This article first appeared on the website of OurAgenda.ca here.
I was asked to write about gay men and relationships, so I thought I’d do this by sharing my own.
My first relationship was with the first gay man that I met when I was 21 years old. Even though I knew I was ‘homosexual’ at age 15; growing up in small town Ontario did not feel like a safe place to ‘come out’ and for the longest time I thought I might be the only one.
I met my ‘first’ at a training while I was in second year university, which quickly led to my first sexual experience followed by moving in together just a few months later. We called ourselves ‘lovers’ in private and ‘roommates’ everywhere else. Our biggest battles were figuring out our ‘roles’. We had both been raised in homes with traditional roles of the mother doing all the housework. Figuring out who was supposed to do the dishes and the laundry (we each thought the other ‘fit’ that role) led to many arguments. After a couple of years we both felt restricted from exploring the other possibilities out there (i.e. men). This was the early ‘80s’ just before AIDS hit the scene. After some heart-ache we managed to become friends and still are.
My next relationship was a couple of years later after just a few brief connections with other men. This next guy was a much older man, in his forties and I was in my twenties. His idea of roles in relationship was even more archaic and after 10 months of being treated like an old-time housewife and a fair bit of emotional abuse, I ended it.
I was thinking of starting the next relationship with a friend my own age, who I had a lot in common with, but since my last partner’s ex-partner had just been diagnosed with AIDS I thought I should get tested for HIV. Instead of telling my friend that I had feelings for him, I had to tell him that I had just been given a death sentence. The year was 1986.
I managed to continue working and despite attempts to escape the reality by moving to the countryside for a year; I eventually returned to Toronto and started to go out again. I met my next partner in a gay bar. When I disclosed my HIV status he seemed to be hearing about HIV for the first time. Luckily he took to latex like a duck takes to water and the next few years were some of the best sex I’ve ever had. A few months into our relationship he told me that he had been diagnosed HIV negative. When I didn’t rejoice because I was concerned that it might mean I was putting him at risk; he admitted that he hadn’t been tested, but just thought that I wanted to hear that he was okay. Concerns about self-image (we had put on weight) negatively impacted our sex lives so we opened up the relationship.
Five years into the relationship I noticed him getting thinner and thinner. When asked he always adamantly said he had been tested and that he was still HIV negative. A part of me also went into denial because I didn’t want to believe he was dying. And then he lost his mind. He became manic and heard voices. I had him hospitalized and his parents let me have medical power of attorney so I insisted on his being tested for HIV. The doctor wasn’t going to reveal that his test came back positive until I insisted and gave them no choice.
The year was 1997 and Protease Inhibitors had just come out; I explained to the doctor that he had to start HIV meds or he would die. I had witnessed AIDS too many times by now to have any doubt about the outcome. The thought of him dying broke my heart and almost broke me. He survived.
The fact that he had lied about being tested has always bewildered me. How could someone let themselves risk dying without getting help? What bothers me more is that I still see it happening today. (If you’re reading this and haven’t been tested then please do so for yourself, for the people who care about you; and if for no other reason, then because you read it here). We parted ways a few years later and I had just started meds.
Several years later in 2003 I had a medical crisis where I almost lost my life. I was suffering with depression and made a suicide attempt that left me without an eye and a broken jaw. My fear around the stigma of being HIV positive kept me from disclosing, which led to an opportunistic infection that shut down my kidneys. I survived.
This experience led me to realize that I had been holding onto life-long thoughts of self-hatred. I decided to work on the most important relationship of my life; the relationship with myself.
People often say that you can’t love another until you love yourself. I think that’s bullshit. I think it is much easier to love another, when I didn’t even like myself. Accepting myself with all my flaws continues to be an ongoing struggle; just like any relationship, it takes work.
About the author: Rick Julien identifies as a gay man who was diagnosed HIV-positive 27 years ago. He works on gay men’s research projects (GPS with ACT and PSTD with PWA). He also volunteers with gay men at CAMH and the 519 Community Centre (Positive Routes to Recovery and GMAP, a recreational art program).