“Why don’t you love me?!” Daniel screams at the top of his lungs. Although he would never admit his favorite song is one by Beyoncé, he’d have a hard time proving otherwise right now. Once he finishes his erratic dancing and off-key singing, he picks the phone back up to acknowledge my presence again. “So what were we talking about?” he asks, breathing like he’d just finished the Boston Marathon.
After an audible eye roll, I remind him we were talking about my dating issues – or lack thereof. “Oh yeah,” he says, noticeably over the topic but still happy to give me a shoulder to lean on. As we talk, the conversation takes all kinds of twists and turns, as they usually do between us; from exes to future exes and everything in between, we talk about it all.
I guess he got tired of hearing me complain, so he asked, “Well what exactly is it that you’re looking for?” I responded with the usual suspects: attractive, sense of humor, employed, etc. But when I asked him what he was looking for, he simply responded, “Someone who accepts everything about me…even me being HIV-positive.”
Talk about a reality check.
Daniel learned he was HIV-positive when he was 17, after donating blood to the Red Cross as an extra credit assignment. After processing his donation, counselors from the organization gave him a call and broke the news. That day, Daniel became one of almost two million people living with HIV in the U.S.
Suddenly all of my ranting and raving seemed so insignificant. Even though I knew he was HIV+, I never considered how difficult it must be to meet someone and have to tell them something so polarizing that it would determine your future. Because he was dating someone at the time, Daniel was faced with this burden immediately after finding out.
“He took it pretty well at first,” he said of the guy he was seeing. “He was always checking on me and seeing how I was holding up. He said things wouldn’t change and that he’d always be around. Definitely gave the opposite response than what I was expecting.”
But things did change. The guy ended up getting back with his ex because he was afraid to be with me, and didn’t know what would happen when he wanted to have sex. They kept the friendship for a while, but even that slowly disappeared.
“I didn’t think anyone would want to be with me,” he said. “That was one of the first things I thought about because that’s what you’d always hear. You’d hear the other kids talk down about someone who has some type of sexually transmitted disease and how they wouldn’t want to be with them. And now, I’m ‘them.’”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were an estimated 48,100 new HIV infections in 2009, 61 percent of which occurred in gay and bisexual men. Black men and women were also strongly affected and were estimated to have an HIV incidence rate that was 7 times as high as the incidence rate among whites.
Even though Daniel has come to terms with his status, he still finds dating to be a challenge sometimes. “I still have those days when wish I didn’t have it. The only time I really think that way is when I have to tell someone I’m interested in,” he said. “The ones I get really nervous with are the ones I really like, and I don’t know how they’re going to respond. Some people I’ve talked to have said they’re scared of taking things to that next level and the chance of them getting [infected], too. I don’t try to change their minds, but I do try to educate them.”
Of course, education includes limiting sexual partners (somewhat effective), condom use (99.9 percent effective), and abstinence (100 percent effective). But it also requires a bit of knowledge about HIV, and how stigmas and homophobia may have a profound impact on black gay men knowing their status. Unfortunately, there’s an all-too-common belief that men who have sex with other men don’t need to use condoms for whatever reason.
Daniel doesn’t let this change his perspective, though. “I thought the reason it was so hard to get back into a serious relationship was because I was positive…until recently when it had nothing to do with me being positive.” As he’s continued dating, he met someone with a promising future. “We started out as friends and it slowly turned into more. But when I told him [about my status], he reminded me that he was in medical school, so he knows all about the disease and what he can and cannot do. Basically he was educated and said things wouldn’t change…and this time they actually didn’t.”
And like a true friend, he brings it back full-circle for me. “There’s someone out there for you, and you will find them eventually. Don’t let it get you down…because it simply isn’t meant to be. You don’t have to be in a relationship to be happy. Find happiness within yourself and you’ll be good. Once you do that, that person for you will most likely come along.”