My marriage is haunted by ghosts. Ghosts of boys I loved and lost long before I met my husband. Three boys I loved, to be exact, died of AIDS-related complications by 1996. They visit me in my dreams, waltz into my poems unannounced, add their two cents to conversations whenever they see fit.
The first to die was Marcos Betancourt, whom I met in my HIV support group weeks after I tested positive in 1990. He was an aspiring dancer from Long Beach, California, followed to New York by his ex-boyfriend, Ron, who no longer had any illusions but just wanted to keep an eye on him, because he still loved him and knew the kinds of trouble he could get himself into. Marcos always said having sex was how gay boys shook hands. He would meet a guy at a bar on Thursday night, shake hands with him over the weekend, and by the following Wednesday I'd be hearing all about the breakup. Marcos and I only got to shake hands once, but I loved him all the same. I don't know exactly when he died, but he phoned me in 1993 from a hospital room in Los Angeles, where he was being treated for cryptococcal meningitis, to tell me he was excited about publishing his memoir. I don't think that ever happened.
Randy Snyder was my first-ever love and the last of the three to die; I'm so angry with him, for so many reasons, that I still haven't managed to write a good poem about Randy.
In between, there was Anthony Ibrahin Salinas, better known as Tony, rock bassist and all around vodka-fueled bad boy who was, most likely, my source of infection. Truth be told, booze killed Tony before the virus really had a chance, but that's another story.
Actually, each of these boys is another story, but here I just want to honor their names briefly. I also want to give you an idea of the ghosts my husband has to live with: My husband, Jason, the one who didn't get away, the one who wouldn't let me go, the one who proves that not only love, but even lifelong commitment, is more than just possible for gay men living with HIV, it's a hard-fought, hard-won reality.
My relationship with Jason is not only an amazing love story; in some ways, it's historic. I thought about this while watching the Season 5 premiere of RuPaul's Drag Race in January, during which Logo aired an HIV-awareness "Puppet Service Announcement" (PSA) starring characters from the Broadway musical Avenue Q. In this one-minute video, Rod (the conservative banker puppet) and Ricky (the muscle gay puppet) are just back from a date, and Rod is inviting Ricky up to his apartment for the first time. Ricky is surprisingly demure. When a distraught Rod presses the issue, Ricky discloses that he is HIV positive. Rod assures Ricky that he still wants to have sex and is fine with condoms. Overjoyed, Ricky explains that he is on medication and has an undetectable viral load, which means his risk of transmitting the virus during protected sex is extremely low. Rod and Ricky rush into a smoochy embrace.
As we watched the PSA, Jason started to cry. "I've been waiting my whole life to hear that message," he said, hugging me closer as we sat on the sofa with our two languid kitty cats. Indeed, it seemed that decades of fear, ignorance, silence, and stigma were finally ending. Maybe gay men could once again be judged not by their HIV status, but by their character (or by how many times a week they go to the gym).
Jason was way ahead of the curve on serodiscordant relationships (meaning when one partner is poz, the other neg). On our second date, walking through Columbus Circle after a disastrous dinner and a bad movie, I said there were two things I had to tell him: One, I had a boyfriend; and two, I was HIV positive. "You're not getting rid of me THAT easily" was his response to these twin revelations. That was in 2000. Treatment was pretty good but not as good as it is now. The idea of Jason's dating a guy with HIV freaked out the friends in whom he confided. But he was undaunted, continued to date me, and soon enough, pried me from the clutches of my boyfriend.
But the fact that our relationship has survived and thrived (we were among the first men to get same-sex married, on the beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in June 2004) does not mean that HIV has not complicated things every step of the way. You might think I'm referring to not being able to have unprotected sex without risk of infecting Jason. But in fact, that may be the least of our concerns. Bigger issues are things like maintaining my health insurance; wondering whether my medication will continue to work; thinking about how our lives will change if I become sick; and for me, raging at the fact that Jason does not get my Social Security check when I die, because under the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government is barred from recognizing our marriage. (The Supreme Court will have something to say about this in just a few months, so we shall see.)
On the other hand, HIV has occasioned some comic moments for Jason and me over the years; or perhaps I should say, moments we have to laugh about because the only alternative is to cry. When we first met, I had to take my medicine on an empty stomach, with no food for two hours before or one hour after a dose, three times a day. Start thinking about the clock, and you'll realize there were nine hours a day when I could not eat and fairly limited "windows" when I could have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Jason's parents and kid brother came to New York to meet me after we'd been dating for a few months, and we did not initially tell them I was HIV positive.
Seeing as how we could not hide the fact that their 23-year-old son was dating a man 15 years his senior, we thought disclosing the fact that I could give him a life-threatening disease was probably not the smoothest move right off the bat. The game plan was for them to meet me at Film Forum, where we were going to see Kiss Me Kate (minimal opportunity for face-to-face interaction for a good two hours), then have dinner at Sammy's, a Chinese place on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, and a gay- and family-friendly favorite. We had to plan the whole evening around my "dinner window" so we could glide seamlessly from movie to dinner to good-night hugs and kisses without ever having to mention my HIV-related gastrointestinal constraints. Fortunately, it came off without a hitch. In fact, Jason's folks adored me.
By the time we were winging our way to San Antonio to see his family again (for his dad's retirement ceremony after 20 years in the Air Force), I was on a new regimen with no food restrictions, but one of the meds had to be refrigerated. How were we going to pull this off without tipping our hand? In fact, we didn't quite. Jason told his mom about my HIV status before the trip. They did not initially tell his dad, but with his mom in the know, the whole pills-in-the-refrigerator thing provoked a lot of dread, but no actual disaster. Six months later, I switched to yet another regimen that did not require refrigeration or any other inconvenient restrictions. Life was good.
By the time Jason's dad learned about my HIV status, I was a known entity who had proven my reliability and commitment to their son many times over. Like Ricky and Rod, we assured his folks that we always used condoms and that my medication kept my virus undetectable, making the risk of transmission during protected sex virtually nonexistent. If they harbored secret fears, they were too tactful to share them with us. Jason's mother quilted the chuppah (traditional canopy) for our wedding, and his father, a trained and experienced cantor (Jewish liturgical singer), performed the ceremony.
All of this happened a long, long time ago, especially in gay years. But while HIV is now considered a chronic, manageable condition (as long as you have access to health care, you can tolerate the meds, and the meds work for you), it still looms over gay sex, dating, and relationships. More than a million people are now living with HIV in the United States. One in five of them (20%) do not even know their status. The spread of HIV in the gay community, once on the decline, is now back on the rise. The rate of new infections among young gay men is alarming, and among young gay men of color, it is staggering.
Thirty years into the epidemic, community memory is waning, and the internet, along with smartphones, has made it easier than ever to hop into bed with a stranger. This essay is a personal reminiscence meant to entertain and inspire, but I urge you to get informed and do everything in your power, regardless of your status, to live well, protect yourself, protect your partners, and make informed choices.