Can I Still Find A Relationship When I’m HIV+?

Can I Still Find A Relationship When I'm HIV+?


Dear Dr. NerdLove:  I don’t know how much you know about gay relationships, but I’m ready to give up and declare myself a “confirmed bachelor,” a quaint term that I might just reinvigorate.

I’m 43 and ethnically East Indian. Also I’m HIV positive and undetectable. That means I take regular meds that reduces the virus count in my system to a level where I cannot infect a sexual partner, especially if they are also on Prep, which is based on one of the three medications I take.

I realized I was attracted to men when I was 17. I came out to my friends first, then my family, slowly. It turned out better than I expected though not to the point where I would be bringing a long term partner home for Ramadan, for everyone’s sake. When I came out in the late ‘90’s I was the only Indian person in the youth group I joined, gay bars and clubs, or in the university LGBT clubs which I was a leader.

I was different (unique) but I assumed I would eventually find a partner and get a dog, house, and live happily ever after. Instead, I’m contemplating a life of being alone. I’m wondering if it’s still even possible to find a partner anymore, or if I even want one.

First, the race issue. Most people I deal in everyday life with are not inherently racist. There are lots of younger Indian gays in the gay village these days. It’s almost fashionable to have an “ethnic boyfriend.” Television and movies have normalized it, but not porn, which still fetishized it as a fringe “dominate the ethnic” fetish. I bring this up because of the dominance of porn and Grindr in the hookup world. I never experienced racism in normal life until I signed up for Grindr and received a torrent of “Not into Asians” or just no response at all when I initiate a conversation.

Wait, you say. Grindr is just for hooking up, if you want a real relationship try a dating site, clubs or other activities. Yes, but my HIV status scares off most “normal” guys on those sites. We might connect on geeky interests, even have sexual attraction, but my status almost always puts a wrench in things.

How did I become HIV positive, you might ask? Well, in my quest to find someone special I started exploring the fetish scene. For the most part, the leather and bondage scene is openminded, healthy, and supportive of any kink or fetish, regardless of race or body type, as long as you are down for it.

However, hand in hand with fetish scene, for me, came recreational drugs. The drugs sanded off the nervous edges, made me more open to trying new things with people I wouldn’t normally be into. But it quickly lead to a catch-22 where the only people I’d hook up with were into the “Party and play” scene, and it took drugs for me to find them hot. Even when we met, I could rarely get hard because a part of my brain was screaming “this is fucked up and you are not enjoying this.”

So I would spend hours on Grindr looking for someone to hook up with, they would come over, we would spend time finding drugs to get high, get high, and then spend even more time looking for other guys who wanted drugs for a group where often nothing would happen because we were too distracted by the next hot by on Grindr. I wasted many weekends and even missed work on this pointless pursuit.

Then the pandemic helped, I no longer “parTy” nor play, but now I’m in this conundrum. I’m still not attractive to the “normal” relationship-worthy guys that I like, and I quickly shut down anyone who suggests the PnP scenario. It doesn’t leave me with much choice other than celibacy. What can I do to change this formula?

Total Catch-22

These are the sorts of questions that are the hardest to answer, TC22, because… well, if I’m being honest, the only real answer is “man, I’m sorry some folks suck.” But ultimately, that’s what’s happening here: some folks suck, and that can make like suck for others through no fault of their own.

You aren’t wrong, for example, about the background radiation of racial stereotyping that hits East and Southern Asian men and women and how white supremacy can inform people’s dating habits — including gay and bi men. Similarly, you’re not wrong about folks on Grindr who have things in their profile like “no fats, femmes or Asians”, or the way that people can still be ignorant about what it means to be HIV+ in the 21st century. All of that can fuck with your head, especially when your dating pool is already limited by virtue of being LGBTQ; it feels like a small pool has been made so much smaller that you could reasonably feel like you’re just shit outta luck.

And, unfortunately, when the problem is “some people suck”, the only viable answer is “look for the ones who don’t suck”. Which, yes, is precisely the sort of insight that is why they pay me the tall Advice Column Dollar.

However, that doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to be single forever. Yes, your circumstances make things more challenging…  but there’s a world of difference between “challenging” and “impossible”. As I’m wont to say: nailing jello to a tree is impossible; everything else is merely difficult.

(Yes, I’ve seen the picture of the box of jello stuck to a tree; it was mildly amusing back in 2011…)

The key, in your case,  TC22, is to look to minimize wasting your time and look to meet the people who are going to be the most receptive to you, instead of wasting time looking for love in several wrong places. As you said: Grindr, Scruff, DudesNude or the other apps that’ve become the digital equivalent of the hook-up bar may not be your best place to meet dudes looking for the husband, dog and white picket fence or charming duplex. While there are plenty of folks who find long-term, committed relationships on the apps — same as folks finding LTRs on Tinder or Feeld — it’s not necessarily the most efficient use of your time.

Now that doesn’t mean that dating apps are completely off the table for you, I’m a big believer that dating apps should be a supplement to how you meet folks, not the only way you do so. While Grindr may not be the place for what you’re looking for, Hinge and OKCupid both have large LGBTQ user bases that are more likely to be looking for the same things you are. However, as I said: this should be a supplement, not the replacement for meeting folks in person.

What I think is going to work best for you is what I’ve told plenty of other folks who struggle with dating apps: meet people through your hobbies and passions. Now, in your case, there’s a slight difference in where you should look to meet folks. The queer communities in towns and cities around the country often host activity groups and get-togethers specifically for other LGBTQ folks, so people can find and connect with others like them. So in many major metropolitan areas, you’ll find organizations specifically for gay, bi/pan and lesbian people to hang out, network and, yes, date. So if you look around, you’re likely to find gay skiing groups or gay amateur sports leagues, book clubs, cooking groups, MeetUps… events and gatherings specifically for bringing LGBTQ people together. That’s where you want to go to meet people — not just for dating, but friends, activity partners and so on.

The benefit that these events have over apps like Grindr is that, unlike a swipe-based app that encourages split-second “yes/no” decisions, you’re meeting people in person and building a connection over time. Part of why this works in your favor is because on dating apps, it’s very easy to get tunnel vision. Whether you’re gay, pan/bi or straight, cis; nonbinary, or trans; BIPOC, white, Indigenous,  East or South Asian, dating apps make it all too easy to get so granular and specific in what you’re looking for, you miss out on a lot of other potential partners. There’re fewer opportunities for serendipity on a dating app; being able to specify as many traits means that there are fewer happy accidents and moments of chance. Whereas if you meet people in person, you may meet folks who don’t match what you’re looking for on paper but who are awesome and you’re into ’em anyway.

And just as importantly,  you may meet folks who may not normally be into someone like you — someone who may be below-average height, for example — but your charm, personality, humor and other sterling qualities win them over. This is why playing the long game of getting to know people and building connections and relationships with them works to your advantage. Over time, uniqueness and individuality wins. So taking an approach of “meet lots of people, make friends, see what happens” is a good way for you to increase your potential dating pool.

And going to events specifically for LGBTQ people has one additional benefit: folks who are going to events specifically for queer folks are more likely to be aware of issues that disproportionally affect other queer people. Such as, say, being HIV+. As you said, TC22: you may be seropositive, but advances in medicine in general and HIV treatment in particular means that being HIV+ in 2021 isn’t the same as it was in the 80s or 90s. Because you’re on antiviral medication and your viral load is undetectable, there is virtually no chance of your passing the virus on to an HIV negative partner. If you combine this with your partners being on PREP and using condoms, then the odds of a negative partner catching the virus from you is almost nil.

For those of us who grew up in the early days of the AIDS crisis, this is mindblowing compared to where things were before. There’s been a lot of outreach to the LGBTQ community to help spread this information, especially considering how disproportionately HIV affects men who sleep with men. Folks who are active within the community are, thus, more likely to be aware of PrEP and suppressive medication and, as a result, are less likely to have the same  knee-jerk reaction to finding out that you’re positive.

However, there’s still a lot of ignorance and misinformation out there, and it’s not unreasonable that some folks would regard being HIV+ as a deal-breaker. But here’s the thing: when it comes to socially divisive issues — such as sexuality, kink or serostatus — we often tend to react less to the person and more to the image that’s in our heads. One of the most effective ways of breaking down stereotypes about others is actually meeting people and getting to know them as people instead of as lables or images in our heads. So while there may be folks who have an initial “eeeeeenh” reaction to your being HIV+, being up front and unashamed of having HIV, being able and willing to explain what being on PrEP does and what an undetectable viral load means can make a difference in how folks see you. Your being able to explain your situation, combined with meeting someone who’s looking for the same committed, long-term relationship you are, could be the precise thing that pushes someone off the fence and gives them permission to do what they actually want: date you and see where things go.

Now, as I’ve told other guys in your situation: you’re still going to deal with assholes and folks who can’t or won’t update their mental ideas about what it means to have HIV. However, this is, in its own perverse way, a super power; all that’s happening is that folks who are demonstrably wrong for you are sorting themselves out of your dating pool. Your having HIV is just one aspect of the sum totality of who you are. How they respond to that information, on the other hand, tells you everything you need to know about them.

I’m not gonna lie, TC22: you’ve got some serious challenges ahead of you, challenges that other folks simply aren’t going to have to face. But as I’ve said before: nobody said that this was going to be easy. They said that it would be worth it.

Good luck.

Dear Dr. NerdLove –

This happened many years ago but the thought keeps popping into my head every now and then and was wondering if you had an answer.

35+ years ago I was right out of high school working at an auto parts store. A car pulled into our lot and out stepped the prettiest girl I had seen, not beautiful in the conventual sense but something about her I was attracted to. Her car was making an awful squealing noise and wondered if we could help. Easy diagnosis, her alternator was going out. While looking at her car, I learned that she was on her way to her sister’s house, from her parent’s house as her sister just had a baby. She still had about an hour to go and it was getting dark so no way she could make it with a bad alternator. No credit card and not enough cash as she still needed to get gas to make it the rest of the way. I offered to pay for the new alternator and install it with the agreement she would mail the money to me when she got back home. I gave her my address and she was on her way. My co-workers gave me grief saying I was a fool and the money I spent on the alternator was as good as gone.

A few days later I receive and envelope with the money and a note saying to call her to make sure I got the money. I called her and she thanked me profusely for “saving her” and offered to take me out for supper to pay me back. I mentioned something about “was that okay with her boyfriend” and she said not an issue as she was single. Because we lived about 3 hours from each other we decide to meet at a truck stop along the interstate that was about 1/2 way from each of us. We met and hit it off well. Made plans to meet the next week at the same truck stop. We did this for several weeks plus calling each other a few times (before cell phones so long-distance charges) to talk and found we had much in common. With my retail work schedule and her rotating days’ work schedule to spend any amount of time together, except for supper at the truck stop, proved difficult. She had plans to go visit her sister again on a weekend so she made an excuse to leave her sisters early, stop by my house on the way back, spend the afternoon with me and go home. Well she had such a good time she called her boss and said she wouldn’t be in the next morning until later and spent the night with me. We did almost everything except have sex as it was “that time of the month”. As the following weekend was my “off” weekend we made plans for me to go visit her.

Went to her place Saturday afternoon, had a great time, laughed, flirted, strolled in the park, supper, etc.. It was great! Ended up having sex that night. In the morning after showering together and eating breakfast she mentioned she wasn’t on any birth control and what did I think of that? I said I had condoms in the car and would have gotten them if I had known she wasn’t using anything. She then ask “what if I become pregnant?” I said “well, I am not a strong believer in abortion but it would be your choice”. “Or, if you decide to keep it, I will raise it with you if we continue this relationship, or support the child no matter what if we don’t.”.

The following week she called and left a message on my answering machine (she knew my work schedule so she knew I wouldn’t be home) and said she couldn’t make it to the next truck stop date night as we had planned. A day or so later I got a letter from her saying she was on birth control but I had answered her question wrong about birth control and she didn’t want to continue the relationship and not to contact her anymore. I promptly called her (mistake?) leaving a message on her machine and asked what I said that was so wrong. No response for a week so I sent her a letter saying I really cared about her (I was going to mentioned I loved her but didn’t) and whatever I did wrong to please give me another chance. I received another letter with her saying to please leave her alone.

Although I have been happily married for 20+ years with 4 kids it still “pains” me now and then (and throws me into a real funk) of thinking what the future between us could have been with her and what I did/said was wrong. I know this was many years ago but do you have any thought on what happened?


Lost In The Past

Hoo boy.

The short version is: you fucked up, chief. Big time.

The slightly longer version: she was playing stupid games, but you had a choice and as the man said: you chose…  poorly.

The long version goes something like this. You had a meet-cute with this woman, where you were her knight in greasy coveralls at a moment when she needed help. By being willing to cut her a break in a time of need and showing an incredible amount of trust, you signaled to her that you were a pretty good guy. She clearly liked you, asked you out on a date as thanks, and had a long-distance friendship with her that eventually turned flirty and then sexual. Then, when things progressed and you went from “everything but” to actual sex… well, you didn’t use any protection.

This is, honestly, the first place you fucked up. The fact that you didn’t have condoms at the ready, nor did you pause things to go get them was a mistake. It’s definitely a mistake in 2021 and it was a mistake back then, even coming off the tail end of the Sexual Revolution. One of the things to keep in mind is  that, if this happened 35+ years ago, that would mean this happened in or around 1986 or so. That, amongst other things, put this encounter right at the point when the AIDS Crisis was in full swing. And while, yes, in the mid-80s, AIDS was still seen primarily as a “gay” disease, Ryan White had died only two years before and straight people were contracting the disease. Plus,  even if HIV was off the table, you were still running the risk of exposure to HSV, HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.

So right there, I think, is where you lost some serious points with her. Possibly not enough to make her decide that she didn’t want to bang that night, but I’d say enough to at least move you down a few notches from “relationship material”.

Then there was the conversation of “so… what about if I got pregnant?” that you completely wiffed on. Seeing as she was on birth control and brought it up oh-so-casually the morning after, I suspect the answer she was looking for was “well, I’ll support your choice.” The wishy-washy reply plus not getting the condoms plus the long-distance nature of your relationship, I think, is what soured her on you. Calling her after she specifically said “please don’t contact me any more” was the cherry on this particular sundae; it likely confirmed to her that you weren’t someone she ever wanted to see again.

Now, to be fair: this was more than three decades ago, you were barely out of high-school and social and sexual mores were different, so you weren’t egregiously awful. However, you did make a series of bad calls and poor choices and those were clearly changes that she felt strongly about. Strong enough to decide that she didn’t ever want to see you again. Which, y’know, sucks, but you live, you learn and you do your best to make sure you that you don’t make those mistakes again. And seeing as this was 35 years and change ago… well, hopefully, getting an answer will at least bring you closure.

Good luck.