There are many ways that stigma can manifest when it comes to sex and dating. When most people think of stigma around HIV, they think of the kind where others place judgment on or have an unnecessary fear of a person living with HIV. This certainly does exist, but it isn’t the kind that I have personally witnessed the most as an HIV activist. Instead, the kind that I most often encounter comes in the form of self-doubt and internalized judgment and shame.
I recently had a friend move to another city because he believed it was impossible to find love while being HIV-positive where we both lived. It didn’t matter that we had multiple friends who are living with HIV and are in various forms of happy relationships. (Or that I’m living proof you can find true love while poz.) His mind was made up and his bags were packed.
But the thing is — whether you try moving to a new place, changing your hair, or buying a new wardrobe — nothing can help you escape the stigma of HIV if it’s coming from inside you. I should know. I used to be a perpetual runner (even if it wasn’t specifically from internalized stigma). I thought that I would be happy if I just moved someplace new. If the move didn’t go well, I figured I’d just picked the wrong place. You move often enough, and you eventually start to realize that the neighborhood may be new, and the faces may be different, but the experiences have a funny way of repeating. And maybe you’re just dragging your problems around with you.
That being said, a little change can do you a world of good. But you don’t necessarily have to cross state lines to embrace it. In fact, you can change your entire life if you change something as simple as your approach.
Even though it’s been a minute since I have dated while positive, I still believe it’s as simple or as complicated as you make it. When I was first diagnosed, I treated my status as this massive secret to reveal, complete with angst and agony — as a whole dramatic rigmarole. My gentleman callers’ responses usually mirrored my method, treating it as a BFD.
But it wasn’t long before I came to the realization that this approach totally sucked. I didn’t need to feel sorry for myself or seek forgiveness or approval from someone that I wasn’t even sure I liked yet. That was especially true once I reached viral suppression. Quite simply, once I was undetectable, there was zero reason for me to be worried about someone being willing to date me. There was no longer a risk that I could transmit HIV to someone else, and my value and my health were completely intact — why wouldn’t someone want to date me? I was a catch!
As you probably guessed, my second approach to meeting someone new was just the change I needed. I didn’t treat my status as some dark secret that I hoped he would forgive me for. I didn’t act as if I was thankful that someone would be willing to date my HIV. It was a simple, matter-of-fact disclosure before the drinks were even served, and the responses matched the approach. Just like that, dating became easy, or at least easier.
Unless you can change how you treat yourself, no changes you make to your environment will make a lick of a difference. If you are worried that you may never find love or acceptance because of your status, first ask yourself if you have found the love for yourself that you absolutely deserve. I promise you, your HIV status is not what is standing in the way of your happiness. However, your opinion of yourself and your value might be.
Editor at large Tyler Curry-McGrath is also contributing editor at The Advocate magazine, and the author of A Peacock Among Pigeons. (@IamTylerCurry)