“I’m 24, a Gemini and Casually Dating—Oh, and I’m HIV-Positive”

Muluba Habanyama was born HIV-positive. Today, the 24-year-old isn’t letting her status define her—or her dating life

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dating with hiv: A young black woman sitting on a chair outside and smiling at the camera, wearing a black blazer and black shirt

(Courtesy of Muluba Habanyama)

When I was 13 years old, I remembering telling myself, “I haven’t even kissed a boy and I have an STI.”

That’s how the kids in my class and I were taught about HIV, an infection that I’ve had since birth.

I am more than the girl with HIV. A bit about me: I’m 24, living in the Greater Toronto Area and a Gemini who works as a freelance journalist. I was born HIV positive. My mother contracted HIV after my father had several affairs, and she was unaware of her status when she got pregnant, gave birth and breastfed me. We both found out that we were HIV positive when we came to Canada in 1995. I was two years old. 

Over the years, I have learned to accept my status and love myself—but finding partners who feel the same is not always easy.

My teen years were a bit different than my classmates’ because, on top of my studies, they also included travelling to England to bury my father and caring for my mom, who was in and out of the hospital and passed away in 2012 from cancer. Between dealing with all these “adult things,” dating was far from my mind. The idea seemed unattainable, and to be honest, a bit scary.

Disclosing my status would mean disclosing my mother and father’s statuses, and I would never do that. On my first real date when I was 16, I wore green (though I now realize that red is more my colour) and we went to watch Transformers. I had the normal first-date jitters, plus this feeling that somehow he would know I am HIV-positive. I was not ready to trust a teenage boy with that information. I wondered what would happen if the whole city found out. Would that force my family and me to pick up and leave? I wondered if he told his family they might think I was “dirty.” Or think my parents were. I was not open with any of my peers, even my high school best friend who caught me crying a few times. When my parents died, I didn’t tell people why either.

First dates often morph into HIV/AIDS Q&A sessions—and that doesn’t always leave room for romance

I tend to be into older dudes. I’ve also been told that I’m “really mature” and “act older than I am,” which I choose to view as compliments. You see, the problem with dating guys my age is that instead of a date, our dinners often morph into an HIV/AIDS Q&A session once they learn my status. The teacher-student situation doesn’t really leave room for romance.

I was working at an HIV/AIDS awareness information fair in Toronto and met a student who was my age. He pretended to be into the pamphlets but was really interested in me. When we went out for lunch later that week, I shared that I wasn’t just a volunteer but was also HIV-positive. He started asking questions about how I got it, about my most horrifying disclosure stories and any recent advances in medicine that might help me. I get it. He was intrigued. He had never met someone living with HIV (that he knew of), but I ended up playing the role of advocate instead of romantic interest. I felt like I should give him a pop quiz afterward. If I’m being honest, the fact that he didn’t know much about HIV probably turned me off a bit too.

And he wasn’t the only date to turn a romantic meal into a classroom session. I often get asked questions like: Does it get easier to disclose? As of right now, no. Do I have resentment towards my parents for “giving” me the virus? Long story short, no. I saw the pain and blame my mother had for herself, and even though my father and I had a strained relationship for reasons beyond HIV, he never intended for things to go this way. It takes too much energy to play the blame game.

I went public on YouTube with a video about my status, and it was a relief

If you Google my name, it’s not hard to find out I’m HIV-positive. I’m been publicly open about my status since I was 21. I disclosed on YouTube because I couldn’t fathom telling someone one-on-one at first—so instead, I told the whole world all at once. Even if my status wasn’t so public, whenever I go out with someone, I make sure that my date knows that I am HIV-positive early on. Disclosing my status sooner rather than later is something I do—not because I plan on sleeping with them right away (of course, if I did that would be OK too)—but because I don’t want either of us to get too invested unless we both know what we’re getting into.

On some LGBTQ dating sites, there is an option to check a box if you’re HIV-positive. After talking to a few people who use those sites, I realized a lot of people don’t feel comfortable disclosing that way. That it really is a conversation better to have in-person. I disagree. I am a straight shooter. Sometimes I want my status to be the first thing I bring up, like I’m wearing it on a shirt. However, sometimes I just hope that they’ve already read about it somehow.

A few months ago, I went on a date with someone I met through a colleague. My colleague didn’t disclose my status because he didn’t know if that would be out of line or not (for the record, I wouldn’t have minded). During the date, we were talking about how I was going to be travelling for a health conference, and I blurted out my status. I looked for signs on his face of how he felt. He didn’t really give me any. I later found out that he had seen an article about me in the Toronto Star, and he was cool with it. We went out again, and again. For a few months, actually. When we eventually broke up, and it had nothing to do with my HIV, but rather that he was older (duh) and ready to settle down and I wasn’t in the same headspace.

Because I know you’re wondering: Let’s talk about sex

One of the questions I’m often asked is: How likely am I to give HIV to a partner? For me, personally and according to a recent statement from Dr. Theresa Tam, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, the answer is about 0 percent. My viral load (i.e., the amount of HIV cells in my body) is undetectable. That’s not always the case for everyone who is HIV positive, but it is the case for me.  Because of that, it is nearly impossible for me to give anyone the virus. However, the sex talk is not just about me. When it comes to sleeping with someone, I expect both of us to be honest with each other. I think people have this misconception that it is only an HIV-positive person’s responsibility to have their health in check. No. I would expect my partner to be tested for everything and for us to be open with each other. I have a great infectious diseases doctor who is always willing to have conversations with my partners and to make sure we are taking the right precautions. Otherwise, a condom is a girl’s best friend.

The truth is, I’m basically just like any other 20-something in Toronto. Having fun, going out and casually dating. The only difference is that while some people might have an ex that they’re worried to bring up, or some family drama they are afraid to delve into during those first few dates, I have those things plus HIV.

It may surprise some people to learn that HIV has actually helped me in many ways. I’ve met some amazing people who love me for me. I’ve been given amazing platforms to educate others, and I’ve learned to cherish my life. However, HIV has also taken a lot from me, including my both of my parents and, in a way, my childhood. But I refuse to let it take away my dating life too.

Related:
This 24-Year-Old Is Fighting HIV Stigma, One Meal at a Time
“Here’s Everything I Learned Dating with Breast Cancer”
The Bachelorette: Why Dean’s 1-on-1 Date Gave Me Flashbacks

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