Young People Navigate Relationships, Romance and HIV

Voice of America | July 27, 2012

In a recent article in Voice of America News, correspondent Suzanne Presto examines the many considerations and choices facing young HIV-positive people as they navigate the complicated world of relationships and love. EGPAF Ambassador Cristina Peña is featured.

 

WASHINGTON — Relationships and romance. They are tough to navigate for all young men and women, and they are even more complicated for young people who are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

HIV-positive youth who work with AIDS Alliance discussed disclosing one's HIV status at the International AIDS conference in Washington.

The exercise in this panel discussion: whether to disclose HIV status in a hypothetical relationship. Red means no, green means yes and yellow means maybe.    

There's a variety of responses in the scenario.

Jahlove Serrano, an entertainer from New York City, says there is a lot to consider. "Do I need to disclose this soon? Am I close to putting my partner at risk? Is our relationship ready for sex?" he pondered.

The young panelists have faced the dilemma about disclosing their HIV-status. "When I date, I openly disclose a soon as I meet somebody, just hoping they'll give me the same respect and tell me if they're dealing with anything else or anything I should be aware of that could probably compromise my health even more," Serrano clarified.

Cristina Jade Peña, who studies public policy in California, recalls the conversation with her first boyfriend, back when they were teenagers.  "I sat down with him and told him and it took a long time.  It was a long conversation and he picked me up for a date the next day and we've been together ever since," she recalled.

That's 11 years and counting.  It's proof that, with proper precautions, young people with HIV can have fulfilling relationships with partners who aren't infected.  

"As a teenager or as a young adult who is sexually active, HIV changes its meaning.  It's no longer just your disease," said Peña. "You have to be mindful of your partner or your potential partner, or at least that's the way I saw it at that age."

Dee Borrego, a transgender woman who lives in Boston, says disclosing can pose dangers and also complicate relationships. "There are a lot of things that can come along with it, like feeling pressure or feeling guilt or feeling anxiety.  It can be an overwhelming process," she stated.

These youth advocates were born in the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS was a new, baffling disease. They have lived with HIV for much of their lives, or, in Peña's case, all her life.  She was born HIV-positive.    

"My mom told me about my status when I was nine years old.  I asked my mom, 'Can I talk about it?' and at the time it was advised not to be open about your status," Peña explained.

She began to speak at HIV-related fundraisers away from her hometown in order to maintain her privacy.

Peña now devotes much of her time to educating people. "There's this in-between from a child to young adult and there's all these challenges and barriers and circumstances that aren't being addressed or I felt weren't being addressed enough," she said.

She's part of the first generation to navigate a lifetime with HIV. "What does it mean to be on antiretrovirals our whole life?  What happens to us with the side effects?  A lot of people can't answer these questions because there are no answers yet," Peña added.

Answers that could come from a young woman who doctors didn't think would live past age five.

"Then it was 18.  And, at this point, I'm looking at living until 99," said Peña. "I don't know if I want to live to 100, but 99 sounds like a nice number."

Nearly five-and-a-half million young people around the world are living with HIV, and almost half of all new infections are among people under the age of 25.