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No Extra Cool Points

| 12 Comments

To begin with: an ancient TV moment. Jason Bateman, playing David Harper on the 1980s sitcom Valerie, has done something wrong. I forget what exactly; maybe it's the episode in which David decides to have sex, with a condom (first primetime mention of the word, Wikipedia informs me) but lies to his mother (Valerie Harper) about it. Valerie is very angry with him. He tries to wheedle his way out of a punishment -- he tells his mother, "At least I told you the truth!" Valerie is quite rightly indignant. She reacts by saying something like this (I'm paraphrasing of course): "You do something wrong and you think that simply by telling the truth that everything is A-OK?! I expect you to tell me the truth. Telling the truth is basic, not something so wonderful that it counts as a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card! And you seem to want a pat on the back!"

 

Back to the present and to real life. A couple of years ago I dated someone -- let's call him AB. (I'm deliberately keeping the timeline a little fuzzy. But, if you want a visual of the guy, think Steve Carell with salt-and-pepper hair.) We met by accident. The attraction, on my part certainly, was instant and strong, on several levels; and, though I have to fight my natural tendency towards skepticism in these matters, I do believe AB when he says he was instantly and strongly attracted to me as well. Strange but happily true.

AB was, and is, HIV-negative. I told him about my status at the end of our second date, before we'd kissed, let alone had sex. His reaction was, given the context and, for lack of a better word, exemplary. We paused for a bit on the street. (You want more specificity? OK then: at the corner of Church and Brattle.) Then AB said: "Well, it's not what I'd expected you to say and of course it's not something I'm happy to hear -- but do you still want to go back to my place and make out?" Yes, I said, I would like to go back to his place and make out.

 

We broke up, amicably though painfully enough, after a... while. The discord between us had nothing to do with the fact that we were a serodiscordant couple. AB and I moved on, after the necessary quantity of tears had been shed by each, and went our separate ways. Not-so-strange and unhappily true.

 

I narrate this slightly tedious tale, in outline, for two reasons. First, because of the way a few -- very few, thank goodness -- people perceived our breakup; and second, because of the way quite a lot of people perceived our getting together in the first place.

 

The first set assumed that the split must have had something to do my being poz and AB's not being so: how could the stresses (inevitable, insurmountable?) of a "magnetic" relationship not be a factor, even the decisive factor, in the parting of ways? In this view, a statement like the one above ("The discord between us had nothing to do with the fact that we were a serodiscordant couple") is myopically self-protective at best and stubbornly or willfully delusional at worst.

 

The second group, on the other hand, expressed some surprise that an HIV-negative person would date, and even consider a future with, an HIV-positive person at all. I've often heard, in conversation or in e-mails, something like this: "Well, he was of course lucky to have you, and it's a shame you guys broke up. But what a cool guy he was, right? He was cool and brave enough to go out with a poz guy and you have to give him credit for that, right?"

 

I don't really know to respond to the first (mis)perception besides saying that this is one of those weird notions that is hard to counter with reason. It is dogma -- in the sense that the "truth" is taken for granted. The more you object to this "truth" the more the implanted or implacable belief receives reinforcement. "Obama's middle name is 'Hussein' -- therefore he must be Muslim (and that's a bad thing)." "You say that the dream is not about your mother? Then it must be about your mother."  "How can you pretend that being HIV-positive was not a factor in your breaking up with AB -- since it had to be a factor?" Fine, then. Believe what you want to believe -- and if you want to believe that a serodiscordant relationship isn't possible or sustainable, then well, bully for you. I'll just shrug and walk away.

 

But what about the second set? The people who think (and sometimes say) that a neg guy dating a poz guy is something wonderful -- so wonderful that the neg guy in the relationship equation deserves to receive extra points for bravery and coolness? Does AB deserve -- do other negative men and women like him deserve -- extra cool points?

 

Nah. Nope. Not so much. But why not?

 

Well, think again of David and the reason why Valerie scolds him. David does the right thing by his mother, at least in one way -- he fesses up. But he's thinking like a clever celebrity or politician: commit your misdeed, deny it as long as possible, but when you no longer can, tearfully or piously tell the truth, and expect the press and the public to applaud your "wrenching" honesty in being (momentarily) truthful. The previous lies, the initial wrongdoing, David expects, are to be forgotten: it's a canny use of candor. Except. Except that, as Valerie reminds him, his candor is only superficially exceptional -- it used to be taken for granted, and it should be taken for granted, that truth-telling was/is simply the base and not some extraordinary, sky-high, moral edifice.   

 

Valerie is a mostly-forgotten TV show, and I'm sure there are dozens of more recent, and no doubt better, pop-culture references I could have used for my purposes. Be that as it way; given the vagaries of memory, this exchange between mother and son, circa 1987, has stayed with me. And I'd like to apply the idea of what is "basic" to my relationship with AB and to other poz-neg relationships.

 

My point, you will have guessed, is itself pretty basic: doing the right thing does not get you what I'm calling "extra cool points." And AB was simply doing the right thing: responding favorably to an attraction, without letting (irrational) fear and (socially sanctioned) prejudice get in the way.

 

The end? Yes and No -- "Yes," because what else is there to say, in a sense, beyond this; and "No," because, on the other hand, there is, there so much is, so much more to say.

 

Try prefixing an "OMG!" or "How cool is that?" to each of the three, brief, scenarios below:

 

"A Baptist preacher permitted those under his pastoral care to attend yoga classes if they wished -- and this despite the fact that yoga clearly has historical and spiritual roots in a non-Christian tradition. The breadth of his tolerance and magnanimity is admirable."  

  

"A conservative Southern country club just admitted three African-American families. How progressive of them! It's really brave -- considering that the committee's Confederate ancestors are turning over in their graves."

 

"The Board of Directors didn't pass over the female candidate for the position of Chief Operating Officer. And she's only in her early 40s, she could yet have another child you know. I'm really impressed at how forward-thinking this Board is. Kudos!"

 

I'm pretty sure that most people (though certainly not all) would agree that the prefixes are ludicrous when attached to every one of these "cases" -- and that's because moral congratulations were being conferred when not a single one was warranted.

 

I'll be the first to admit -- in this compressed but sprawling disquisition, on one aspect of acting rightly or morally -- that I'm ignoring several major complicating "issues." Five of these come to mind right away. First, that race, religion, and gender are not quite the same thing as a disease (or virus if you prefer). Second, that individual temperaments differ, and some people have preferences and aversions that they can't help holding on to, despite wanting to shed them. And then third and fourth: that individual acceptance or rejection is not the same as the institutional kind, and that legally disallowed discrimination is obviously different from the personal variety. Fifth, and most importantly for me in this context, that doing the right thing -- or doing something that can be counted as brave or extraordinary in some way -- does not, in most cases, remain static through time and space.

 

On that fifth point: it's pretty clear from the context, I think, that AB is a well-educated man living in 21st-century urban America. But what if he were a figure from Abraham Verghese's My Own Country (small-town Tennessee, mid-80s) or Tony Kushner's Angels in America (New York, same time period) or Lizzy Attree's Blood on the Page (contemporary South Africa and Zimbabwe)? A question, or set of questions, to address elsewhere, elsewhen.

 

I've been unusually exasperated with myself (and that's saying something) while writing this essay: there has been a nagging sense, at times, that a boy-meets-boy narrative has been taxed too hard, that an old romance shouldn't be sermonized over, and that succinctness and amplitude have both been sacrificed. On balance, however, these concerns were defeated by the need to "interrogate" a much larger, and truly dismaying, exasperation -- the angry and sad and incredulous and not-yet-resigned exasperation that wants to yell, "Hell, no!" when repeatedly confronted with this: "But what a cool guy he was, right? He was cool and brave enough to go out with a poz guy and you have to give him credit for that, right?"

 

AB himself would (and does) disclaim any special credit; he would (metaphorically) yell "Hell, no!" along with me when faced with (necessarily) different versions of the well-meaning but wrong-headed statement-questions repeated above. He would (sadly, smilingly) agree with me that the real bravery he and I both showed was in embarking upon the crazy adventure known as a "relationship." And, if Mr. AB doesn't get or deserve any extra cool points on one score, he certainly deserves at least a few for agreeing that he doesn't.    



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12 Comments

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Comments on Jay Vithalani's blog entry "No Extra Cool Points"

I'm back. With a long-ish (by blog standards) essay on poz-neg relationships and Doing The Right Thing. Plan to post at least one blog entry a week from now on. -- JV

hello jay,
as someone who is negative and who has no problem being in a relationship with someone who is positive i have to concur with your sentiments. i have come across many people who are surprised at my comfort level in that respect. often positive folks disclose to me their status unbeknownst to other friends and negative folks share their discomfort and fear. both pry me with questions and these are usually people i have just recently met and am not close to. i believe this is because people know me as an AIDS activist and know i work for a HIV/AIDS org (even though they know i am not in case mgt or direct services). most assume i am positive.
i am glad a few people are comfortable speaking to me and trust me with confidentiality. what i find most discomforting is the secrecy these people confide to me with (both poz&neg). i understand the reasons but am shamed that to THIS day we cannot speak openly to each other.
i am thankful you are discussing issues of relationships and ramifications of - like stigma, misperceptions etc. and hope you continue to keep the dialogue going.

sorry for the rambling but i am rushed for time at the moment. . .

cheers,
eddie.

What a great introduction. It is exciting to meet someone with such an interesting background. I look forward to spending more quality time with you.

HELLO JAY,
FIRST OF ALL, I REALLY ENJOYED AND UNDERSTOOD
YOUR ARTICALE.
THIS IS MY FIRST TIME ON THE POZ SITE AND FIRST
REAL READING I DID AND LOVED!

I WAS IN COMPLETE TUNE TO WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO SAY AND DID SAY!
ONLY BEAUSE IVE BEEN THROUGH IT JUST THE SAME!
I JUST ENED MY 6 YR (RELATIONSHIP) WITH MY PARTNER. HE IS 29 YRS OLD AND IAM 50 YRS OLD!
YES I KNOW I ROBBED THE CRADEL???
ANYWAY WE IS NEG AND I AM POZ. AND IT WAS KIND OF HELL AT FIRST THEN IT WORKED OUT FOR US!
MY PARTNER WENT THROGH ALOT WITH ME AND I HIM!
IT WASN'T LATER ALL ABOUT ME BEING POSITIVE,
IT WAS AND STILL IS ABOUT HIS FAMILY NOT ACCEPTING HIM BEING GAY AND BEING WITH AN OLD MAN!
HIS FAMILY ALL ECEPT ONE NIECE DOESN'T CARE FOR GAYS AT ALL!
HIS MOM WANTS AND THINKS HE WILL TURN OVER TO BEING STRAIGHT ONE DAY!
AND THAT WILL NOT HAPPEN FOR SURE I KNOW AND SO DOES HE!
MY EX PARTNER ALSO HAS A STRAIGHT OLDER BROTHER WHO GIVES HIM HELL FOR BEING GAY ALL THE TIME AND MAKE HIM CRY EVEN!
I FEEL BAD FOR MY 29 YR OLD PARTNER, BECAUSE HE IS LIVING NOW WITH HIS FAMILY! BUT I COULD NO LONGER SUPPORT HIM AND I ALL THE TIME!I AM ON DISABILITY AND CAN NOT AFFORD JUST ENOUGH TO LIVE ON!
MY EX PARTNER WAS ALWAYS IN AND OUT OF JOBS WHICH DIDN'T HELP US AS A STEADY INCOME TO LIVE ON!
HE IS SO BEAUTAFUL AND WONDERFUL LOOKING, SHOULD BE A MODEL! HE ISN'T LAZY,JUST WAS IN HIS OWN LITTLE WORLD AND WAS SO DEPRESSED, AS WAS I TOO
MOST OF THE TIME! I COULD WRITE A BOOK JUST ON HIM AND I FOR THE LAST 6 YRS!
I HAVE TRIED TO END MY LIFE SEVERAL TIMES, HE SAVED ME!
AND THEN HE DID THE SAME TRIED TO END HIS LIFE
SEVERAL TIMES I SAVED HIM!
AND NOW HIS FAMILY THINKS I CAUSED HIM TO DO THIS AND THEY WANTED HIM AWAY FROM ME!
I ALWAYS HAVE TRIED TO TELL HIM AND HIS FAMILY HE NEDDED HELP, THEY WOULD NEVER REALLY DO ANYTHING! NOW MY EX IS ON MEDICINE FOR DEPRESSION AND SEEING HELP AND HAS STARED TO WORK AGAIN! HE HAS NO CAR, NOR DO I TO LEND HIM TO GET TO WORK, HE IS USING FAMILY CARS BUT IT IS DIFFICULT FOR HIM!
I PRAY EVERY DAY FOR HIM AND HIS FAMILY TO GET BETTER!
IT HURTS ME ALL THE TIME.
HE COMES OVER TO MY PLACE TO STAY ON HIS DAYS OFF TO GET AWAY FROM FAMILY!
WE STILL HAVE SEX WHEN HE IS HERE AND IT IS REALLY GREAT AND EVEN BETTER THAN WHEN WE LIVED TOGETHER! WE JUST CANT LIVE UNDER THE SAME ROOF!
I RENT AND IT'S JUST A SMALL ONE BEDROOM HOUSE
AND IF IT WERE A LARGE TWO BEDROOM WE WOULD MAYBE BE ABLE TO LIVE TOGETHER AND HAVE OUR OWN LITTLE SPACE???
I DON'T KNOW ANYMORE! AGAIN HIS FAMILY HAS GOTTEN BETWEEN US NOW AND HE SAYS MAYBE LATER DOWN THE ROAD WHEN HE GETS HIS OWN PLACE THEN MAYBE WE COULD GET BACK TOGETHER, BUT ONLY MAYBE!
AND THAT WILL BE FAR DOWN THE ROAD, ALOT CAN HAPPEN BETWEENN THEN.

I DON'T KNOW I HAVE NOW LEARNED TO NOT CRY AS MUCH FOR HIM AND GETTING USED TO LIVING ALONE AGAIN! I JUST DON'T WANT TO BE ALONE, BUT I ALSO WANT HIM TO GROW ON HIS OWN AND DO BETTER AND BE HIMSELF AND NOT TO WORRY ABOUT ME AGAIN!
HE NEEDS TO BE STRONG AND GO ON AND BE HAPPY AND DO WHAT HE WANTS TO DO, NOT WHAT HIS FAMILY WANTS HIM TO DO!

WHEN I FIRST MET HIM HE WAS SO SHY AND NIEVE
AND WOULD DO ANYTHING HIS FAMILY WANTED HIM TO DO WEATHER IT WAS GOOD OR BAD! THEY USED HIM LIKE A SLAVE AND SRILL DO !
BUT NOW HE IS A LITTLE WISER AND HAS NO CHOICE AT THIS TIME,SO HE IS PUTTING UP WITH IT!

WE BOTH HAVE LEARNED ALOT DROM EACH OTHER!
I WAS TOTALLY OLD SCHOOL AND HE NEW SCHOOL!
NOW HE HAS TAUGHT ME ALOT AND I HAVE TAUGHT HIM ALOT, WE BOTH LEARNED FROM EACH OTHER!
ITS BEEN WONDERFUL LEARNING FROM HIM AND HIM FROM I!
HE IS SUCH A KIND AND LOVING PERSON AND I LOVE HIM FOR THAT!
AND I THANK HIM FOR BEING WITH ME FOR TH LAST 6 YRS
WOW I SHOULD TELL YOU HOW WE MET BUT THAT'S ANOTHER STORY AND I DON'T WANT TO BORE ANYONE
MORE WITH THIS!
I DON'T KNOW IF I MADE A DIFFERENCE OR GOT MY POINT ACROSS, KIND OF WENT ALL OVER WITH MY STORY! SORRY, I AM NEW AT THIS AND I REALLY REALLY JUST NEEDED TO VENT! THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME JAY AND WHO EVER ELSE IF EVER READS THIS!
POINT IS HE LOVED ME FOR ME AND NOT FOR THE VIRUS! HE SAW ME AND WAS ATRRACTED TO ME AND MY
PERSONALITY!
WELL ALL IS DONE NOW!
WHAT DO I DO NEXT??? LOL!
LAWRENCE....

As with All Things HIV, our social markers are constantly moving. The bars are raised and lowered. While you were watching Valerie in the 80's, I was disclosing my HIV status to dates across the lunch table, and those who didn't run screaming from the restaurant were, indeed, "cool" to me. Exceptional, in fact. But time marches on, and people "should know better" than to discriminate these days, right?

Well, everyone except poz guys like me, who will only get involved with (read: have sex with) other poz guys. If I were to date a negative guy myself, I would absolutely consider it an act of great tolerance and generosity. Look at me, giving up so much of my preferences to date the negative guy.

Life is nothing if not ironic. Thanks for a great piece.

Mark
MyFabulousDisease.com

Well this one caught my attention and I had to just post a comment on this. I have been poz for 28 years and full blown aids for 18 (now in perfect health-normal t-cel and undectable). In those years I have had a few relationships with people both poz and neg. I have always told people before sex of my status and have never been rejected for it (lucky from what I have been told by others). One comment I remember was "I'm sure you are not the first positive man I have slept with, but you are the first to tell me before sex, and I appreciate your honesty". I would like to think that if it was reversed I would do the same. Usually the comments were "so am I", "well it doesn't matter because we are going to use protection". Maybe I just lucked out with the guys I was interested, I don't know. One guy that I was seriously dating was negative, we were going to move in together and he told his daughter about me living with aids. Her comment was "what if he dies on you". The very next day Princess Diana died in her carwreck. His comment to his daughter was "see there are no telling how long any of us have, and when you are in love, you just have to go with it. So do I think any of these people deserve extra points for dating (having sex with me aids and all" NO. I think anyone who is educated should know better. It was like the time early in the epidemic that I was at a friend and his lover's house. He had full blown aids and was covered with our cancer. We were sitting there and talking and his lover told me I was their only friend who would visit because others were afraid they would catch it just by being in the same room. I was shocked that people could be so stupid. Granted it was in the early years of aids and not a ton was known about the virus. I told the not sick lover why I thought it was stupid. I said if it is airborn we will all catch it. Who was to say that the person on the bus next to you didn't have it, the person at the supermarket, etc. These two men were very popular before one of them got sick and suddenly they were treated as if they were lepors. I cried for them. Was I deserving of extra credit for visiting friends with aids when I didn't, hell no, it's called being a human. Hope this wasn't to long. scott00008 from Longview, p.s. this all happened in Portland, Oregon when I lived there.

Good subject. I'm a straight man and have tried dating some negative women, but it (the virus) does seem to be an issue. There seem to be more men that will date Poz women, but it certainly can cause some stress.

The question about the "extra cool points" is great. Shouldn't really be part of the equation as we aren't charity cases, or necessarily desparate which is sometimes how single HIV people are percieved (straight or gay). Good blog

Brilliantly reasoned. ABSOLUTELY right on. Thank you!

It all depends on the person and if there educated about Hiv and can handle it . I've been with my partner for 13 yrs. and he's neg !

Just read this -- a considerably more complicated serodiscordant-couple story: http://www.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=5279


Jay Jay, hey, hey, I want to party with you. I learned a long time ago that all people have some kind of prejudice in their life, some don't like over weight people (making jokes behind their backs), some are prejudice against races, on both sides of the fence, some live on different economic levels for a reason in gated communities and the list goes on and on. I believe it is all about fear and the need to feel more superior to another in attempt to feel more educated or enlighten. So, to think in any terms that human beings in this competitive world for Intellectual Property, i.e. the American Dream are perfect, yet, is most laughable to me. All humans use in some since one another as a stepping stone for their success or to find their way for that is a community to me. HIV folks have a road that I believe is an opportunity to become stronger and wiser to face these human fears (which some may never face), for who would want to date a person that could not deal with their HIV, not me and really don't want to date someone that feels sorry for me either. This stigma, shame and guilt is out their for all people and the cool points I believe needs to go to the HIV people that pushes through their fears and hold their head high and reaches for their American Dream to learn, love and live, not to hurt, just because others hurt them in conversation or actions. The knowledge of the truth can set one free, I believe whole heartily. I have went through many stages in disclosure of my HIV status as a self proclaimed sexologist in finding my was and learned it is better to be out with myself than to live in shame, lies, and the need to not address my HIV status, faith(values) and dreams. Get this; at one time in my life I did not want to make people feel uncomfortable by mentioning HIV or AIDS while holding my head down as a second rate person in daily darkness. Today, as I get older and hopefully wiser, I still do not want to make folks uncomfortable, but this doesn't drive my life and long term goals, I am making again, while living one day at a time. My faith allows me to pray and open my heart to forgive and love, learn and live joyfullly. I prayed for a loving partner and then opened my heart to find him. Well, it took a year to find him and he is HIV positive too, and boy the romance, sex and spiritual connectivity is great and the hope for a brighter tomorrow is even better. Still living one day at a time and Thanking God for each day. By the way, I hate when people use the term full blown AIDS and working on my prejudice of this self impose term that some use upon themselves. Still working on my prejudices.

i'm really not sure of the point here. is this cheer-leading and spirit-raising for the benefit of other HIV+ people? i'm afraid that social standards in this regard have evolved very unevenly...for most people (anywhere, i think), dating an HIV+ person IS either courageous or foolish. that belief may be based on ignorance and fear, but those traits remain dominant in humanity.

i guess some cheerleading is warranted, as i have seen sero-discordant couples where the neg partner holds a sword against the poz partner, and stands on a pedestal while doing so...and i myself have had neg guys attempt the same with me while dating. i have never put up with that treatment, but it's easy to understand other poz people doing so given how much stigma and social isolation many of us still encounter...especially beyond activist circles.

however, this entry is obviously "preaching to the converted", and i think it's dangerous to forget that. in most of America and, i think, most of the world, HIV- people DO deserve "points" for romantic involvement with HIV+ people...not only that, but HIV- people need some outreach to even learn of these "points".

this is not to remotely excuse the sword and the pedestal i referred to above, of course...any time spent among other HIV+ people makes clear that some neg partners view sero-discordance in their relationship as a power imbalance to their advantage.

However, until Society is willing to give these "points" out to HIV- people for their open-mindedness, i'm afraid that sero-discordant relationships where the neg partner exercises a power advantage over the poz partner will remain disproportionately common. Otherwise, there's just too many opportunistic people in general, and too many (quite frankly) hard-up and love-starved HIV+ people for it to be different.

we should encourage pride and self-acceptance among HIV+ people, AND encourage awareness and acceptance by HIV- people. This blog post very definitely prioritizes the former over the latter, and unless one is pushing serosorting, i just don't think that's wise.

Honesty, love, awareness and tolerance have ALWAYS been in short supply in this world, regardless of any fictional morality tale...those qualities ALWAYS deserve "points".

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