For Better or Worse—He’s My Man
You Can’t Fit Love and Intimacy into a Box
by John Francis Leonard
For some of us, we come to a certain point where expectations are tempered by reality. Not in a negative sense, but simply for the reason that we have learned many lessons in life already. I’m a grateful, happy, and proud fifty-two-year-old gay, HIV-positive man. To be honest and clear, I’m a lot of things actually, but my generation still strove, to their deficit, to put everyone in a box. It’s so thrilling to see how ideas about sexuality, and even gender itself, have evolved. Myself, I’ve always identified as a gay man, at times vociferously. I’ve never been able to even imagine myself romantically or sexually involved with the opposite sex. That being said, I hold so many women in the highest esteem and with the greatest affection.
Suffice it to say, I have always had this Technicolor, Hollywood-scale, drama-filled dream of a relationship with another man. My first was certainly all of those things; my subsequent relationships were more practical than romantic, so I took the rough with the smooth (as my grandmother would so often say.) I learned early on to settle, in exchange for a certain kind of life. What I often settled for was dysfunction and very often infidelity, infidelity on both sides. Not as in a healthy, open relationship, but infidelity with an agenda, if you will.
For much of the past twelve years, I’ve avoided relationships. For the first time I was navigating sex and dating as an HIV-positive man of a certain age, and it was a mixed bag to say the least. More importantly, I was changing. But my heart hadn’t quite caught up with my head. Eight years ago, I met the man with whom I’d have the longest relationship I’ve ever had. Would it look like my perfect fantasy of love and marriage? No, but if nothing else it has been the most natural and the most real relationship I’ve yet to know.
I met Dwayne on an app, Scruff, if I remember correctly. I was still using the dating and hook-up apps to connect with other men. With misguided and unclear intent I was repeating old patterns, lessons I’d thought I had already learned. My HIV status was the most likely villain to explain my failures, but to be honest, it went much deeper. I just wasn’t ready for something whole, something healthy. My first mistake? I was looking in the wrong place for the right thing. Casual hook-ups just did not do it for me anymore so instead I would use an app to begin a dialogue with the rare man not looking for just sex, who might or might not be a good pick, but lived in a larger city miles away. There would be a huge build-up with high expectations on both sides culminating in a meeting in person which always ended in complete failure and disappointment, on both sides. Certainly on both sides.
Dwayne was something different from the start. After our first session of (frankly) mind-blowing sex, we had a long talk. I can’t say we’d achieved a real intimacy at this nascent stage, but it felt natural. It felt real. He said at the time that he was bi, but things felt different to me. But if there’s one thing I’ve come to realize living in a much smaller community, that not everyone is out. Some men even identify as straight, but still have sex with other men, from time to time. Not everyone fits in that box you had ready for them. Dwayne certainly did not. I won’t insult Dwayne or anyone by telling myself, or friends, that he’s on the “down low” either. Dwayne has another life, the life of a black man of a family to whom faith and family are paramount. I get the sense that no one in his family would be shocked by his sexual identity; they just choose to politely ignore it. I respect that—it wouldn’t work for me—but I respect it. Everyone’s journey looks different and life is not tallied by point, especially in the much smaller community I now find myself. That was an important thing to learn.
Our relationship is primarily sexual. We meet up in the early hours, before Dwayne’s shift at the sheet metal factory where he’s a manager. I can guarantee he’s not out at work either, but it works for him. That was always my excuse for us not having a “real” relationship. How could we within such parameters? What we do have is an intense sexual dynamic that only comes of deep love and intimacy. I love him and, more importantly, trust him. We can take things to the edge and it’s a thrill. Every single time. I disclosed my HIV status to him in that first encounter and kept him apprised of U=U over our first few years together. Eventually he was comfortable without a condom, which we both preferred, but it took many conversations and much back and forth before we gave them up altogether.
That took love, it took trust, and it made our physical relationship even more special. To be clear, we’ve never really “dated.” And eventually it became clear to us both that, with rare exception, it was, yes, a sexual relationship, but, by default or design, an often monogamous one.
A few years ago Dwayne started to express a desire for something more than what we shared already. I was far too busy on an elusive search for some gay Prince Charming to listen. By the time I realized what I had in him already, the moment was gone. So it has been business as usual, but it’s not. I see clearly now, I see Dwayne clearly, and it breaks my heart that I missed what was right in front of me.
Do I want more? Yes? Maybe? I know one thing; I’d be more than willing to take the chance. Yes, on the surface, we’re merely sex buddies, but there’s so much more there. We express our love and fondness for each other as often as our seemingly out-of-control sexual attraction. Recently, after satisfaction was once again achieved, he surprised me. I knew his mother had recently passed after a long battle with cancer and I very well knew how devastated he was. Just recently, after I tried to console him, he had left my home close to tears, but unable to let me see them. Culturally for black men, and so many men in general, showing emotion is a weakness; it’s hard to let go of those early lessons. Choking back sobs as he opened my door to leave, his words to me were, I just can’t let you see me like this, baby. In this subsequent moment, he saw that I was hurting and made me look him in the eye while he asked, with much tenderness, what was bothering me. I’ve come to a point in my life where my emotions are all at the surface, so I told him. He held me in his arms while I told him about both my mother’s Alzheimer’s and my own health challenges. Crying in his arms was the safest and the most complete I’d felt in more years than I can count. Then, he opened up. He told me the complete story of his mother’s painful death. I listened and when he cried, I held him. I got you, I told him as he let go. It was two sides of a coin that was valuable currency to both of us.
The point at which I find myself isn’t necessarily unique. Regardless of gender or gender expression, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of all that which makes us whole, everyone who is aging with HIV with whatever grace and sense of worth that we hold share something very important in common—challenging relationships. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing some of the best advocates, artists, and activists in the field of HIV and learned so many different perspectives on what it means to live successfully with HIV, but there is a commonality to them all—relationship war stories of people rejecting them, people being rude and unkind to them, people stigmatizing them.
Anyone who might read this has another story particular to them. For everyone, relationships can be hard to navigate. I firmly believe that until one is happy with oneself, they are doomed to failure or extended unhappiness. Coming through what I have, I’m left with expectations that are much more pragmatic. When I achieved a love for myself, Prince Charming didn’t show up, seemingly out of nowhere at my doorstep. That’s okay. To quote a favorite song, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well, you just might find, you get what you need.
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.