POZ Exclusives : Drawn Together - by Casey Halter and Shanita Ealey

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July 1, 2013

Drawn Together

by Casey Halter and Shanita Ealey

Three more magnetic couples share everything—except HIV.

In the July/August 2013 issue of POZ, we spotlighted three serodiscordant (a.k.a. “magnetic”) couples—when one partner is HIV positive, and the other is negative. The three additional magnetic couples below also share what it’s like being in a mixed-status relationship. Although their stories are different, they all have one thing in common—they haven’t let the virus get in the way of falling in love.


Phil Hastings & Ron Tickerhoff


Phil and Ron

THEIR LOVE STORY 

From the very beginning, the romance between Phil Hastings and Ron Tickerhoff has been touched with a hint of old-fashioned nostalgia. Consider the night they first met in 1996, at an ’80s-themed Back-track night at a local music bar in Washington D.C., aptly named Tracks. They united on the dance floor through a friend of Ron’s whom Phil was “very casually” dating at the time. Little did anyone know, it would take just a few moves for the two partiers to fall head over heels for each other.

“I thought Phil was very handsome,” says Ron, now 59, on seeing his future husband for the first time more than 17 years ago at the now-shuttered club. He recalls jokingly—or not-so-jokingly—asking Phil’s date if his new acquaintance had a twin brother. Of course, Phil didn’t but at that point, the history between the two had already been written.

Phil, now 54, has a much more dramatic memory of the night. “When [Ron] walked through the door, there was a clap of thunder and the earth opened up and swallowed me and I was done,” he says. “I made sure I danced with him as much as I could that night.”

The couple says their connection was love at first sight.

THE POSITIVES AND NEGATIVES OF LIFE

When they first met, painful pasts had caused Ron and Phil to take themselves out of running for anything serious in terms of relationships. Ron had just broken up with a long-term boyfriend and was exploring life alone while taking care of his ailing father. “I hadn’t had the best luck with relationships prior to this one,” he says.

Phil’s story was a bit more complicated. After contracting HIV in the early ’80s and finally being diagnosed in 1986, he watched two of his partners die from opportunistic infections at the peak of the AIDS epidemic. In 1995, soon after he began taking his first medications and experiencing the harsh side effects from early drug cocktails, a third partner left him in the midst of his illness. “He told me the relationship was over because it was obvious I was going to die,” remembers Phil, who also assumed that it was only a matter of time before the illness took him. “I was absolutely not looking to get into another relationship.”

But that changed after he met Ron on the dance floor, and things fell into place for the couple relatively easily. Because of their mutual friend, both men were aware of each other’s backstories, and disclosure about Phil’s HIV status was a natural process. “I knew, even before I met Phil, that he was positive,” Ron says. “A lot of my friends were positive, and it never bothered me.”

Phil, after some rough experiences early on, decided to be very open with Ron about his HIV status. “Generally what I do, is let somebody know right away because it saves more heartache or frustration,” he says.

Luckily, Phil always seemed to maintain high CD4 counts, even before he started treatment, and he made a quick recovery as the ’90s and their romance pressed onward.
The couple married on their anniversary in 2006, a decade after they met. With treatment advances, an undetectable viral load and a lot of condoms, Ron and Phil lead a very happy serodiscordant relationship.

“We know we’re safe, and we know what we can do, which is actually a lot,” Phil says. “We also try to stay educated and up to date on everything.”

HAPPILY EVER AFTER ADVICE

Today, the couple still resides in Arlington, Virginia, and both are in very good health. They work full-time, Ron as a senior web administrator at the American Physical Therapy Association and Phil as a contracting officer for the Department of Health and Human Services. They go to the gym regularly, do yard work together almost daily and have also begun traveling the world together in their free time.

“We love to see other cultures,” Phil says. So far, the couple has visited Australia, Bali, Bangkok, Japan, Egypt and China together. To this day, Phil has never had an opportunistic infection resulting from the virus.

They say HIV isn’t a huge factor in their relationship. “Phil will get tired very easily sometimes, and I have to be very aware not to push him,” says Ron, but after a quick nap, even while abroad, Phil usually feels better and is ready to continue on with his day. “All-in-all, I don’t consider [HIV] a major challenge,” Phil says.

Their piece of advice for couples in love is simple: Communicate together and respect each other. Through painful memories, hard times and full recoveries, the couple continues to count their blessings for the life they have together.

“We plan for the future,” Ron says, “but we live for the day.”


Ben & Kasiah Banks

Ben and Kasiah

THEIR LOVE STORY

For some couples, it’s love at first sight. For Ben and Kasiah Banks, it was love at first conversation. “The first time we really talked, we talked until it was 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning—and we talked about everything,” Ben recalls.

The two met through a mutual friend at a church group in 1999. Ben was 20, and Kasiah a year younger. Even after Kasiah left their hometown of Fredericksburg, Virginia, to go back to college, there was no denying the connection between them. “We both knew very early that we were probably going to end up getting married,” Ben says. After dating for four and a half years, they finally wed on August 15, 2003. Why such a long wait? The answer is simple: Parents.

Kasiah’s parents helped financially support her by paying for her tuition fees—that is, as long as she remained un-hitched. But the couple used the time to get to know each other better, which built a foundation for their marriage that continues to flourish.

THE POSITIVES AND NEGATIVES OF LIFE
 
When Ben was 2 years old, he was diagnosed with cancer. But he beat it. Then, when he went to the doctor for a 10-year checkup of being cancer-free, he was diagnosed with HIV. He was 12. It was a day he would never forget. “I remember coming home from school and walking up the stairs and turning to see my mother on the edge of her bed crying,” Ben recalls. “Innocently, I ask her, ‘Mom, why are you crying?’ And she told me, ‘Well, the doctors called. You are HIV positive.’” He contracted the virus in 1981, from a blood transfusion. It was devastating news. “I immediately went numb,” Ben recalls. “I basically froze, and I collapsed into her arms.”

Even though Ben faced another battle, he felt at ease because he had the support of family and friends. “Surviving cancer prepared me for the battle of knowing that I had HIV,” Ben says. “I’ve always looked at each day that I live as a blessing.” It was this upbeat attitude that drew Kasiah closer to Ben. “He has always been very positive about living with HIV,” Kasiah says. “He never really dwelled on it. It’s just part of who he is. It is not what defines him. And I think that is what made me fall in love with him.”

Ben describes his disclosure to Kasiah as a “natural conversation. I didn’t have any hesitations, no reservations, no regrets in telling her. She openly accepted the fact that I had HIV,” Ben says. Kasiah says she was neutral to the news, mostly because of her lack of experience with the disease. “I was pretty naive to the whole thing, which turned out to be a blessing.” Kasiah’s viewpoint was also flavored by the fact that Ben had experienced few hospital visits and illnesses. “I had this healthy 20-year-old guy sitting in front of me telling me that he has this disease—but he looked like a normal 20-year-old man,” Kasiah recalls.

Kasiah’s parents were uncertain about their daughter’s relationship, particularly her risk of contracting HIV. To quell their fears, Kasiah and Ben made sure that her parents were educated. “That help put my family at ease somewhat,” Kasiah says, but then adds: “All that kind of got screwed up again when we decided to have a baby.”

Born April 15, 2013, Finley Elizabeth Banks has become Ben and Kasiah’s personal bundle of joy and, some would say, a little miracle. “We both knew that we wanted to have a family, though we didn’t know what that was going to look like initially,” says Kasiah, who is a nurse practitioner. Eventually, Ben and Kasiah decided on sperm washing and artificial insemination—which took five different attempts. Ben describes his experience as a new father as “pretty incredible.” Indeed, as Kasiah adds: “We got a beautiful healthy baby girl who is HIV negative.”

HAPPILY EVER AFTER ADVICE

In addition to his family life—the couple live in Ashland, Virginia—Ben works as a restaurant manager. When he reflects on his life, he is astonished by the hurdles he has overcome. Approaching their 10th anniversary, Ben and Kasiah are proof that love can endure in even the most difficult times.

“My biggest piece of advice is not to let your partner’s status be a defining point in your relationship. It is not what makes them who they are,” Kasiah says. Ben wants to remind everyone, regardless of status, that a special someone is waiting for them. “As a teenager, I wasn’t sure that there would be someone who could love me openly or unconditionally,” Ben says. He encourages those with HIV to make the most out of life. “I would say live, laugh and love,” he advises. “Live each day to the fullest. Laugh as much as humanly possible, love with all your heart. And that will help you find the ultimate happiness in life.”



Aaron Laxton & Phil Gill

Aaron and Phillip
THEIR LOVE STORY

It was Aaron Laxton’s birthday, and he’d been trying to get the attention of Phil, a cute local bar back, for a couple of weeks when he finally mustered up the courage to ask for Phil’s cell phone.

Phil, who had been purposely showing off his argyle-print briefs to the patrons, playfully asked Aaron why he needed it.

“So I can give you my number,” said Aaron, smiling at the young student bending over to wash dishes at the sink. It was the start of a friendship that would ultimately transform both of their lives in an unexpected way.

“I am always sure to wear cute underwear,” says Phil about that fateful night at work. “You never know when a hot boy might see them.” Phil says he was immediately attracted to Aaron’s outgoing nature, nice smile and sexy tattoos. Aaron noticed Phil’s uniqueness and maturity. The two quickly began to talk about the evening’s potential. But before he took the sexy stranger home, Aaron knew he had to clear the air.

“The night I put my phone number into his phone I disclosed,” says Aaron. It wasn’t something he had a lot of practice with—he had tested positive just a few weeks earlier. But Aaron, now a 34-year-old case manager for homeless veterans in St. Louis, had vowed to always disclose his positive status early to any potential partners. The strategy, he says, was to avoid the heartbreak and stigma that he, and other men with HIV, often experience with dating in the gay community.

For Phil, his initial attraction to Aaron made the disclosure less of an issue. “I really liked his honesty about his status. It actually made me respect him more,” says Phil, who is now 27 and pursuing a graduate degree in St. Louis.

In their nearly two years together, the two have become involved in the HIV community, quickly rising as a well-known AIDS advocacy team.

THE POSITIVES & NEGATIVES OF LIFE

Aaron was diagnosed with HIV on June 6, 2011, after developing a substantial drug addiction to uppers like Adderall and crystal meth the previous year. Although he’d used drugs recreationally for many years, he had begun to spiral out of control.

“I lost my job and was engaging in lots of risky behavior,” he recalls. “It resulted in lots of broken friendships, loss of job, losing my brand-new SUV and, ultimately, [contracting] HIV.”

By June of that year, Aaron had become symptomatic with swollen lymph nodes and severe fatigue. By the time of his first test, his viral load was close to a million with a CD4 count of 678. “I felt as if the world had stopped spinning,” says Aaron about the wake-up call. Then he met Phil.

The two didn’t begin dating seriously right away. But as Aaron took control of his addiction and got involved in the HIV community, the couple’s relationship also progressed, and they eventually fell in love.

Not that their magnetic relationship has been without challenges. They’ve decided against barebacking, despite Aaron’s fondness for condomless sex, and the two have had to work through their sexual compatibility quite a bit since first meeting.  

“While I was a little nervous and a bit uninformed about HIV, I decided it was something I was willing to learn about,” Phil says. Over time, the two realized that safer sex was “something [they] would need to be vigilant about.”

Also, because of his work with the Missouri HIV Anti-Criminalization Taskforce and the Stigma Project, Aaron is very cognizant of the legal considerations that come with his positive status. “In the state of Missouri, I could be prosecuted under exposure statutes,” he explains. Finding space for trust and honesty can often be difficult for someone placed in this position.

But as time has gone by “Phil has been very supportive of the things that are important to me,” says Aaron, adding that at the end of the day, “he always has my best interests at heart.”

HAPPILY EVER AFTER ADVICE

Aaron now attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings and has been clean from drugs for over a year and a half. He remains focused on his advocacy work. In late 2011, TheBody.com recruited him to contribute to a regular vlog talking about his experiences with the virus. His YouTube channel, My HIV Journey, now has over half a million viewers worldwide in more than 182 countries, garnering him a string of awards. He also serves on the boards for both the AIDS clinical trials group and the Global Community Scientific Subcommittee.  

Phil also takes part in AIDS activism, educating others and sharing his experiences. “With Aaron as active as he is in the HIV community, it’s difficult for it not to be a constant presence,” Phil says. “But it’s something we try not to let control the relationship.”

Their biggest word of advice for other couples? “Be honest with each other,” Phil says.

Aaron agrees. “Boundaries need to be set of what both partners are comfortable with doing and not doing,” he says, citing discussions about the exclusivity of intimacy or sex, and the specific effects of HIV on their relationship. “Only the people within the relationship can determine what is right within.”

Search: magnetic couples, serodiscordant, HIV, relationships, negative


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