“I'm still worthy, and I can respect myself while also respecting others.”
Over the past few decades, we’ve seen enormous advancements in the world of HIV research — there’s finally a potential vaccine on the horizon, and scientists continue to explore cures far and wide. And yet, cultural attitudes about people with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) have trailed far behind, and misinformation around the virus continues to spread. Evidence of our collective ignorance can be found everywhere, from DaBaby’s deeply stigmatizing comments in front of thousands of fans just last year, to state laws that still criminalize people with HIV for acts (like spitting) that can’t even transmit the virus.
To be clear, thanks to medicine, people with HIV can keep the virus in check and even reach a point where it’s undetectable (and therefore untransmittable). On top of that, folx who are HIV-negative but have an HIV-positive partner can take PrEP, which reduces their chance of contracting the virus through sex by about 99%, according to the CDC. Today, HIV is no longer the death sentence it used to be; HIV-positive adults who undergo regular treatment can have healthy, fulfilling sex lives.
But as the past couple years of the COVID pandemic have shown us, many people’s actions are motivated more by emotion than by science. And in my opinion, there are few areas where raw emotion rules more mercilessly than in our dating lives — which is also where stigma and dangerous rhetoric abound. Within the queer community, for example, it’s not uncommon to hear people say they’re “clean” when referring to their HIV-negative status, or to speak openly about “preferring” not to date someone who is HIV-positive.
Today, people of color continue to account for a majority of new HIV diagnoses in the United States, according to the CDC, and fear of stigma and rejection can deter folx from getting tested or disclosing their HIV status. But living with HIV shouldn’t have to feel like a shameful secret while dating. I spoke with seven people who show that love doesn’t end after a diagnosis.
(These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
Kim Canady-Griffith (She/Her), 34, Brooklyn, NY
“I’m currently married and I met my husband in middle school. We hated each other — like we were arch nemeses the whole time. And I didn't see him again until high school. And then we started dating, I want to say junior year of high school, but we had known each other for a while.
When I told him I was positive the first time, he broke up with me. I told him that I was born with it, but he felt like I had lied to him, and he said, ‘No, it’s over.’ And I thought, okay, well fine. We don't have to be together. And then he called me up a week later and was like, ‘So why didn't you call me?’
The first year we were together, he didn’t want us to tell people that I was positive. [But eventually], we just stuck together and it was like, he got my back, I got him. And we've been together ever since. I used to ask my husband why he would want to be with somebody who had this thing. It took going to therapy, but I really understand now that I am more than my HIV.”
Dana White (They/Them), 35, Washington, D.C.
“I’m currently in a long-term relationship of five years. Before we dated, we had actually been connected on social media for some time, and then we ended up meeting more formally at a conference in D.C. Before that, HIV really wasn't much of a factor in my dating life. None of the relationships in my 20s were successful, but that’s just because we were in our 20s.
When I was first diagnosed, I was so young and I hadn't really had much dating experience. I was concerned that stigma was going to be more of an issue for me in dating and sex, but it just didn't turn out to be that way. I know that's not the case for everyone, so in that sense, I feel sort of thankful that I didn't really have any experiences of rejection or being made to feel different.”
Samuel Colón Jr. (He/Him), 44, Queens, NY
“I was diagnosed when I was 28, but I was in a relationship then and [the diagnosis] wasn’t a deal breaker for that person — so I didn’t have to navigate dating with HIV until that relationship ended. But then I was in my 30s and I had to navigate this new thing I had to tell people about. And I'm already a person of color, I'm Latino, and I'm overweight. I'm all these things, and now there's this new thing that I have to add and that people have to kind of get through or get over in order to date me.
I used to tell everyone my status up front, but now I've come to terms with the fact that not everyone deserves to know that right away. If I just meet a guy on Tinder, that's not the first or second thing out of my mouth; I’ll just tell them before it gets physical so they're fully aware. Generally, it's always hard for me to decide [when to disclose]. It almost feels labor intensive: I don’t know how much education you have about that, so now I have to potentially educate you and explain to you what T-cells are, and what virals are, and what undetectable means. It's almost the same as when people of color have to teach white people about racism.
In a way, I realize I always disclosed my status first thing because I was anticipating the rejection; I almost wanted to tell people up front, ‘Look at all these things that I don’t like about myself and that you're probably gonna hate, too.’ I realize now that’s not very attractive.”
Reshaud Aurtrell Brown (She/Him), 26, Charlotte, NC
“It took me a while to realize that I didn't have to wear [my status] like a badge of shame. You know how they'll make sex offenders knock on doors and announce themselves? That's kind of how I felt when it came to dating, and it took a long time and conversations and healing to learn that yes, this is a part of my life story now — but I'm still worthy, and I can respect myself while also respecting others.
I realized in the past few years that I needed to do some work on myself, so I actually took a break from dating. I’ve been on the journey of loving and dating myself, but I'm at a point now that I feel like I’ve actually done a lot of really good work in therapy — so [this year], I’ll start dating again with confidence. I'm [more] clear on what I want and who I am.
I feel even more beautiful, even more confident, and even more worthy now than I did before the virus. That's crazy to say, but it's how life has worked out. I don't want anybody to fill any holes in my life. I want to come to them healed, and I want them to come to me healed, and together we'll be two whole beings that are in each other's lives simply because we want to.”
George Johnson (They/Them), 36, New Jersey
“Being someone who is in the public eye and publicly living with HIV, I go into dating with the mindset that if they don't know that I'm living with HIV, it’s easy for them to find out online. So it is something that I state very early on — usually on first dates. I’m very upfront very early on, because I'm at an age where I'm comfortable with my status. Either you are, or you're not — but letting me know that you're not upfront is perfectly fine, and I can move on to someone who can love me in my totality.
I remember early on in my diagnosis, every time I had to disclose, there was a lump in my throat. It was really overwhelming wondering what the reactions would be. Surprisingly, the majority of the reactions were like, ‘Okay, that's cool.’
There is still life after being diagnosed with HIV, and there are numerous examples of couples who are both HIV positive and together, or people who are in serodiscordant relationships who are together; the possibilities are endless. [As for the] people who say they wouldn't date anyone with HIV, you have to reframe that as like, ‘But would anybody living with HIV want to date you?’”
Marnina L. Miller (She/Her), 32, Houston, TX
“I like to talk about HIV education [on my TikTok page], but I also talk a lot about sex positivity. I’ve shared how I've had the best sex of my life since my diagnosis, because now that I’m so candid about my diagnosis, I can talk openly with my partners. It has allowed me to even talk about what I want, and about body autonomy and sex positivity. Before, I didn't have the body autonomy to say, ‘Hey, I don't like that.’ I was so shy and so reserved about my sexual life or my sexual behaviors. [Talking about my status] has allowed me to be more free.
Just because you're living with HIV, you don’t have to settle. There are so many folks in this world who will love you. I've heard so many people say things like, ‘Oh, well, I love him, because he accepts my diagnosis.’ Like girl, that's not a reason.”
Marvell L. Terry II (He/Him), 36
“My recommendation [to younger people living with HIV] would be to lean into [your status]. Whether it’s HIV, or it’s my skin complexion that is too dark for a person's preference, or I'm too short, there's always going to be something we will have to encounter dating in the LGBTQ community. So my recommendation would be just to lean into it and have fun. Don't take yourself too seriously. I'll be upfront and say, rejection is real; I'm not going to lie to you and say you’ll never get rejected. But I will say, you probably won't get rejected for the reasons that you think.
It's a journey. It takes time. I’m 36 and certainly not who I was at 25 trying to navigate this space. I think once you become okay with your status, particularly in a sexual environment, it allows you to explore things such as kink, or your fetish, or BDSM, or what brings you joy in the bedroom. We don't openly talk about how one’s status limits their ability to really enjoy moments of intimacy and verbalize what they enjoy. What I've learned is the more I become okay with my status, the more explorative I am in the bedroom and able to speak directly to what I like and what I don’t like. Once we get to that space, we can openly talk about, ‘What is pleasure?’”