With U=U and PrEP, why let being HIV-different get in the way of a good relationship? Here, three people discuss sex and intimacy as they face a brave new world full of desire, pleasure and acceptance.
It was during a routine STI check-up in 2007 that Suresh found out he had HIV. “But I didn't start treatment until a year later,” he says. As an overseas student, Suresh's visa did not qualify him for PBS-subsidised antiretrovirals. His private health insurance wouldn't cover them either. Fortunately, he had a nurse who became his fairy godmother. “She used to provide me with the leftovers that other patients hadn't used because they'd had an adverse reaction or something,” he says.
A year later, Suresh started importing generics from India because he didn't think it was fair to rely on his nurse to have to source his supply. Meanwhile, things at home with his brother weren't going well. “He was being homophobic and bullying,” he says. “I couldn't focus on my studies. My university work suffered and I almost got terminated. Plus my parents said that I was jeopardising their plans to migrate to Australia,” he sighs. “It was a tough time.”
Then Suresh met Rod through an online dating site for positive people. “After two weeks of talking, he moved from Sydney to be with me,” Suresh says. “And we found a place together. Rod had been living with HIV for about 20 years and he helped toughen me up.”
With Rod's help, Suresh completed his degree, stood up against his parents and brought legal action against his brother to stop his ongoing bullying. In 2012 they packed up and moved to Sydney. With Rod's sponsorship, Suresh applied for permanent residency, which was initially rejected but finally approved the following year. “Our relationship ended in 2014. But we're still really good friends,” he says. “And then I met Cameron.”
Cameron was going through a low point in his life. He had just separated from his wife of 30 years. He also had seven children. He was very new to the gay scene. He didn't know much about HIV and even less about its transmission. “He basically had nowhere to go and I thought ... stuff it … let's get together. So he's been living with me ever since.” Suresh told Cameron he was positive within 72 hours of them meeting. “He was a bit taken aback and he did have a bit of a cry. But he stayed. He didn't write me off because of my status.”
In the weeks that followed, Cameron agreed to accompany Suresh to an appointment with his HIV specialist. The first session with his doctor went well. “He told us that so long as I stick to my meds and we are in a monogamous relationship we'll be fine,” says Suresh.
Then Cameron went to get tested himself and saw a nurse who told him: “You're dating a positive person. You need to wear condoms every time.” Suresh was incensed. Mixed messages were the last thing they needed. So, they had another meeting with Suresh’s doctor who became a bit cautious himself. “He focused on the 00.1 percent possibility,” says Suresh. “I didn't know what was going on.”
Suresh and Cameron argued. They then decided to do their own research. That's when they read about the Treatment as Prevention studies that showed zero percent transmission between HIV different couples. And they started having sex without condoms. “For someone who knew nothing about HIV,” says Suresh. “Cameron has taken it all very well. He may be 53 but because he's just come out, he's like a raving 19-year-old who wants to bonk every night,” he laughs.
Ted grew up with an identical twin sister — or “womb mate” as he likes to call her. “I came out as a lesbian to a group of friends when I was 14,” he says, “but that didn't go too well, so I put myself back in the closet until I was 17. I then came out to my parents and sister and my grade at school. It was the late nineties and I was pretty stoked to be a hard-core dyke from a Catholic girls’ school in Western Sydney. My sense of being male didn't come until much later,” he says.
Ted was 30 when he started talking openly about his trans experience, and 31 when he started medically transitioning — taking hormones and undergoing chest surgery. “I always identified more queer than lesbian,” he says, “and had a queer attraction to men even though I was disguised as a woman; it was a bit of a head fuck because I didn’t have a language to describe what was going on.”
So, as he started to affirm his male gender and became more comfortable in his skin, he found himself attracted to and, in turn, attracting men. Today, at 37, Ted sees himself as a queer man who is pretty gay.
Ted lives with a female partner and only has sex outside of the relationship with men. He and his girlfriend met before his transition and spent a year negotiating his newly found sexuality. “Our relationship has evolved,” he says, “to where we celebrate each other's sexual adventures. She's the best and I feel very lucky to have found such a rad life partner.”
In 2014, Ted co-founded PASH.tm, a project seeking to address the sexual-health needs of trans men — particularly around HIV — and consequently found he was mixing more with HIV-positive gay men. “I felt a real kinship,” he says. “I could relate to the kind of stigma they were talking about.” He also found that positive guys were often more accepting of his own body diversity. He finds many of the positive guys he hooks up with are also sexually adventurous and he has a stable of regular fuck buddies, roughly half of whom are positive.
He met many of his partners online, where his profile is clear about him being trans and also that he is on PrEP. Ted recalls the chat that went on before one particular hook-up: “He told me he was poz. And I could imagine those times when people have gone 'no thanks', like the times I have told them that I'm trans. And I said to him: ‘I don't care. What time am I coming over?’ We had a great time.”
Pre and post PrEP
Ted was having a lot less sex before PrEP came along. “Testosterone sometimes changes the lining of your front hole,” he says. “So, while I wanted to use condoms, they were actually quite painful. Being on PrEP has been a sexual liberation for me. I now feel much more comfortable and less anxious having the type of sex I want. I don't know what it's about, but the like-minded guys I meet just happen to be positive. Along with other trans guys, they are the men I feel warmest towards. Perhaps it's because we have all have gone through fire to get to where we are.”
All Aaron remembers of Catholic school life in Brisbane was the bullying. “It was horrid,” he says before quickly moving on to describe the freedom he felt as a 16-year-old getting out into the world. “I found myself in some very masculine workplaces,” he smiles, “first in the building industry, then football, then racing.”
He smiles too when he talks about his first relationship. “He was wonderful,” he recalls. “He played around and had an alcohol problem … but he was still the best partner I ever had.” That first relationship lasted two and a half years before Aaron found himself single and out on the scene. Aaron had little trouble attracting attention in his early twenties. “I had them falling at my feet left, right and centre,” he sighs. “Men running up the road after me.” He then entered a relationship which he describes as “a bit of a disaster, really” and attributes financial commitments to why it lasted for the five years it did.
It is now 2007 and Aaron describes himself as being “a bit of a lost soul”. “I was over life,” he says. Having just got out of one abusive relationship, he promptly found himself in another. “But this one was bad,” he says, “very bad.” Luckily, this time the physical violence only happened once before he got out. Depressed and anxious, Aaron found himself partying a lot more than usual. He was drinking to dull out the pain. And having lots of sex. That was also the year he seroconverted. “I took it really bad,” he says.
There have been a number of HIV different boyfriends in the last nine years. Some — where he has disclosed and they simply haven't cared — make good news stories. Others less so. One friend reacted particularly badly and “ran around telling everyone”, says Aaron. This friend's mother even confronted Aaron's new boyfriend saying he shouldn't have sex with him because he'd get infected. “He told her that we'd been going at it like rabbits,” laughs Aaron. “He didn't care.” Other friends came to his defence as well.
Aaron believes this experience did him a favour. He has no problem disclosing now. He is straight forward about it. Bang. Get it out of the way. “And most often neg guys are more than fine about it,” he says. Some have said that having condomless sex with someone who claims to be undetectable for at least six months is a safer option than with someone who claims to be negative. “One even responded with 'Fucken cool. We can bareback all day',” he laughs.
Aaron feels more inclined to talk about HIV these days. He likes to educate where he can. “I'm living really well with it. I'm accepting of it,” he says.
Extracts republished with permission from Positive Life NSW. Originally published in HIV Difference (Sero Disco 3), copyright 2017.