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How Many Relationships Has HIV Stigma Destroyed?

Ed Letter
Photo by KoolShooters from Pexels

Ten years ago, a serodiscordant relationship withered. Now, the concept of undetectable equals untransmittable may overcome HIV paranoia.

Over a decade ago, I had a boyfriend — let’s call him Dennis — I was head over heels for. He was handsome, funny, soulful. Sadly, we had a lot going against us — his professional life was in flux, he was in addiction recovery, I was overly eager to have a boyfriend. Another thing drove a wedge between us: his HIV-positive status.

As an HIV-negative person, I was fixated on the virus, regularly voicing anxiety over what sexual activity was risky and what wasn’t. I didn’t keep my worries to myself but often heaped them on Dennis, expecting him to assuage my fears. I didn’t think how my HIV paranoia affected Dennis; it made him feel tainted and undesirable. My ignorance, not his HIV, was our relationship’s death knell.

Thoughts of Dennis sprung to mind when I recently interviewed Canadian musician Dizz, who was only diagnosed with HIV back in September. When he told his partner the news, Dizz was accepted with open arms and a confirmation that HIV would not weaken their relationship in the slightest. I can’t know exactly why Dizz’s partner reacted so well, but I have to think it may have something to do with what’s changed since 2010, namely the concept of undetectable equals untransmittable, or U=U.

Undetectable equals untransmittable is the scientifically proven consensus supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people with HIV who are undetectable cannot transmit the virus to someone else. As with his hair, body, and apartment, Dennis was meticulous about taking his HIV meds. Had I known about U=U, I wouldn’t have had anything to worry about. It’s hard not to think how our lives would have turned out differently if I had the tools to choose knowledge over stigma.

People navigating serodiscordant relationships now, or anyone searching for love online (read some great tips on digital dating here), is hopefully coming from a much more informed place than I was. There is still too little discussion about U=U happening, but things are changing. Adult film star Kayden Gray recently wrote and starred in a novel film, Undetectable Equals Fucking Untransmittable. Yes, there is hard-core sex, but the message of U=U is interspersed throughout the moans of pleasure. With a cameo from RuPaul’s Drag Race star Bianca Del Rio, UEFU is a perfect place to let everyone know that HIV is nothing to fear.

It’s incredible to think how far we’ve come. Forty years after the first reports of a “gay cancer” began appearing in mainstream media, Senior Politics Editor Trudy Ring spoke to some of the journalists, activists, and doctors active during that time about the scant news coverage and how homophobia may have played a part in the media’s response. Journalist Sarah Schulman painstakingly covered the ensuing years of the epidemic in her comprehensive book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993. Jeffrey Masters, director of podcasts for Pride Media (parent company of Plus), recently sat down with Schulman to discuss her book and why women are so often left out of the HIV discussion.

Then, in our Daily Dose column, Editor at Large John Casey wrote about the amazing AIDS Memorial on Instagram — a beautiful repository of photos and stories about people lost to AIDS complications. The online memorial forced Casey to look at his own troubled relationship with HIV and how he hid from anyone affected by the disease in the 1980s and ’90s, not only out of health fears but because of self-loathing and internalized homophobia.

Reconciling with the past is one of the hardest parts of adulthood but a necessary one. I have apologized to Dennis previously for how I treated him, but I can’t say it enough: Dennis, I love you and I’m sorry. 


Neal Broverman is editor in chief of Plus and digital editor in chief of The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @nbroverman.

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