World AIDS Day: People living with HIV share their powerful stories of dating, romance and sex

Pictured from left to right is Rebecca Tallon de Havilland, Joshua Royal, Nathaniel Hall and Ant Babajee, four people who are living with HIV. Each person is shown against an edited pink and red background.

HIV is no longer the virus it once was – but stigma and discrimination are still rife.

Back in the 1980s and for much of the 1990s, getting an HIV diagnosis was a death sentence – but that’s no longer the case.

Effective treatment now means that people with HIV can live long, healthy lives. It also prevents them from passing on the virus to others by reducing the viral load in their blood to an undetectable level. 

It’s safe to say that things have changed radically, but people with HIV are still having to contend with rejection and cruel comments. 

New research from the Terrence Higgins Trust has found that 74 per cent of people with HIV have faced stigma or discrimination due to their status. Alarmingly, 62 per cent of those surveyed reported experiencing discrimination in dating and sex. 

To mark World AIDS Day, PinkNews is sharing four people’s stories of dating, sex and falling in love, all while living with HIV. 

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Rebecca Tallon de Havilland

Rebecca Tallon de Havilland
Rebecca Tallon de Havilland found it difficult to find relationships because of her HIV status. (Provided)

Back in the ‘80s when Rebecca Tallon de Havilland was diagnosed with HIV, people took to referring to her as “the AIDS-ridden b***h”.

“It was a very lonely place to be,” Rebecca tells PinkNews. “Even friends were pulling away, family were pulling away.”

The stigma of having HIV – coupled with the stigma of being trans – ultimately prompted her to give up dating entirely. 

“I wasn’t sexually active most of the time, and any boyfriends I did have, they were kind of eye candy on my arm, really. It wasn’t a sexual thing, and I think a lot of trans women go through that anyway.” 

After she completed her medical transition, Rebecca got her sex drive back – but even then, she found it difficult to find relationships because of her HIV status. 

“I have had relationships with them knowing I’ve had HIV. I’ve had successful relationships and I’ve fallen in love,” she says.

I secretly would love to be in a relationship and I would love that my transness or my HIV-ness wouldn’t be an issue.

It’s now been 35 years since she received her diagnosis, and Rebecca is living her best life. She’s emerged as a tireless LGBTQ+ and HIV activist, and she’s on a mission to show the world that it’s possible to live well with HIV.

She’s now 64 and she’s currently single, but she’s still holding out hope that one day she’ll find romance and love again.

“I still come home to just two dogs, which I love and adore – don’t get me wrong – but it would be nice to have it to share with somebody. I’d be an atrocious liar if I said that I was totally happy with being alone.

“I secretly would love to be in a relationship and I would love that my transness or my HIV-ness wouldn’t be an issue.”

Ant Babajee

HIV activist Ant Babajee pictured wearing a red World AIDS Day t-shirt outside for the Red Run.
Ant Babajee says “A lot of HIV stigma is unspoken”. (Supplied)

Some of the worst stigma Ant Babajee has faced since he was diagnosed with HIV has come from gay men. 

When Ant contracted HIV in 2007, he was in a long-term, open relationship. Six months after he received his diagnosis, he and his partner decided to go their separate ways. 

“He wasn’t really able to voice it to me, but it completely freaked him out and he was scared,” Ant says.

“We’re still in touch as friends, and he takes PrEP these days.” 

After that relationship ended, Ant made the decision to only hook up with other guys who were living with HIV. That meant that his dating pool was “small”.

“Over the past decade I’ve done quite a lot of HIV advocacy and activism, and when speaking about living with HIV publicly, I often say I have faced some of the worst stigma from other gay men.

“A lot of HIV stigma is unspoken – profiles swiped left on, messages not sent and messages left unanswered.”

He continues: “I’m really open about my status on my profiles on dating apps, but I do sometimes question whether I shouldn’t go back into the viral closet for an easier life.

HIV is a lot less scary when you know about U=U and PrEP.

“That said, I know my visibility is really important – that’s what works best for me, and it feels important to me to be an example to others. I was really touched when a few weeks ago a guy I’d been chatting to on Grindr said to me that my openness about my status and U=U had encouraged him to share his status more widely too.” 

His message to those who still cling to harmful and outdated ideas about HIV is simple: “Information is power.” 

Ant explains: “HIV is a lot less scary when you know about U=U and PrEP. Anyone who’s been through an HIV diagnosis will likely understand a lot more about themselves and will be a lot more resilient and loving. 

“In short, people living with HIV make great friends and partners. We’re the same as you – just we happen to have a preventable and treatable virus.”

Joshua Royal

When Joshua Royal was diagnosed with HIV in 2015, he descended into a spiral of despair that led him to unfulfilling and damaging relationships.

“When I was diagnosed people looked at me as if I was a disease and a w***e who slept around with others – it made me lower my standards and lose self-worth and my dignity,” Joshua tells PinkNews.

“It was the darkest period of my life.” 

After receiving his diagnosis, Joshua started sleeping mostly with men who also had HIV, but he also hooked up with men who were deep in the closet.

The result was that he had a number of “totally toxic relationships” with people who were “living a life undercover”. Some of them were married.

When he tried to find more stable relationships on dating apps, people rejected him offhand because of his HIV status. 

“A lot of the ones I wanted to date on apps would see I was HIV positive and just block me,” he says.

That all changed in February when he met his now-boyfriend Drew.

He has fully accepted my past and loves me for who I am and he has done nothing but push me to be the best I can be. 

“He has been living with me since September – he is the most supportive, kind, understanding, funny intelligent and inspiring guy,” Joshua says.

“He has fully accepted my past and loves me for who I am and he has done nothing but push me to be the best I can be. 

“He is HIV negative and has friends that are HIV positive, so was already educated which was a blessing.” 

Nathaniel Hall

Nathaniel Hall in First Time.
Nathaniel Hall says when you have HIV-positive status people block you or don’t talk to you. (Lee Baxter)

It’s a Sin star Nathaniel Hall was only just getting to grips with the dating scene when he was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 16. 

“For me, I’ve lived my whole adult life with HIV and I’ve known nothing different,” he tells PinkNews.

Even so, he’s keenly aware that people have treated him differently because of his HIV status.

“People do interact with you differently, and dating is much, much harder. It’s a minefield.”

In the early days of his diagnosis, having sex felt like having “a live grenade in your hand all the time”, Nathaniel says

“That has a profound impact on your psychosexual wellbeing and how you feel about yourself.”

On dating apps, he’s faced all the usual stigma people with HIV experience.

“If you’re HIV positive, particularly on apps you get people that block you or they don’t talk to you, or talk to you then ghost you. 

“Also, if you’re not fully open about your HIV status you’re also trying to navigate when is the right time to tell somebody. 

“Do I need to tell somebody? I mean, the law in this country says that you must tell someone before you have sex with them that you’re HIV positive, but actually scientifically is there a reason why you need to? Probably not. So it’s very conflicting.” 

Today, Nathaniel is in a long-term relationship. His boyfriend Seán immediately helped put him at ease when they first met, and it’s been plain sailing ever since.

“There was something really nice that happened when I met Seán, who’s my current boyfriend,” Nathaniel says.

This weight just lifted off my shoulders.

“He knew I was HIV positive because he’d seen my show First Time which is all about my diagnosis with HIV and my life with HIV.”

Nathaniel still remembers how relieved he was when his boyfriend said he was taking PrEP.

“This weight just lifted off my shoulders – just completely lifted – and it reminded me how much of the weight of responsibility people with HIV carry all the time and how exhausting that is to hold that conversation for everyone,” Nathaniel says.

“He held that conversation for us and it was magical.”