Sero-Discordant Relationships: More Complex than Just Sex

by Peter Thomson

The first time I heard the term ‘sero-discordant relationship’ was after my new boyfriend and I left the Hassle Free Clinic together. It was a high-five moment, you know, that a neg boy like him would see beyond my status and date me anyway. I’m not being facetious - I think we both felt that way. I know I did. Fistfulls of condom samples and lube in hand, we left the building.

It felt nice, I admit, knowing that I could leave the hostile dating environment of gay culture. According to over ten people a day on Grindr (seriously!) I was “dirty”, “unfuckable” or just plain “scary”. So here I was, in a pot-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow situation. Or so I thought.

I remember my diagnosis well. I was riding my bike in late February, gabbing about the unseasonably warm weather with my Aunt. Another call beeped in. It was my doctor. After over 7 weeks of terrifying uncertainty, he had called to tell me that my “inconclusive test results” from January had indeed jumped over to the “conclusive” side, that he was there for me anytime if I needed to talk. The usual stuff, I guess.

I was a pretty staunch supporter of safe sex, and the few exceptions were measured against my own ideal of safe practices and situations. I couldn’t relate to the stigmatized fable of how HIV was supposed to be acquired. I’d never taken multiple loads in an alley; never tried injection drugs - I can count the number of times I’ve been drunk on one hand. I wasn’t the type of person to be positive. And so many people feel this way.

Sharing this is significant because I didn’t know anyone else who was HIV+ at the time, nor could I pinpoint the moment or action which put me at greatest risk. This left navigating the ‘negative dating sphere’ (in more ways than one) as my only option.

I joined and lasted 2 hours. My inbox was flooded with requests for activities I’d never heard of.  And yet, I wasn’t ready (and in many ways, am not to this day) to disclose my status to complete strangers. That left no choice but to continue as usual, and if I found someone who wanted me enough to see me naked, then he could know.

Fast-forward to my first boyfriend since testing positive: he was handsome and interesting enough, but I fell much harder for him than I should have. I had been so concerned that no one would ever touch me again that the first boy who did fell into the ‘soul-mate’ category immediately.  The weight of my disclosure catapulted us into serious relationship almost overnight. Poor guy.

Despite having thrown my heart and soul into the ring from the get-go, there were a myriad of complexities that only the passage of time and a few more boyfriends have shed light on. Firstly, there was an interesting power dynamic which happened the moment I disclosed to a negative partner.

I am ashamed to admit that I idolized and prioritized his health and well-being over my own. (To a degree this makes sense, I wanted to make sure my partner stayed negative - the thought of infecting a stranger, let alone someone I cared about would keep me up at night.) It’s how that care manifested in other ways that, in retrospect, was shameful.

I used to defer to his suggestions - where to eat and what we did in bed - all based on the notion that I should be grateful for his presence in my life at all.

“Be thankful,” I thought, “it’s better than being all alone.”  But the truth is, I wasn’t exclusively a bottom before my diagnosis, so why was that side of me discarded? I loved brunch at that place near my house, but suddenly we were only going near his place for food, or staying over in his apartment.

And here’s the real shame: these weren’t discrepancies I communicated. I just swallowed the concessions along with my morning dose of guilt for being the damaged one in the relationship. It’s this unshakeable grief, that I am stupid, inferior and a foregone conclusion in the gay world, that I struggle with to this day.

One day, my boyfriend was fucking me and the condom broke. I have never seen anyone so panicked. He was terrified. Everything we both knew about HIV transmission (which was increasing every day since my diagnosis) went out the window. We held each other and cried. In a way, it brought us together. I’d never seen him so emotional. Eventually, it forced us further apart.

We called my doctor (at home) and based on my numbers, decided the risk to my partner was negligible. No emergency pills, no need to worry. We worried anyway.

When it happened again (despite being extra cautious) my boyfriend literally fled the house and went straight to the hospital emergency room. “Once was lucky,” he said. “Twice was a sign.”

I’m not sure when the relationship officially ended, but as soon as he started his pre-exposure prophylaxis our connection dissolved. I’m not sure if he thought of me as more  of a disease than a human or if he just wasn’t sure I was worth the risk anymore. I can only say with certainty that the very real threat I felt to his well-being facilitated his disappearance. I didn’t call him, either.

My next relationship, over a year later, began differently. My boyfriend was older and seemed completely unfazed by my status. The very first time we fucked, he didn’t use a condom. “Are you sure?” I asked before he went all the way in. His actions seemed to answer my question. Key words: ‘seemed to’.

After we were finished he said “That was really hot, but we should have used a condom.”

I was discouraged. A year earlier, I had grudgingly accepted that I might never have sex without a condom again. For me, condoms were the precaution that after three months of monogamy with a trusted partner, went out the window. Condoms were a barrier to trust, to closeness and to intimacy. I felt like Anna Paquin in the X-Men movies: hungry for intimacy forced to wear gloves.

Well this boy had just opened the floodgates to a new model of sexuality and only moments later tried to offload the responsibility of that action. It was as much my job as his to legislate condom usage, even though I had done my due diligence in disclosing and had stopped him initially during sex, I felt. And that was hard enough to do.

As it turned out, he and I rarely used protection, save for a handful of times in our 8 month relationship. He didn’t like condoms much, either. But he felt guilty and shared the blame every single time. It soured the intimacy and poisoned his thoughts. He once told me in passing that he wouldn’t tell anyone if he tested positive, especially not me. “I could never do that to you,” he reasoned. I guess he wasn’t as cool with HIV as I had thought.

Long after we had broken up, he told me that thinking of me as a long-term partner was increasingly difficult once the reality of my HIV status set in. “Taking risks for a while was thrilling,” he said, “but couldn’t last forever.” I demanded he tell me his test results. “Negative.” Phew.

Increasingly, I’m realizing that my own stigma towards other HIV+ people helped inform my decision to pursue a HIV- partner. I liked the idea that they were pristine, untouched by the ravages (both emotional and physical) that HIV brings. But my attraction to HIV- men is rooted in the same attitudes which block me from Grindr at first admission of status, in the same ignorance which perpetuates the stereotype of the bathhouse regular smoking crystal and being up all night partying instead of folding laundry or working a day-to-day career job.

It’s a stigma that continues a cycle of shame and self-loathing I am working feverishly to undo.

I’m not sure who my next partner will be as I move towards my 6th anniversary of being HIV+, but I hope I see every potential candidate as I would want them to see me - a human being first, thriving and growing in this complex and exciting world.

Peter Thomson is a pseudonym. The writer has chosen to keep his true identity secret to prevent jeopardizing his social, career and travel opportunities in the future. Many people underestimate HIV-related stigma's breadth, writing it off as an unfortunate social side-effect of being open about one's status. Using the word "resilient" to describe the emotional buoyancy of a person is flattering, but doesn't grasp the full picture. This author has been warned by other HIV-positive activists of the possibility of death threats, being denied entry into many countries in the world and threatening advancement in the career of his choice. This is why he's writing here. Maybe, one day, that reality will change. Till then, say hello to 'Peter'.


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