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Love & HIV: A Relationship That Works!

By , 21, Contributor Originally Published: September 15, 2006 Revised: September 25, 2012

They say opposites attract, but can a relationship work when one person is HIV positive and the other is not? Shawn Decker, 31, who was infected with HIV through a blood transfusion at the age of seven, and Gwenn Barringer, 31, who is HIV negative, say that their different HIV statuses make their relationship stronger. These two, who live in Charlottesville, VA, have been a couple for eight years and married for almost two. They prove that love can be strong in sickness and in health.

The two met while attending a presentation given by Jeanne White, Ryan White’s mother, in 1998. (Ryan contracted HIV at age 13 the same way Shawn did and died of AIDS in 1990 at 18. He was one of the first kids to put a face on the disease.) Shawn related to Ryan’s story and thought it would be inspirational to attend the presentation. Gwenn attended because she was doing research for her graduate thesis on HIV. They clicked right from the beginning. Shawn says sometimes he looks back and wonders if maybe the spirit of Ryan White hooked them up.

Shawn and Gwenn now speak to students on college campuses, educating them about HIV/AIDS, and they have also appeared on major networks like MTV and HBO. Shawn’s first book, My Pet Virus: The True Story of a Rebel Without a Cure, published by Tarcher/Penguin, comes out this month. They spoke to Sex, Etc. about their experience, to show people that couples living with HIV can have a normal and loving relationship.

Sex, Etc.: When you first met, did you think a romantic relationship could happen, or was that out of the question because of Shawn’s HIV status?

Gwenn: It was not out of the question. I was lucky because I had done so much HIV research that I was more informed than the average person. It doesn’t mean I was running into [the relationship] with open arms. I definitely, definitely, had my concerns. We were friends for quite a few months before anything [romantic] ever happened, and over time I realized I’d be so silly to not try this relationship because Shawn is an awesome person and I really like him.

A lot of people think our relationship is unsafe, but it’s actually riskier for two people who don’t know their status to engage in sexual activity.

Sex, Etc.: Do you have to take more sexual precautions than someone in an “average” relationship?

Gwenn: I get tested for HIV more often than someone in an average relationship, but I think people should get tested more than they do anyway. We just use the male condom. If you use condoms correctly every time, it’s pretty difficult to transmit [HIV]. People also worry about things outside of sex, but it’s rare that I let Shawn near the kitchen knives (laughs).

Sex, Etc.: When you’re intimate, Gwenn, does it cross your mind that you could potentially get HIV? Shawn, do you fear passing it on?

Gwenn: Now, not at all. In the beginning, I was definitely more concerned about that and had that fear. But intellectually I knew how well condoms work if used correctly. We’ve been together for seven to eight years, and I’m still HIV negative. I think what we’re doing is working.

Shawn: I don’t have those concerns. Not because I don’t care, but because I’m confident that using protection works.

Sex, Etc.: Have you thought about having children?

Shawn: We don’t plan on having kids. If we wanted to, there’s a process called sperm washing, so we could have children biologically. It’s proven to be effective in not transmitting HIV to a negative partner, which makes it safe for the baby as well. It’s nice to know the option is there. We would probably just adopt, though. But we wouldn’t go crazy like Angelina and Brad! (Gwenn laughs.)

Sex, Etc.: Sperm washing?

Gwenn: It’s separating the sperm from the semen because HIV is really present in the semen, not so much in the sperm.

Sex, Etc.: What would you say to people who tell you that your relationship isn’t safe or healthy?

Shawn: Most of the time when people have confronted us with that, they are always less educated about HIV transmission than we are. I feel people who are adamantly against us having a physical relationship don’t have two legs to stand on because they’re not willing to listen to the data or research it. It’s important for me to be a living testament [and show] that people can do this. I think people with HIV need to know that they can have a relationship that works.

A lot of people think our relationship is unsafe, but it’s actually riskier for two people who don’t know their status to engage in sexual activity.

Gwenn: I think that Shawn and I have the healthiest relationship that I have ever known. Our level of communication is probably ridiculously better than most people. And some of that is because of HIV. We were forced to communicate about things like sex—things that people don’t want to talk about.

Sex, Etc.: Gwenn, what about your family? How did they feel about you getting into this relationship?

Gwenn: I grew up with my mom, and she definitely had some concerns. We talked about how the number one priority in the relationship was to keep me safe. She’d never met someone who was HIV positive before, at least knowingly, so she didn’t really know what to expect. A lot of people hear someone has HIV and picture a sick person who doesn’t have a normal life. But when she met Shawn, she realized he’s actually an amazing person, and they got along really well. I think that was a huge hurdle for her to get across. This wasn’t an overnight process, but now she’s just so happy that we’re happy.

Sex, Etc.: You both have a great sense of humor and ease about this whole topic, but are there any fears or concerns?

Shawn: Last year, I was in the hospital for a few days because I’d gone off my HIV medication, and that was when it hit me [that he could get really sick and have AIDS]. I wondered if I had been underestimating [the virus] because I’ve been living with it for so long. We have had moments in our relationship when it becomes painfully apparent that I’m not as healthy as I pretend to be sometimes.

Gwenn: In the beginning of the relationship, I had concerns about whether Shawn [would] be around forever, whatever that means. It’s not that I never have those moments now, especially after watching something on Oprah. Then I’m like, “Oh my God, you’re gonna die [from this],” and Shawn’s like, “Yeah, I am, at some point.”

I’m pretty optimistic. We know there are tons of medications that Shawn hasn’t been on and that could be really effective. There are all these new treatments coming down the pipeline. There is hope for a lot of people with HIV/AIDS now.

Sex, Etc.: So, Shawn, your road on this journey called life has certainly been interesting. How would you describe the impact being HIV positive has had on your life?

Shawn: This virus, ironically, led me to the love of my life and a lot of amazing people that I’m very fortunate to know. I do think that I wouldn’t have met Gwenn if I weren’t at that talk, and I wouldn’t have been at that talk if I hadn’t been able to relate to it. I remember when I was first diagnosed, thinking, ‘Am I gonna meet someone? Is HIV going to keep me from that?’ And the fact that speaking out about it led me to meet somebody who is my match is pretty interesting. I wouldn’t say I’m glad I got HIV, but what I am glad about is that I’ve had a support system in my life from the time I [was] diagnosed to now. I feel fortunate and almost spoiled by how much love I’ve had in my life.

Editors’ Note: Shawn and Gwenn make it clear that getting tested and having an open and honest dialogue with your partner can be the best thing you can do for your relationship. To get the facts about HIV/AIDS and find testing facilities near you, click here.

Are you interested in volunteering with an organization that is working to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States and abroad? Click here for a list of volunteer opportunities in the United States and here for opportunities abroad.

Photo via Acid Midget

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