It was only our second date, but I was ready to rush to third.
Brandon was handsome, slim, in his early 30s, a pet lover, and financially stable—all qualities that I find very attractive. We sat at Palermo’s, an Italian restaurant in east Los Angeles known for its oversized plates of pasta and family-friendly decor. As we overate, the chances of third base becoming less of a practical reality with every bite, Brandon grew agitated and fidgety.
“I’m HIV positive,” he said, “but on my meds and undetectable.”
My reaction was nonchalant, as if this piece of information didn’t concern me one bit. And in that moment, I was, in fact, more concerned with him feeling comfortable than his HIV status. I understood how difficult it must have been to share this information with a stranger for whom he had sexual feelings, and I attempted to break the tension.
“Well, I had cancer before, so aren’t we a hopeless pair,” I said. Brandon, whose name I’ve changed to protect his privacy, laughed. Tension broke.
But it wasn’t broken, it was still there, deep down inside me. I let HIV scare me, like it had countless times before that carb-loaded night. It didn’t matter how knowledgeable I was about HIV—part of the attraction I had for Brandon died in that moment.
What do we know about HIV? We know that men who have sex with men are still the group most at risk for infection. We also know that an HIV diagnosis isn't the death sentence it was in the early days of the AIDS crisis. And yet, too many gay men are still letting a positive status scare us away from meaningful romantic relationships.
Just this month, a study conducted by Kaiser Permanente in San Francisco revealed that, after following 600 high-risk men who have sex with men on the preventative treatment PrEP for two years, not a single one became HIV positive. That’s a 100% effective rate. As the Washington Post wrote in its coverage of the study, "AIDS researchers tend to be a staid bunch who look skeptically at every new finding. But the results … have many cheering."
Even before the bombshell study, previous research had found that PrEP, which involves taking a blue pill called Truvada daily, reduces HIV infection by up to 92% when taken consistently, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So we now have a highly effective method for preventing the transmission of HIV—but what about those who are already positive? Brandon told me he was "undetectable." If you're a single man who has sex with other men, you've likely heard the term tossed around. You may have even seen it on some brave souls' Tinder or Grindr profiles.
People with HIV can become undetectable after taking antiretroviral therapy (ART) to lower their "viral load," or the amount of HIV in their blood—a person is undetectable when his or her viral load is so low that it cannot be detected by a blood test. "Having an undetectable viral load greatly lowers your chance of transmitting the virus to … partners who are HIV-negative," according to AIDS.gov.
The site cautions that even when you're undetectable, HIV can still exist in genital and rectal fluids—and more research is needed involving transmission between men who have sex with men. But the research thus far involving transmission between opposite-sex couples has been very promising. And, of course, having an undetectable viral load also means one is able to live a long, high-quality life with the virus.
So great. We’re preventing and treating the virus really well. The progress we’re making on the stigma in the gay community, though? Not so much.
Despite the numerous advancements in the treatment and lives of people with HIV, there have been drastically fewer advancements in how gay men approach dating HIV-positive people. The fear from the earlier years of the virus remains. We in the LGBT community are happy to rally behind our HIV positive brothers and sisters, but if others are reacting to dates the way I did with Brandon—and I suspect they are—we’re ruling out meaningful romantic relationships with a fifth of our community.
“We’ve made great strides in education, but more work is still needed,” Ken Almanza, a 30-year-old PrEP navigator for APLA Health & Wellness, which provides free and low-cost health care services to the low-income LGBT community in Los Angeles, told me. In his years of working in the HIV field, Almanza, who has spoken out about his own use of PrEP, said he's witnessed a better understanding of what it means to be on meds and undetectable, but the stigma around dating guys who are positive runs deep—and hookup and dating apps like Grindr, Scruff, and Tinder may even “bear some social responsibility in removing the stigma of being upfront about your sexual health wellbeing.”
Just imagine if Tinder had an option for people to declare themselves “Negative, and on PrEP” or “HIV+ on meds/undetectable.” This openness would, if nothing else, start an important conversation around unspoken biases.
What does being alienated for your status feel like? Pretty horrible, said Andrew Piddington, a friend I met years ago in the early days of Twitter.
“I’m in a great place. I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been, and the idea that somebody wouldn’t want to be with me just because I’m HIV positive is upsetting,” Andrew told me recently over the phone. Since becoming HIV positive in 2012, Andrew, a 36-year-old music journalist living in New York City, has been vocal about his status, his life, and the struggles of what it’s like to date with HIV.
“I don’t disclose my status on dating profiles,” he said, instead preferring to post a link to an essay he wrote about when he became positive, for interested parties to read before messaging him. He doesn’t “want to be judged by three letters next to my name.”
People like Brandon and Andrew—stable, successful, studly men—shouldn’t be bypassed just because of three letters. The good news is that their openness about their status may be beginning to spark enlightenment in HIV negative people about their options.
“I am seeing more mixed-status couples come forward,” said Almanza. He believes these relationships “are in large part a result of PrEP, more communication, and more importantly, education.”
The person you decide to be intimate with is a private decision, based on your own background, history, and personal experiences. But if we in the LGBT community are going to push for greater acceptance in the mainstream with marriage and anti-discrimination laws, then let’s start by actually accepting everybody in our community and not just offering lip service while bypassing them sexually.
Of course, we still need to use our best judgment in choosing sexual partners—people can lie about their PrEP or ART regimens. But if both people are operating from a foundation of trust, given what we know about managing the virus today, there's no reason to let misplaced fears scare us away.
Brandon and I never did make it to third—or a third date. After dinner, I thanked him for a lovely evening and delivered a thinly veiled excuse about needing to get home to feed my cat. I haven't spoken to him since.
I think about Brandon a lot—about how foolish I was to let his HIV status frighten me the way it did. I don’t know how far we could have gone, and now I’m too embarrassed to contact him and find out.
I’ve since gone on PrEP, which feels like one of the best decisions I’ve made for my sexual and emotional health. I know it’s not a magic pill, but at the very least, it’s another layer of protection, both from HIV and my anxieties about HIV. Brandon wasn’t the first man to tell me he’s HIV positive on a date, but he will be the last one I ever force a foul ball with just because of his status.
It’s hard enough to meet people you like enough to go on dates with—why make it harder by putting up unnecessary barriers? HIV shouldn’t be an automatic swipe left.
H. Alan Scott is a writer/comedian. His work has been featured on MTV, The Huffington Post, and Thought Catalog. Oprah said his name. halanscott.com