BY Benjamin Ryan
April 14 2006 12:00 AM ET
To say that Matt was down on his luck is putting it mildly. To begin with, he tested HIV-positive. Later, when his girlfriend of three years tested negative, she promptly left him. Then the same week of the breakup, he lost his job and one of his two cars, and he was in the process of losing his apartment.
'I went through the whole downward-spiral thing until one day I found myself on an HIV dating site,' says the 26-year-old, who asked to be identified by his first name only.
While perusing HIVnet.com he met a woman named Sandy who was born with the virus and who lived just outside Sarasota, Fla. The two connected so well that they were soon talking on the phone for four or five hours a day. But there was a little problem: Matt lived in Nebraska at the time.
No matter. He jumped in his remaining car and drove the 1,500 miles to see his new love in person. Three years later they are still together. Sandy followed Matt back to Omaha, and once the couple grew tired of the cold weather, they relocated to Orlando, Fla.
Over the past five years the Internet has seen a rapid proliferation of dating sites that cater specifically to HIVers. They provide all the bells and whistles of mainstream sites such as Match.com and Yahoo! Personals'including chat rooms, search functions, the ability to create personal profiles with photos and to send e-mails, and instant messaging'but with the comfort
of an all-seropositive virtual community. Sites such as HIVnet.com, HIVdate.com, and PositiveSingles.com report ever-swelling congregations of members.
In addition, some gay personals sites such as PlanetOut.com and Gay.com, which are owned by the same company that owns HIV Plus, have profile indicators that users can select to designate whether they are HIV-positive or not. And long-running Internet surfer destination AOL hosts a sizable HIV community among its user-created chat rooms.
For people who have trouble disclosing that they are HIV-positive in person, the Internet can soothe fears of rejection with its potential for anonymity, or it can make HIV a nonissue by putting all the cards on the table.
Jason Crum, a 32-year-old travel agent who lives in Hammond, Ind., says disclosing his serostatus in person is difficult for him. 'There are those people out there who will reject me solely because I'm positive,' he says. 'But by being online [at a site designated specifically for HIVers], I eliminate that. If they're going to reject me, they're going to reject me for other reasons, not because I'm positive. Now my dreams of finding a mate are not buried under fear of rejection.'
He says he recently found a spark with a woman he met on HIVnet.com. The two have been talking on the phone and want to see where it might lead.
Other HIVers prefer to tailor their online image so that HIV gets pushed off the headlines, hoping potential dates will focus on other aspects of their personality. Salt Lake City resident Kevin Packer says he used to indicate that he is HIV-positive in his Gay.com profile, but he found people either ignored him or wrote him only wanting to discuss the virus. 'HIV is not the total sum of me,' the 47-year-old says. 'I've been living with it for 21 years and doing really well. So I don't want it to be at the forefront of everything.'
Packer has found that men approach him without having HIV as the number 1 issue on their minds since he stopped selecting the check box that indicates he is HIV-positive. Instead, he just writes about his serostatus within the text of his profile, where it won't pop up on a search function.
In addition to making the love connection, the Internet provides a meeting ground in which HIVers can make friends, share experiences, and form a greater sense of community.
'I'm learning more and more about different people who are living with the disease,' Crum says. 'It's therapeutic, especially if you are newly diagnosed.'
Mike Allen, 56, and Michael Rodden, 46, are Raleigh, N.C., residents. They met online in an HIVer chat room in 2003 and now share a home and two dogs. Since both are on disability, they each have the luxury of spending a considerable amount of time each day chatting online with friends they've made from all around the world. Some of those chums live in town, so Allen and Rodden get to hang out with them in person; others they meet up with on vacations.
Matt says he is especially grateful for the way the Web facilitated meeting his girlfriend. 'It does make it a lot easier, just going through these sites,' he says. 'Basically, the way I see it, whenever a relationship ends, there will be people who tell you, 'Hey, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.' With someone like me, I'm looking for a fish with a certain gill. And these sites are specifically made for this kind of fish. And it makes the fishing a lot easier.'