Serodiscordant relationships occur when one partner is HIV-positive, and the other is negative. As HIV stigma continues to break down, such relationships are increasingly common, what's everyday life like for those in them? London couple Andrew and James share their story with writer Jemal Polson...
According to The Terrence Higgins Trust, 1 in 12 gay men living in London is HIV positive
– compared to 1 in 20 in other parts of the UK. A large number of those living with HIV have no idea that they even carry the virus, possibly putting others at risk, as well as decreasing their own chances of living a healthier and longer life.
The numbers may sound both shocking and saddening, but HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was. Those who are diagnosed as HIV-positive appear just as healthy as those who are negative, which can be attributed to the rapid advancement of antiretroviral drugs suppressing the virus's spread throughout the body.
“I never thought I would have a boyfriend again,” says Andrew, a 29-year-old Theatre Director from London. “Everyone wants a perfect boyfriend; no one wants a defective boyfriend. Sadly people don’t think the ‘perfect boyfriend’ can involve the term HIV.”
Andrew and his partner James have been together for just under a year. James, a 27-year-old nurse from London, is HIV-negative, and has been aware of Andrew’s status since they first met.
Andrew (at right) and partner James.
By the time Andrew met James, the former had been on dates with a few guys, to varying degrees of success. “By the third date, when you finally say ‘I’m HIV positive,’ the texts just stop, or they’d suddenly be too busy to see me again,” he says. But after he disclosed his status to James, Andrew was surprised to find that it made no difference to his future partner at all.
Reflecting on that time, James cites his experience in the medical profession as a key factor in his initial reaction. “I’ve done courses where I’ve worked with people within sexual health and that genre of medicine, so I would say I have a slightly better knowledge from a medical point of view."
Andrew received his diagnosis when he was directing a revival of the play As Is,
which features characters living with AIDS in 80s New York. He urged his entire cast and crew to get tested - himself included. Andrew underwent a rapid HIV test
, which can detect HIV in the human body within one minute. When the minute was up, Andrew recalls, the silence between he and the nurse doing the test was deafening.
"I broke the silence: ‘It’s not positive, is it?’ and he put his hand on my shoulder, looked into my eyes and said ‘It is. But we’re gonna look after you, mate’."
Andrew went on various trials of antiretroviral drugs, a time he says was very difficult. “There are so many different types of drugs. On the first set of meds I lost about a stone and a half. Every night my bed sheets would be saturated in sweat. I’d wake up in the middle of the night freezing cold. Night terrors, hallucinations and no appetite”.
Since Andrew’s diagnosis came early, his current antiretrovirals have stabilised the HIV in his body. Now classed as “undetectable”, it's believed he is unlikely to be able to pass the virus on, provided he sticks to his medication. "There have been times where I have been teaching and I’ve been asked what precautions should be taken if I cut myself by accident. The ignorance and stigma surrounding HIV is the real battleground, not the virus itself," he says.
“I’ve experienced whispers in the corner saying ‘He’s HIV positive’. When actually…the safer person to sleep with is often someone who is HIV-positive and undetectable, rather than a stranger who may be infected and not know their status, who will be at their most infectious,” says Andrew.
As for the couple's own sex life? “We do everything that an HIV-negative couple would do,” says James. "[Andrew’s status] is just something that is there floating off into the background.”
The stigma and false information about how the virus works and spreads is slowly dissipating. Attitudes are changing towards HIV and those carrying the virus, but there’s still a long way to go.
One thing that Andrew and James are aiming for together is to raise awareness of HIV – and what living as a positive person is really like. Andrew encourages all people to get tested regularly, working with organisations such as the Terrance Higgins Trust and MAD Trust
. James has another wish: “I want someone who doesn’t have HIV who is approached by someone who’s got it, not to think that they’re in a vulnerable position”.
“We are no threat to anybody,” Andrew says. “And I wish the gay community, this wonderful rainbow- spectrum-welcoming community, would be a little wiser than it is at the moment."
WORDS BY JEMAL POLSON