Has science finally set us free?
by John Francis Leonard
Well it’s here, the second part of the landmark PARTNER Study and, as we expected, the news is incredible! 1,000 more serodiscordant gay male couples, eight years, and not one case of transmission. What does that mean for the average gay man living with HIV (or any poz individual)? That we can continue to live and love with confidence—knowing that we can’t pass it on. I can be even more confident when explaining zero risk to my potential sexual partners—and “partner” for me means potential long-term love interest or a steady friend with benefits. When I think of sex with a long-term partner, I have to admit—I think of sex without a condom. I’m not going to make any excuses; it’s just better and ultimately, feels closer and more intimate. I won’t apologize any more, I wont be on the defensive. After my younger years in New York City during the height of the AIDS pandemic and after my own diagnosis in 2003, am I finally free? Well, in reality, I’m only as free as my partners’ knowledge of the facts—or lack thereof—allows me. I still might have a lot of explaining to do.
In searching for a long-term love interest, I had been a slave to the various hook-up apps. There are a few men on them that say they’re open to a relationship, but all too often, it still boils down to the merely physical, the surface of things. My geographic location and a desire to relocate to a larger city has led me to favor men further afield. But it’s hard to initiate something meaningful when you’re operating on mere physical stats and sexual preferences. I wanted something more. Friends had suggested for some time that I try one of the many dating sites out there for a connection, and I finally took the plunge. The particular one I signed up for asks a myriad of questions about the person, not just a cute photo and whether you’re a top or bottom in bed. I was a little shy at first—I am loath to talk about myself, but the more questions you answer the more able they are to match you with compatible men. There are even questions about all the potential deal breakers like religious practice, children (God forbid!), and politics, allowing you to weed out any men that are just not going to work. You can like someone’s profile and see who likes you as well as send messages. The best part of all this is that you’re not going in blind, basing your judgment solely on a carefully edited selfie or two.
I struck gold immediately with a sixty-year-old (single!) man in Boston who “liked” my profile and struck up a conversation. I’ve always preferred older men, so the ten-year age difference is a bonus. He’s fit and handsome—and did I mention the single part? On the apps it seems that every guy is already in a relationship and just looking for some no strings attached fun. The men on this website and app, for the most part, are actually commitment-minded and looking to seriously date. He didn’t go on endlessly about my pic and looks, but was incredibly enthusiastic about what he read in my profile and it was mutual. I loved that he listed his favorite books; a gay man who still reads has seemingly become like a unicorn. When answering the question about what he likes to do on a Friday night, he answered that it’s the same as the weekdays. That’s the right answer, in my book anyway.
Things have proceeded quite organically. He likes to speak by phone rather than text endlessly and I have to admit, it’s much more intimate. In a big departure, I didn’t stress for a moment about disclosing my status. In the recent past, it’s been a real sticking point for the men I’ve encountered—with the last one having a near-breakdown over the news. I didn’t worry about that with Paul for a second—which is unusual for me. It came up naturally in conversation when I was talking about my writing on the subject. No meltdown, no hesitation on his part—he took the news in stride and informed me that he was on PrEP, familiar with U=U, and prefers sex without a condom himself.
We’ll see what the future brings, but with great hope. We talk by phone a lot and will meet in person in the next month or so. Not every guy will be so understanding—I get that—but it furthers my resolve to live without excuses, to live without any fear of my own. It took a few years and various studies for my own confidence to catch up to science. And the science is clear, I cannot transmit HIV. It’s high time that I, and everyone on effective treatment, starts living that truth.
John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for fifteen years. His fiction has been published in the ImageOutWrite literary journal and he is a literary critic for Lambda Literary. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.