When looking at the lives of black men who love men, where do you stand on relationships? Do they, can they, have they worked for you? What is your overall feeling about black male relationships based on your experiences thus far?
Erik Chambers: It seems like a relationship is what we're all searching for... and I think (for gay men) that's mainly because LONELINESS is the thing we (as gay men) fear the most... sometimes I'll go to the bar for happy hour and see these 50, 60-year-old men on the HUNT, and I think to myself, "I hope I'm not still out here looking when I'm that old"... I'm sure I'm not the only "youngster" thinking that. A lot of us make choices to engage in bad/unhealthy relationships because we're scared to be alone; we think that there must be something wrong with us, if we're not "claimed". I've had two relationships (with men) in my life. The first lasted two years, and the second is two-and-a-half-years and counting. The first was so bad, that I was a self-imposed bachelor for four years after I had escaped. I left that relationship as a shell of the person that I was, and it took four years for me to reclaim my esteem, my worth. My second - and current - relationship definitely has its ups and downs as well, but my current boyfriend is more commitment material than the first. And, because I love this man more than any other before him, I find myself more willing to repair what's broken, instead of walking away and "bailing" as I'm so often accused of doing.
Monte J. Wolfe: I definitely think they're possible. Although they've been in the minority, I've seen numerous examples of healthy, functional romantic partnerships between black men. Personally, I've had about three positive examples of relationships that 'worked'. That of course is not to say they're weren't without their challenges, but we made them work. Although I've dealt with more 'knuckleheads' or guys who were not at the same place I was in regards to relationships, I'm still pretty optimistic about the possibility of them working to, and for my benefit. I'm just clear now that both people have to be in the same 'place' in terms of their desire to make it work.
Tim'm West: I've had my share of bad relationships, but I'd prefer to see them as growth opportunities. There's far too much of the "where are the good black men?" syndrome among same gender loving brothas; and I am perhaps fortunate enough to be constantly surrounded by brothas who are nurturing, supportive, wonderful men, so I get a bit annoyed with the question. Relationships are not for everyone; and sometimes people are made to feel like there's something wrong with choosing to be single. Being the hopeful romantic that I am, the answers to my relationship woes have required taking a closer examination of my relationships with all men in my life: my father, brothers, friendships (straight and gay), and previous romantic partners. I don't think that the way we operate in one situation is completely disassociated from the other(s); and that there are patterns that are consistent across all. I recently battled through a personal crisis in a relationship and wasn't sure I would survive the pain it created; but at the end of the day I think I made truthful, responsible, and honorable decisions. As best I can, I own my issues and work daily not to repeat mistakes. But I also realize that I'm human. The language of the heart is a complicated one—it's much easier to say what you would and wouldn't do for love in the abstract; but when that moment comes, you simply do the best you can. I'm involved pretty intensely now, so I'm just trying to hold my end of the bargain and BE a good partner. I'm experiencing great happiness with someone who is, among other things, my best friend.
How important is it to you to create your own model/idea for how your relationships should work? Do you feel that it serves us as black same gender loving men to attempt to facilitate & maintain healthy, loving relationships based on heterosexual relationship models?
MJW: I think creating my own model for how a relationship should look, work and feel for me is paramount. Initially I have to hold a clear and concise idea about what it is that I seek, and what I deserve. From there, once involved in a situation with another man, I feel the responsibility lies with US to communicate to one another what it is we seek for the relationship to be for the two of us. I think oftentimes our childhood & family experiences as well as many other factors tend to seep into our subconscious, and when we go into a same sex dating or relationship situation, it's oftentimes uncomfortable because we're trying fit a 'circle peg in a square hole' so to speak. If it doesn't make sense to YOU, it jus ain't gonna work.
TW: Each relationship is different. I always appreciated that about gay relationships - the potential to create your own set of expectations with each other instead of adapting to a heterosexual script of how things should be, who should be the breadwinner, etc... Those scripts don't work for most heterosexual relationships so why would they work for us? I certainly think that successful relationships between black men require an open communication about how to design it's success; and that's a multi-layered and (r)evolutionary process.
EC: The 'ros have a divorce rate of 50%, right? So I certainly don't think it's worth our time to model our relationships after theirs. By their own account, the 'ros certainly don't have the copyright on successful relationships.
Since all three of you are HIV positive, what are your thoughts about relationships as it relates to your being a poz individual? Do you exclusively seek out positive men for dating & or relationships, or are you open to having dates/relationships with HIV negative men as well? Are your current feelings about this issue at all different from what they were when you were an HIV negative individual?
EC: I've never dated anybody who knew or disclosed to me that he himself was HIV +. In fact, for a long time, I DISCRIMINATED against other poz guys: if they were poz, then I didn't want to date them. Most I felt that way mostly because I didn't like me as a person, and whatever I didn't like in myself, I didn't like in others. I've gotten over that particular issue, but because my boyfriend is negative, I've still never been in a relationship with a poz guy. If my current relationship status changes, I'll be open to dating other poz guys, faSho.
MJW: Because I've only tested positive less than two years ago, I'm still fleshing out how this whole thing looks for me. Since I've only recently stepped back into the 'dating game, I tend to be pretty open in terms of the kind of guys I meet. Some guys have been positive, some have been negative, but I'm not actively seeking out one type or another. I'm much more concerned with the level of willingness of the other individual to communicate in order for us to better understand, accept, and love one another. Prior to testing negative, my feelings about this really were the same as they are now. I dated someone who is positive years ago, and had a pretty good experience, so I was always and still try to be "open".
TW: After I first tested POZ I idealized a relationship with another POZ brotha. We'd help each other through the anxiety and psychological stuff that comes along with the dis/ease. I realized quickly how crazy that was. I'd always been open, not to dating a POZ or negative brotha, but dating a GOOD brotha...so often, they were HIV Positive. I was infected by someone who believed that they were negative, not someone who was fully disclosing a POZ status. My current relationship is with someone who is HIV negative. His daily support and encouragement means a great deal to me. He reminds me that I don't go through stuff, rather, "we" go through stuff"...so in essence he carries that identity alongside me. And I'm sure that's a challenge for him, given people who think, "why would you play jeopardy with your life?" But nothing makes me more proud than keeping dude safe; and I think he has a pretty damn good life because I work hard at keeping it that way. Would it be easier dating someone else POZ? Sometimes I think so. But I also know that it's hard enough to find great compatibility and avoid dysfunction in relationship.
How has the HIV/AIDS pandemic shaped, influenced, or affected your outlook on dating & relationships (if at all)?
EC: When I first found out that I was HIV+ 13 years ago, I viewed myself as "damaged goods". And to a certain extent, I still do to this day. This is an issue that I constantly struggle with, and it certainly hasn't been resolved (yet), but I can say that I have a healthier perspective on it now than I did then, because HIV is so prevalent now, that most folks - 'ro or 'mo - have at least some personal association with it. But, to be honest, I do feel like being HIV positive is yet another strike against me, and would provide a convenient "out" for my boyfriend, in the event that he ever does want to end our relationship.
TW: Unfortunately, in the past, it led me to make decisions about relationships prematurely. There's sometimes this sense that there isn't enough sand in the hourglass for me. I took incredible risks romantically because, at various points, I felt that the likelihood of someone being okay with my being positive, and therefore choosing to love me in spite of it, was slim to none. I made some bad choices because I was so terrified of dying alone and without my dreams of a life partnership fulfilled. As I have grown more comfortable in my skin and more confident in being healthy (7 years now), I realize that I don't want someone to love me in spite of HIV but because I have HIV. Being POZ isn't all I am, but has become an inextricable part of how I live my life: spiritually, professionally, creatively, and romantically. I would not be the same me if I were not POZ. One who will love me well will love all of me and not require that I compartmentalize my HIV status into the tiny shame and stigma-laced box that is the root of lots of emotional pain.
MJW: It's definitely given it more 'texture'. In this day and age, it can't help but to play a part in everything. My biggest fear for years was contracting HIV, so now that I've come to grips with the diagnosis and have learned how to LIVE with it, it has enabled me to be completely free of fear (in the largest kind of sense). Another good thing that I think can come out of the presence of HIV/AIDS in our lives and communities is that we can, if we choose to, strengthen our level of love, compassion and communication.
Have you or would you ever live with someone you were in a relationship with?
MJW: No, I haven't up until now, and I don't know if I would. I feel like that is something two people really have to build up to.
EC: I have, and I would again. As long as there are at least two bedrooms in our living situation, then I would definitely live with my mate. A one-bedroom living situation is almost always a recipe for disaster, 'cuz folks - 'ro or 'mo - sometimes need their neutral corners.
TW: I have before. I will again. There's a very beautiful synergy when two people can inhabit space together and share various aspects of their lives together. I'm a romantic like that, so I have always actually prepared for that time. This time, at least I have spent good time only dating my partner and living separately, so I feel comfortable with the transition we're making.
When talking about disclosure, where do you stand? How soon into the process of 'getting to know someone' do you disclose your HIV status?
MJW: Nowadays, it's something I bring up pretty early on...LOL...It really can't help but to come up given my involvement in Brave Soul Collective. Outside of that, the few times that I met people before BSC emerged, I was much more hesitant to disclose off the bat. I was very uncomfortable with my status and afraid that if I disclosed, the person might run. I think to avoid that possibility altogether, I just didn't date period. But it is my prayer that we can begin to have these discussions surrounding disclosure without feeling stigmatized, or ashamed. The HIV/AIDS pandemic unfortunately, is a reality in all of our lives and should be able to be discussed openly, honestly, and lovingly.
TW: As soon as I acknowledge that there is sexual chemistry brewing and the potential for it to actualize, it's time to say something. Because I've been out publicly so long, many people know already; but I have learned not to take that for granted. But tell people when they are sober. I had an awful incident where I disclosed, played safe, and dude acted like he didn't remember the conversation the next morning. He apologized later, but that was the last time anything like that would happen. I was pretty sore about that, because I don't take disclosure lightly. It's too hard a thing to do for someone to "forget".
EC: I'm a firm believer in the power of pre-emptive full-disclosure. I've witnessed in my life, and in many others' lives, that complete honesty about my sexuality, or my HIV status, or ANYTHING, for that matter, has - more often than not - positively influenced how someone views/treats me. As individuals, we all possess the power to affect other folks' perceptions in the subtlest - and the most extreme - of ways. For example, being comfortable with what I choose to share has almost always been the most successful disclosure approach for me. Conversely, being UNcomfortable with what I share has usually led to a less-than-desired reaction from the recipient of the message.
What are your usual methods of meeting people? As it pertains to places to meet brothas, what are your likes, dislikes?
EC: I don't have "usual" methods of meeting guys: I met my current boyfriend online; I met my ex at a club; and, I've met the guys in between everywhere from through mutual friends to the popular "cruise spots". IMHO, the method for meeting a mate doesn't indicate the course that the relationship will take as much as the mindset of the individuals involved does.
MJW: Over the years, I've met guys in all kinds of instances. This is one of those places where its markedly different for us as opposed to heterosexual people. It's a lot harder to meet guys in everyday situations and settings although it does happen pretty often now. As for clubs, I've found that people I've met in that setting aren't generally people I wind up having substantial, worthwhile, long term dealings with. I don't really enjoy the club scene anymore, so I'm not that optimistic about those kinds of meetings, unless of course I went there looking for something specific, like say...sex. I've met most guys in the last 4-5 years online, either from places like yahoo, aol, or sex/dating sites like men4now or adam4adam. These have been tossups. In some cases, I've met great people, some which I wound up dating and even having relationships with, and on the flipside, I've met my share of knuckleheads. The last thing I'll say about this issue is that most of the 'good ones' I've met, I didn't go looking for; I wasn't at a club, or online when I met them. We kind of found each other.
TW: I've used personals, but those have created more friendships for me than anything. With one exception, every relationship I've been in has required me to be social (yes, up in the club or a party). I seem to always know. There's something about that in-person connection that's pretty magical. Then you have to get over the magic and get on with the work, the friendship, the part where you are truthful with one another because you want to fully know what you're dealing with. My experience with online stuff is that people often reveal the person they think people will like, instead of the person they truly are.
Gay Marriage: YEA or NAY? As it relates to your relationship experiences, is this issue one of importance to you? Do you seek to have this kind of union, or are you primarily concerned with the matter of rights & benefits that are generally associated with gay marriage?
TW: Hell yeah! I'd like to marry my partner someday. I think about the more than 1,000 rights that come with "marriage" that you don't have to pay lawyers or make extra provisions for. For example, if I ever got sick, I'd want my guy to be a primary decision maker about my well-being. I'd want my family to be legally obligated to respect his wishes. It's not so much that I'm terribly invested in the institution, but I do have an interest in protecting my partner's rights to have everything a heterosexual would expect. The institution of marriage isn't going anywhere, why not ensure that if it's going to exist, that it's fair.
MJW: Gay marriage, to ME- is not really a priority. I've always felt that whether it was with regard to a gay or straight couple that needing to have a piece of paper from the state in order to validate a union was pointless. I just feel that it is up to the two people involved to provide the 'validation' of their union. I do recognize that there are financial benefits associated with marriage that are important, like health & life insurance, taxes, etc. With regard to that part, I do feel that gays should be afforded the same legal and financial rights as heterosexual people.
EC: I would like to be afforded the RIGHT to be married, IF I ever choose to be. I have no way of knowing if I will ever want to get married (legally), but having the right taken away from me before I even have the opportunity to use it is discrimination, plain and simple.
What challenges do you typically face when it comes to the issue of dating and relationships with other black men and how do you tend to deal with them?
EC: I hate the "getting-to-know-you" phase of any relationship. It's like a job application, with even slimmer chances of getting hired.
MJW: Lack of communication tends to be the number one problem I have. Being able to communicate and articulate ones feelings, thoughts, desires, and fears is of the utmost importance to me. I have come to understand the liberation that comes along with expressing one's self. I feel like once that is in place it makes it easier for the two people involved to show one another love and affection. Which has, in the past been a 'pet peeve'/issue for me. I think a man who isn't afraid to show his true feelings, regardless of how vulnerable they make him seem, is one of the sexiest things in the world to me. I try to deal with all these issues by being as effective a communicator as possible. I also do a healthy amount of self examination of me and my own hang ups, issues, and sore spots, so that I can heal and be as loving and open as possible to myself and all others.
TW: My partner and I have no secrets. It's a pretty special thing to be that open with one another, but many fear doing so. As has been said, communication is key, but it also requires a level of honesty and integrity that many who are involved shy away from. I'm not looking for reasons to breakup with my partner, I'm looking for daily evidence that we remain very much in love with each other. Insecurity is a monster that feeds off past fear and pain. Sometimes optimism and confidence that each party is always, already enough makes a big difference. I try to wake and rest each day feeling like we are both very blessed to be in each other's lives.