Although it’s an accepted convention that sometimes opposites attract, resulting in dichotomous pairings like liberals with conservatives, matinee idols with car park attendants and Carolina fans with Duke fans, for the most part this hasn’t been the case with HIV-positive and HIV-negative people.
From the early days of the epidemic both groups have largely chosen to look for mates and sexual partners from within their own ranks. This practice is known as sero sorting — sorting individuals by their HIV serologic status — and there are a variety of factors that have made it commonplace.
Some of these antecedents are emotional connectivity (such as the comfort partners find when each knows what the other is going through); altruism (the desire to limit the epidemic to the already infected); and, of course, sex (too often driven by the unsound notion that individuals with the same purported HIV status are free to engage in unprotected intercourse).
As anyone who has ever been in love knows, however, historical precedents and guiding principles — or any other forces for that matter — have no effect when the heart decides to go its own way. Sometimes, against all odds, opposites attract.
In medical terminology a couple comprised of an HIV-positive individual and an HIV-negative individual is a serodiscordant couple. (Same-status couples are termed seroconcordant.) In colloquial gay parlance these couples are said to be “magnetic” — positive and negative drawn together like the poles of a magnet.
David Witt, 61, and Joe Kiser, 46, are a magnetic couple who live in Charlotte. They have been partnered for 14 years. Witt is a former mental health and substance abuse professional with Mecklenburg County. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 and declared disabled in 1997 due to related health complications.
Witt met computer programmer Kiser in an online chatroom in 1996. He says he disclosed his HIV status right away.
“Before Joe ever came over to have dinner with me, he knew my status. I’d already lost a partner to AIDS-related causes, so I’d been out for a long time and didn’t really have any problems telling anyone about my status. On the other hand, there’s always a slight fear that you may be rejected by somebody you’d like to get to know.”
Kiser says he “just had to stop and think for a moment” before committing to the relationship. His family’s reaction was cautious, but not condemning. “There was concern in the beginning,” he explains. “They were mostly just worried about me. Now, my dad is accepting and when my sister brings up any negative conversation it’s about me being homosexual, not about HIV.”
Through the years, Witt has endured a string of health issues. He recounts them in a matter-of-fact manner that is sobering.
“I have chronic sinusitis, candidiasis — a yeast infection in my esophagus — and congestive heart failure. I had a heart attack in ‘99 that might have been contributed to by years of HIV meds, as well as the HIV itself. One real concern is kidney failure. My kidney function is about 17 percent; at 10 percent I would require dialysis. My diabetes is the result of HIV. I have neuropathy, which has caused me to have multiple falls and an irritable bowel related to the HIV. There’s also fatigue and anemia. The anemia’s what we’re dealing with now. I’m not making blood for some reason.”
Despite the extent of Witt’s health problems, the couple tries to keep them from dominating their relationship. It can be a challenge. For example, in April, Witt spent the first four days of a 15-day Key West vacation sick in bed. After discussing it, the pair decided to stick it out. The cost when they returned home was a seven-day hospitalization for Witt to treat a bout of pneumonia.
Whatever the challenges, Kiser says there’s no question that he’s been enriched by his magnetic partnership. “It’s brought a nurturing aspect out of me that was not often there before and made me more empathetic” he says. “And because HIV has affected David so profoundly, he sees life as so precious. He has taught me to see that too.”
Witt adds that the relationship has deepened in turn. “I don’t think we’ve had an argument were we’ve raised our voices. Because we’ve had to sit and talk about such serious matters of health, we can talk about any serious issues in our relationship. HIV makes us appreciate every day. When my time comes, I don’t want to have any regrets about our relationship. ”
Kiser sometimes struggles with his fear of what the future might bring, but the presence of Witt’s RAIN Care Team and friends from Witt’s recovery group helps. And, at the end of the day, no matter what lies in wait, he’s going to be there to go through it and Witt knows it.
“We talk about what’s happening to us; what’s happening to me and how he feels about it,” Witt says. “He’s just a great partner. Even though he can’t experience the panic, fear and isolation I sometimes feel, I know he’s there and all I’ve got to do is call him. It helps to know you’ve got a true mate to help you go through.”
Lesbians get it too
Lesbians are the invisible component of the HIV-positive population. The U.S. government doesn’t even bother to track infection rates among them. This systemic lack of interest led to a nightmare scenario for Martha Lang, now a 45-year-old sociology professor in Greensboro, N.C.
By the time she was diagnosed, Lang had made numerous visits to doctors and specialists in Richmond, Ind., where she was then living. She was wracked with illness and already in full-blown AIDS, suffering from a life-threatening combination of pneumocystis pneumonia, thrush and dementia. She says no one thought to test her for HIV for so long because she’s “white, over-educated and a lesbian.”
Lang was placed on the AIDS drug cocktail and her health was making a vigorous rebound when she went on her first date with Lisa Waldman, 43. (“I had 240 T-cells when we got together,” Lang says. “At one point I had 48. My latest count is 1,200.”) Still, she expected the worst when she revealed her status during that fateful Chinese dinner.
“It was very difficult,” she shares. “In my experience lesbians don’t do well with other lesbians where HIV is concerned. So, I kept looking down at my Chinese food waiting for her to freak out. That’s what had happened with the last woman I’d dated and I was pretty traumatized by it.”
However, Waldman, a counselor for an after-hours crisis hotline, took the news in stride. “I’ve been in the mental health and substance abuse fields since college in Rhode Island. One of the things I’d done there was HIV pre- and post-test counseling. I just looked at her and said ‘how are you doing?’ and we talked about it.”
Lang and Waldman became a couple in 2002 and married two years later in Massachusetts. They are out to their families about their relationship, as well as Lang’s HIV status. After a period of education and adjustment, both families are supportive, although Waldman’s elderly mother still hasn’t been fully disabused of her misconceptions.
“It doesn’t get talked about anymore except with my mom,” Waldman says. “Every time Martha catches a cold I get reminded to not share glasses, towels or soaps because I could catch ‘the HIV.’ I have to remind myself that mom’s 75 and she’s doing her best to understand. She’s better now than when we got together. I just have to keep reassuring her that I’m not going to catch it.”
To make good on that promise, the couple practices safe sex. “We used barriers in the beginning and we still use them now,” says Waldman. “ We don’t have unprotected sex, period.”
The biggest issue is that lesbian safe sex is an amorphous concept, explains Lang. “There’s not a lot of information on lesbian safer sex. I went to an HIV doctor who is a lesbian and she couldn’t give me an absolute answer. So, Lisa and I spent a lot of time talking since there’s not a clear categorization of risk.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) basically takes the position that lesbians can’t pass HIV to lesbians, and, in practical terms, Lang and Waldman say they have limited concern about sexual transmission. It’s another matter, however, when Waldman occasionally uses Lang’s toothbrush by mistake. “She lovingly yells at me and reminds me not to do that,” Waldman teases.
Today, Lang says maintaining her health is “a balancing act” between AIDS meds and the substantial dose of supplements she takes to counter their side effects. “People think you just take pills, but for me it’s a tightrope walk. I spent a good two years basically sitting on the couch because [AIDS drug] Sustiva just made me so stupid.”
Waldman’s steadfast understanding during that difficult period held the relationship together. “We practice unconditional love and she was so patient with me,” Lang recalls. “I was working part-time at Brown [University] teaching one course and struggling with the mental side effects and the gastrointestinal nausea stuff. Lisa did more things, like managing the housework and the household finances. Instead of 50-50, she did more than her share.”
Though both women work full-time now, HIV still exacts a significant toll on their finances due to the costs of the supplements and medical co-pays for Lang. “We’ve been having to have some blunt conversations about that,” Waldman reveals.
Despite the attendant challenges to health and livelihood and the uncertainty of the future, which is exacerbated by Lang’s inability to get life insurance, both partners believe their lives have been enriched and their bond as a couple strengthened by their magnetic relationship.
Lang says, “Having faced down death and knowing nobody realistically knows how long you live with this disease, my perspective is not sweating the petty or minor stuff. Just being with Lisa and us being happy together is my focus.”
“This experience has taught us how to live simply and recognize what is important,” Waldman adds. “People who know us see that we have something pretty special here.” : :
— Feature photography (Kiser, Witt) copyright Jimmy Cobb, JC Digital Photography Works.