love is =

HIV-negative men with HIV-positive partners talk love, sex and stigma

Nathaniel Hall and Sean Taylor
Nathaniel Hall and Sean Taylor (Photo: Supplied)

Effective medication means people living with HIV can confidently expect to live a near-normal lifespan. When the virus is suppressed to an undetectable level, it also means they cannot pass it on.

However, despite this, negative attitudes around the virus run deep. Earlier this month, the UK’s Terrence Higgins Trust released a survey It found 74% of people living with the virus have experienced stigma or discrimination because of their status. Six out of ten said they experienced it when it comes to dating or sex.

We spoke to a couple of HIV-negative guys about falling in love with HIV-positive men, and about the prejudice they hear from others.

Seán and Nathaniel

Seán Taylor is 35 and a trainee psychotherapist. HIV-negative, he lives in Manchester, England. He’s been dating Nathaniel Hall for 2.5 years and they plan on living together in the New Year.

Nathaniel is an actor, writer and director. He appeared in the Russell T Davies drama, It’s A Sin. He’s also toured the UK with his show, First Time. In it, he recalls how he acquired HIV from the first man he had sex with. It was 2003 and he was 16.

“I went to see his show back in February 2020,” says Seán about meeting Nathaniel. First Time was playing at the University of Salford, where Seán works.

“So I went to his show and then we kind of just got chatting from there.”

Because of the show, Seán was aware of Nathaniel’s status before they met. But he’s also dated other men with HIV. It’s not something that’s fazed him.

Has he ever had concerns about dating men who are positive?

“Not really. No,” he says via Zoom. “The first time I dated someone who was HIV positive was around 2013, so that was before the whole U=U, PrEP thing. It was a bit of a whirlwind romance while I was on holiday in New York.”

U=U stands for ‘undetectable equals untransmittable’. It’s another way of saying something with an undetectable viral load can’t pass on the virus.

“[HIV] was something that was semi in the back of my mind because we knew at the time that condoms were the only way to protect me. I think there was anxiety on both sides, but since the advent of U=U and PrEP, for me, that anxiety is something that’s completely disappeared.”

Seán’s family are aware of Nathaniel’s status and he’s talked to them about PrEP and U=U.

“They actually came to see Nathaniel’s show, so that was really educational as well. So now they’re really supportive and they’re actually really proud: proud of him and of both of us.

Seán says he has come across guys who refuse to date someone with HIV.

“It kind of angers me and frustrates me. But at the same time I get it,” he says. “I get that the gospel of U=U and PrEP isn’t fully out there. I read a statistic recently that only a small percentage of people out there know what U=U means, or that HIV cannot be passed on if you’re undetectable, so I get that.

“But it’s frustrating that the message just isn’t getting through, or if it is, it isn’t being fully believed. But I’m living proof the science works. It does frustrate me.”

Related: What you stand to lose by not having sex with people with HIV

Nathaniel was diagnosed back in 2003 and has been undetectable for many years. Seán knows Nathaniel cannot pass the virus on while he remains undetectable.

“I also take PrEP,” he says. “Not because I don’t trust the science, but more to alleviate his anxieties in thinking he has to protect me. So the responsibility doesn’t fully lie on him taking the pill. I just figured that if I can do that and we can share that burden … it’s a bit of a belt and braces approach.”

Sean and Nathaniel (Photo: Supplied)

He says his partner’s status has little bearing on their plans for the future, although he worries about things like life insurance for when they get a home together.

“[Nathaniel] getting income protection insurance has been difficult. Being undetectable, his lifespan is probably going to be longer than mine because he’s checked so often by the doctors, so yeah, it’s frustrating that policy hasn’t caught up. It concerns me that the times aren’t changing as quickly as our knowledge or the science around it.”

Nathaniel’s HIV status is “rarely at the forefront” of Seán’s mind. He’d think about it even less were it not for his boyfriend’s career, which includes HIV-related campaigning.

Rather than reducing Nathaniel to someone living with ‘HIV, Seán thinks more about the things they have in common and why they work as a couple.

“I love his ethical and moral stance. I think we’re very much in tune with that and how we view other people. He’s very compassionate and he’s very warm, and I like how he cares about things and I love his passion,” says Seán.

“He’s pretty fit as well,” he adds with a smile.

Seán Taylor is running the the London Marathon 2023 in April, raising money for the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) – the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity. You can donate via the London Marathon site

Chris and George

Los Angeles couple Chris (HIV-negative) and George (HIV-positive) are in their late 50s/early 60s. They began dating in 2006 and married in 2014.

Before meeting George, Chris had another long term partner living with HIV. He died from complications related to the virus in 2005.

After matching online, Chris and George had several phone dates before their first face-to-face meeting. Chris says the subject of HIV was brought up “fairly early in the conversations that we had.”

Chris says he wasn’t put off by George’s HIV status because he’d already spent over a decade with his previous partner.

“I met my first husband in 1992. He was diagnosed a year before we met,” Chris says. “Back then, if you’re not prepared to date a man with HIV, who are you going to date, right? I didn’t find that that was a very realistic screen to put up. You were bound to meet just as many people who have the virus as who didn’t.”

Dating a man with HIV in the early 90s is very different from the 2020s. The outlook was bleak. Did Chris have any concerns?

“Not overwhelming concerns. There were some safety concerns back then, in that relationship, as opposed to George and mine’s relationship. George was undetectable when we met, so the safety concerns were lessened.”

He says that after getting to know George over the phone, “I remember distinctly thinking: ‘He’s bigger than HIV.’ George is who I want to date and who I want to know more about. And that was bigger than the HIV question.”

Chris says he can’t fathom why other people remain so stubborn when it comes to dating men who are undetectable.

“To me, it seems strange, right, because there’s so much information out there. I don’t know why they don’t find reassurance in what I find reassuring. I just don’t understand it.”

Related: This young man told his mom he’s HIV-positive. Here’s how she responded.

Chris and George do not use condoms when having sex with each other.

“From the beginning, we did not use condoms because of his undetectable status,” says Chris. “Today I am on PrEP but that’s mainly for when we have someone join us.”

Both men say they rarely think about George’s status on a day-to-day basis.“In fact, when George suggested we do this [the couple responded to a message posted on Twitter to take part in this article], I thought it’s not even something that registers for me. It’s not a preoccupation. It doesn’t create hesitancy at all. It just doesn’t. And we’ve been at it a while. We’ve been together for 16 years.”

Nowadays, HIV “doesn’t really come up anymore. Other than with others whose status I don’t know, or I don’t know well.”

Chris says George’s status has no impact on their plans for the future.

“[George] is more likely to die from the things that any other humans die from. We’re now in our late 50s/early 60s. We’re starting to look at health beyond this one virus.”

George is on the Zoom call alongside Chris. He says he can’t remember experiencing any blatant discrimination before meeting Chris. He had rejections, but he couldn’t honestly say whether it was down to his status.

George thinks the stigma within the gay community is lessening, but the wider world is another issue.

He’s not open to everyone about his status.

“We have girlfriends, and they make comments and I’m like, ‘Woooah, I can’t believe you just said that’.”

What sort of comments?

“Things like, ‘‘I can’t understand why they’re barebacking’ Those kinds of comments.”

George believes stigma is now the worst aspect of living with HIV. It’s not just prejudice among individuals, but political inertia at the highest levels. He believes strongly that more could be done to eradicate HIV transmission.

Although HIV transmission in the US has decreased slightly in the last few years, the country lags behind others in its efforts to beat HIV. It has not yet hit a 90-90-90 goal set by UNAIDS. That’s 90% of people with HIV diagnosed, 90% of those diagnosed on treatment, and 90% of those on treatment to be virally suppressed {90-90-90). That target has been hit by the UK and other European nations.

Making sure PrEP is available to all who want it is also crucial to that goal.

I ask George what he would say to someone who refuses to have sex with someone with HIV. He says firstly that it’s not his job to convince anyone or to take care of them. By that, he means adults should take responsibility for their own health and equip themselves with the relevant information.

“On a more personal level, I’d try to educate someone, and say, ‘Dude, if you’re afraid, take a fucking pill and chill-out’.”

Does he understand why some people remain fearful of dating a person with HIV?

“I can understand where they’re coming from,” he concedes. “I think they’re stupid sons of bitches,” he adds, bluntly, “but I do understand where they come from.”

“When you reduce someone to just that fact, that they’re HIV-positive, it feels very myopic,” Chris suggests. “It’s not the 1980s, right? When I met George, I just thought, ‘Why would that be a reason to not pursue someone as wonderful as this guy?’”

Some names have been changed.

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