV. Many HIV-positive people fear spreading the disease to their partners, making sex fraught with tension. Many HIV-negative partners encounter disrespect from friends and family members when the other partner’s status is revealed. A counselor can help you work through those kinds of issues and communicate to each other your anxieties, fears, and needs.
Can we have kids if one of us has HIV? Yes. If you want to have biological children, there are options for HIV-positive men and women. If you’re an HIV-positive woman who wants to give birth, you should talk to your doctor before you become pregnant (or as soon as possible if you’re already knocked up). There are highly effective medications that you should take during pregnancy that can help prevent HIV transmission to your child. If you are an HIV-positive man, there’s a procedure called sperm washing that can literally wash the HIV from your sperm, making it safe to then inseminate a female partner or surrogate with. It may be less romantic than the traditional way, but it’s much safer. Adoption is another option. While some adoption agencies have been known to kick out prospective parents who have HIV, the Americans With Disabilities Act makes it unconstitutional for adoption services to disqualify prospective adopters solely on an HIV diagnosis. According to AIDS Beacon, agencies “are allowed to reject the applicant if other factors exist that determine the prospective parents are unqualified.” Several adoption providers, like Independent Adoption Center of Los Angeles, have placed children for adoption with HIV-positive individuals after they’ve been rejected by other agencies.
How do we tell my new partner’s kids I have HIV? How do I tell my kids?Many parents worry that telling their kids might place a burden on the children. Mental health professionals say the decision about whether to tell your kids depends on many factors, including how perceptive they are (if there are medicine containers all around, kids will ask about them), how discreet you need to be (asking kids to keep your status a secret is a heavy burden), and how strong you can be for them (some kids will be angry or overly clingy, worried you’ll be dying). For most people, telling their children is the right thing to do. Before you do, learn everything you can about HIV. Your kids have been perfecting the “why” questions since they were 2 years old; this is a moment when there will be a lot of whys and hows. Your doctor or counselor might have ideas about groups or advocates for children, who can also talk to the kids or be a support team for you and the offspring as you go through the coming-out process. Then, says Cichocki, talk in a quiet space, be honest, trust your kids to handle it, and let them express their emotions fully (remember, kids can experience a range of feelings, including guilt, fear, rage, and rejection). This process may take more than one day—it’s the beginning of a conversation in which you should be honest, age-appropriate, and willing to offer both answers and assurances. Kids can impress us with their ability to understand and assimilate information; you just need to have it ready for them. After the crying and talking is done, take them out for ice cream so they remember that this is just another juncture that your family will tackle together.
“How beautifully leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days.” John Burroughs
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