How Online Dating Empowers Women Living with HIV
by Claire Gasamagera
By the time we decided to meet in person, I had no idea how beautiful Rob’s blue eyes were. He had ginger blond hair that looks exactly like his facial hair. I was fascinated by how different we looked.
We met on the Poz.com dating site (HIV Positive), and spent months speaking on the phone. I loved Rob’s English accent; he sounded like singing. As an immigrant, I had no clue that he had a Southern accent. The media is flooded with Hollywood actors. As immigrants, we come here thinking everybody looks like Hollywood actors. Rob has a look of a typical hard-working country man: he wears clothes casually. He drives rusty American trucks and a motorbike for fun. Rob proudly refers to himself: “I am a blue-collar worker. I have been a machinist at this job for over twenty-five years.”
When we finally met, I fell in love with his big blue eyes. At the same time, Rob was excited to meet a soul living with HIV. “I thought I was the only one with AIDS,“ said Rob. Rob was amazed that I was born with HIV. I was happy, optimistic, and full of energies. Also, I was the first black, and the first African person, he had a deep relationship with. “Tell me about Africa, heh? Too many lions eating people, heh…,” Rob joked.
When Rob introduced me to his family and friends, for the first-time reality hit me: race was a huge issue in America. I could read in Rob’s family and friends’ daunting eyes that I was not welcome. On the other hand, Rob would be thrilled telling them my story.
Every time we met his family I would find myself isolated. Men sat on the front porch, played cards and chase; drank beer and talked about politics. Women sat in the living room, talking about frivolous stuff, such as hair, nails, husbands, kids, and purses. Though I am a woman, I found those conversations lacking substance.
As a feminist, I started sitting with the men during family gatherings. I would be heartbroken by their conversations. “Barack is a Kenyan Muslim; he is changing this country to Islam,” said Rob’s uncle. “Obama wants to take away our guns,” replied Rob. “Them blacks are lazy; they live off welfare,” said another uncle. It was tough being in that space. Rob’s relatives would speak as if I were invisible. They never addressed me except to say, “We hope you are coming here to work.”
Rob started talking about marrying me. “I want a low-key wedding ceremony,” he said. “I am a blue-collar working man.” Rob had never been to college. The only book he had read from start to end was the Bible. Rob, his family and friends only followed conservative media. They have their own imaginary small world, out of touch with an America becoming diverse. Regardless of racial and cultural differences, I truly loved Rob. I started dreaming about having kids with big blue eyes.
When I met Rob’s aunts from Georgia, they didn’t acknowledge my presence. “You want to bring children with AIDS in this world ?” one aunt asked me. “Children these days are protected from getting HIV,“ I replied.
I had never hidden my HIV status to the public. Rob wanted me to stop my activism, as my work would be exposing his HIV status. I started doubting the direction my life was taking.
Rob was a great cook. For the first time I was in love with a man who cooked while I watched TV. I loved Rob’s place. He had three dogs, and a cat. He kept his house cold during winter as there was a fireplace in the living room. Country music would be playing softly in the background. I loved the serenity of his home; his dogs would be jumping, licking me. His cat hated me, and gave me a mean look before running in the basement. Once, while we were sharing dinner, I asked Rob, “ What do your aunts think about me?” “They think you are okay,” he responded. I exclaimed “Just okay?” I kept insisting until Rob exploded: “Alice, do you want to be hurt? Heh? Do you? Why do you care about those old women’s opinions?” I mounted the voice. “Yes. I deserve to know.”
“My aunts think I shouldn’t marry a negro. And they don’t want a mulatto kid in the family.” Rob words were followed by a long silence.
Our love survived Rob’s family’s opinion about black people and immigrants, but I was hurt.
I started feeling uncomfortable to do my activism work. I dedicated my entire life to ending HIV-related stigma and discrimination, and there I was, ready to be silenced by racism, stigma, and discrimination.
Rob used to invite his friends. They would drink and smoke marijuana. One time they sang songs with racial slurs and called me the n-word, bragging about having sex with black women. I was hurt. The following day Rob called me. “Alice, I am sorry for my friends. They were under the influence of alcohol.”
One day Rob said, “I have embarrassing truths I didn’t share with you.”
“You have a kid?” I asked.
“No! I wish. The truth is eating me…it’s about my family,” Rob replied.
I said, “Speaking of truths I am afraid that I am a liberal who loves Obama, and I am not going to give up my anti-AIDS activism work….” I paused, and waited for Rob’s turn to speak, while he wrestled for a minute.
“My family owned slaves.” Rob looked up in my face to see my reaction, then he continued. “I am ashamed that my grandfather, generations ago, owned slaves and fought to keep them enslaved…no human being should own another human. Look, my dad came up north from Savannah, Georgia, to work in the auto industry. My mom is Canadian, and I was born in Detroit. I am the youngest. Mom died when I was ten, and I was raised by my aunts down in Georgia. We had never had any meaningful relationship with black people. We have kept our race pure since our ancestors immigrated from Scotland. As much as my dad wants a grandson, he doesn’t want that grandson to be black.”
When he finished talking, I cried. Rob held me in his arms and with his big blue eyes. “Honey, we will overcome this,“ he said.
Then, one day, on the phone, Rob said, “My aunt found one of my former girlfriends. They want us to get back together.”
“What do you think?” I replied.
“I don’t know…I am confused,” he said.
“What if we take some time to think with clarity?” I asked.
“That sounds good!” he responded.
Out of desperation I would call him, “I miss you.” “I miss you too,” he said. “I am having Kielbasa sausages for dinner and listening to Johnny Cash. You are always welcome.“ His dogs didn’t know we were breaking up, they would jump out of joy. His cat would give me a mean look and run in the basement. I felt we were moving backwards, and decided to move on.
On my phone I kept swiping right and left on Poz.com until I met my husband. We have been together for four years, and we have children. Rob never married that white Christian girl and I have avoided his phone calls out of respect for my marriage.
Tuyishime Claire Gasamagera is an activist, a writer and a motivational public speaker who lives in Detroit, Michigan. She was born with HIV in 1983 in Rwanda. Claire is a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide. Currently Claire lives a healthy and productive life in United States, and she is a mother of two. Claire holds a bachelor’s degree in Science and Technology from the Rwandan University and multiple certificates in HIV and AIDS advocacy. She has sat on the committees of various United Nations agencies, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, and different AIDS organizations. Claire has received awards for her activism.