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I Have HIV. My Partner Doesn’t

What it’s like to be in a ‘serodiscordant’ couple

Vasilios and Eli are an interracial, non-monogamous, long-distance queer couple. They’re also serodiscordant, or “mixed status,” meaning one of them is HIV-positive (or “poz”) and the other is not. Most of the time, people don’t talk about serodiscordant couples at all, but when they do, the stories are usually framed as tragedies in which one partner’s beloved is made to seem like a liability.

Vasilios, known as Vas, and Eli proudly reject that narrative — particularly through their work as artists and activists. For example, Eli was one of the minds behind the “PrEP4Love” campaign, promoting PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), otherwise known as Truvada for PrEP, the drug that lowers one’s chances of contracting HIV up to 99 percent. And last month, Vas and Eli threw their first installation of “Viral Illumination” an event series dedicated to creating both a community space for poz people and an opportunity to address HIV in a friendly, curious way instead of as something too heavy to talk about at all.

Vas: We first met in Chicago, and even though we’d been emailing a lot prior, I don’t think either of us put together who the other was. My friend was like, “That’s the girl you should meet.” We charmed each other. We were inseparable for that next week, and our relationship grew from there.

Eli: That was in December 2016. I was doing the marketing for a performance art series called QUEER, ILL + OKAY, a cool performance series that’s now in its fifth year, specifically around highlighting narratives about chronic illnesses. Vas was performing in the show. We met on opening night. As he said, he just came up and introduced himself to me. I was like, “Cute boy, long hair, who is this?” I didn’t even realize it was this guy I’d been emailing back and forth with in preparation for the show.

Vas: QUEER, ILL + OKAY was the first time I openly engaged with people about being HIV-positive. The whole point of the project is to offers folks a platform to express their experiences about living with a medical condition, which is really beautiful. I wanted to participate in order to see and hear myself in a new way, almost to free myself from myself, but it was completely terrifying.

Before that, it had taken me four years to feel ready enough to tell my family and friends about my status, so being public about living with HIV wasn’t something I was used to at all. In order to perform, I had to push through the veils of stigma, which I wanted to do not just for me, but in solidarity with all of the other people with experiences similar to mine. I worked with my friend Juicebox, who I met in my home state of North Carolina and had participated in the first QUEER, ILL + OKAY. Together, we created a ritual performance that took the audience through the stages of our experiences, from seroconversion all the way to acceptance and beyond.

I became poz when I was 19 and living in North Carolina. Becoming poz there wasn’t the same as becoming poz in New York, San Francisco or L.A. Those are bubbles where there have been great strides in education, prevention, treatment, wellness resources and overall sensibility toward poz folks and folks with the virus. But the majority of the U.S. is way behind.

The moment I found out I was poz, the news settled in my stomach and I became lost. I felt lost in my own body, and definitely lost among the world of the quasi-Christian-self-proclaimed-alt-progressive gays at my university. Being a teenager with HIV in the South who was newly out of the closet was like being a pariah. Everything I heard was doom and gloom and that rhetoric silenced me as a person, deeply stunting me as I internalized their descriptions of poz people as unclean, contagious and dirty.

Then there was the fear of being signed away to the state in the case of any slip up. Basically, in many states, slip ups in regards to disclosing your HIV status to partners, even if you’re totally undetectable, and thus, cannot transmit the infection, can lead to years in prison.

Not to mention, all the self-stigma. An example was me suddenly being afraid to cook for friends, something I cherish, because I was afraid I might cut myself while chopping. Or being afraid to get a pedicure in case I get cut and bleed, even when I’m undetectable. But for many years, I wasn’t undetectable because there weren’t programs for me in North Carolina that I could seek without flagging my parents’ insurance.

Around the time of my seroconversion, the state had just become fully red in the House, Senate and governor’s chair for the first time in many decades. One of the first programs the sadistic governor took down was the ADAP [AIDS Drug Assistance Program], which essentially kept folks who couldn’t afford treatment alive. Without insurance, treatment for one person living with HIV is around $30,000 out-of-pocket without insurance. And that’s just the cost of keeping one’s viral load down — it doesn’t include any costs for opportunistic infections related to HIV. For poz folks, this creates a “Get the flu and you might die kind of scenario” that’s sickening and unnecessary.

With all of this in mind, it’s easy to imagine why I didn’t feel sexy, desirable or love myself for quite some time. I got to a place where I didn’t feel worthy of love, intimacy or pleasure because of this stigma that’s so systematically ingrained in an HIV-positive person’s psyche.

Eli: I was aware of Vas’ HIV status before we even met because of the nature of the QUEER, ILL + OKAY event. And I was part of starting, developing, producing, managing PrEP4Love, which I now star in and which was the first campaign to bring together black, queer, trans, body-positive couples displaying intimacy. PrEP4Love is also one of the longest-standing HIV prevention campaigns in recent history. So personally, I’m into narratives that aren’t just about sex, but about cultivating pleasure, intimacy and joy as well. I’d say those are the things I prioritize in our relationship, too.

Vas: Pleasure is really power. For me at least, changing the worn-out narratives of fear and ignorance that seek to prohibit poz folks from living with joy is most easily done through pleasure. Pleasure is universal. It’s an innate, intuitive and holistic right related to self-preservation, self-care and self-love. It even serves as preventative medicine. When I seroconverted at 19, pleasure was taken from me. A myriad of cultural influences told me I couldn’t enjoy the simple pleasure of flirting without fear.

The reality is, we can be sexy and cute and flirt and fuck despite our status. This idea isn’t limited to people living with HIV either. HIV is called a disease. And what’s the opposite of that? Pleasure. My goal is to create new narratives by moving away from dialogue centered in the fear of one’s self when it comes to HIV.

Eli: Exactly. Adversity is what provides us with the opportunity to look a little deeper and feel a bit harder. I think this practice applies not only to HIV, but all sexual behaviors. Sadly, though, our communities have been conditioned to replace pleasure with fear, which has done nothing but perpetuate stigma around topics like gay and queer sex and any behavior that’s outside of the traditionally accepted, cis-heteronormative mindset, as well as HIV and other STIs.

All of this has been developed in attempt to control and regulate assimilative behaviors and actions. This is why I believe it’s incredibly important to empower people to talk about HIV and other topics that are regarded as taboo through a lense of joy, love and pleasure. That’s the only way to have an honest attempt at normalizing these subjects.

Vas: Serodiscordant relationships aren’t any more challenging than any other relationship. I’d like folks to understand that. Relationships in general are challenging, but if you set clear intentions and are attentive, you can move through the challenges. For poz folks in a serodiscordant relationship I’d like to say: Don’t feel like you’re undesirable because of your status. Your virus is a part of you, but don’t put it on a pedestal. You can find joy, and if anyone is trying to make you feel differently, they don’t deserve to be with the glory that is your fab self. For poz folks, the challenge exists within ourselves as much as it does with a partner. I’ve had to undo my own preconceived ideas about my HIV status that prevented me from being free with another person.

Eli: My advice for a negative person entering into a newly serodiscordant relationship is to be proactive about learning the best ways to protect you and your partner by being honest about both of your fantasies and desires — this applies to everything inside and outside of the bedroom. Things like: Are you open? How many partners have you had? Who’s bottoming? Do y’all hate condoms like me? Are drugs involved? What’s the kink situation like?

All of this “dirty laundry” needs to be communicated so that each party can make the best informed decision. It’s also important for each partner in the relationship to educate themselves about the ways that they can both live healthy and happy lives. There are so many resources that are accessible.

If you can eat your partner’s ass for two hours but can’t talk about each other’s health, y’all in danger, girl.

Vas: My advice would be to keep an open heart and to educate yourself. Poz folks don’t need to carry the burden of educating every lover, date or fuck buddy they encounter. Loving, dating, fucking or flirting with a poz person isn’t unlike loving, dating, fucking or flirting with any other person, so remember that you need to be aware of your own ignorance and fear before you go and ruin a perfectly beautiful moment with someone.

Eli: One thing that I love about us becoming more public in our partnership is that others can see that it exists. For example, we have a mutual friend I was visiting in South Africa who saw the relationship that we have — being a serodiscordant couple — and who had just recently found out that they’d become HIV-positive. And the first thing they thought of wasn’t, “I’m gonna be alone forever.”

Vas: You’ve taught me so much about that. I was almost there when we met, but the last year has been really good about reinforcing the idea of showing your own way into a space for yourself. In that way, we’re not just serodiscordant, we’re mixed race, you’re femme… I don’t know — we’re a lot of things.

Eli: But it’s funny, because we’re also simple as fuck when it comes down to it.

Vas: Love is easy, people are hard.

—As told to Tierney Finster