Kathy Jacobs-McLoyd didn't expect to fall in love with someone with HIV. But when the man she had recently spent time volunteering with in Kenya sent her a six-page love letter, she opened up to the possibilities.
"One day early on, I turned to look at you or say something and my heart just kind of skipped a beat, it fluttered in my chest … and just as quickly rose to my throat leaving me momentarily speechless," Peter McLoyd wrote.
Within six months, they were married. Now, they are among the country's growing number of HIV serodiscordant couples — or, more simply, "magnet couples" who are attracted to each other even though one partner is positive and one is negative.
As the HIV epidemic moves into its third decade, people who are infected with the virus are living longer, healthier lives, public health officials say. As a result, they are dating, falling in love and forming families, sometimes with a partner who does not have the virus.
Their stories underscore the power of love to conquer fear. But such relationships can bring significant emotional challenges.
For the person without HIV, there is constant worry about the health of his or her loved one. For the positive partner, there is the fear of unintentionally passing on the infection. And for both, there is often anxiety about how friends and family will react to the relationship.
Jacobs-McLoyd, 56, was moved by the love letter she received, but it went unanswered for several days. She knew McLoyd had HIV — he became infected as a result of intravenous drug use about 10 years ago — and she wasn't sure she could get involved.
"Did I want to? Could I? What does this mean?" she remembers nervously asking herself.
In the end, she decided not to let a virus get in the way of love. The couple sealed their commitment with a City Hall marriage in 2004, followed the next year by a traditional African ceremony in Kenya.
"I knew him already," she said. "I knew his character; people loved him. I thought he was a good catch. He was good-looking and sexy, and I thought, 'Why not?'"
In some cases, the HIV-negative person goes into the relationship not knowing their partner is infected — either because the information is not disclosed right away or it is not yet known. The eventual disclosure can be an emotional land mine.
During the dating stage, the biggest hurdle for the HIV-positive person is when to tell the prospective partner, said Celeste Watkins-Hayes, an HIV- AIDS researcher and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.
Later, as the relationship becomes more committed, couples often worry about whom to trust with the information, she said.
That issue can remain a sticking point until the couple come to an agreement about which family members and friends should be told, said Rae Lewis-Thornton, an HIV-AIDS activist in Chicago who has lived with the virus for 24 years.
"For many people, it is a difficult relationship because it comes with guilt on the infected person's part. There is always this layer of stigma and shame, which is very real in this country, particularly in the black community," said Lewis-Thornton, who was married to an HIV-negative man for four years before divorcing. "That is a barrier that must be overcome before couples get to a really good place and can be comfortable."
Joann Montes, 46, of Chicago, said her boyfriend of eight years doesn't want to tell his family she is infected. As she has become more open about it — she was featured Monday in the Tribune in a story about living with HIV — the public disclosure has put more strain on their relationship.
"We were friends before we dated and he knew about my status, that was never a problem," she said. "The problem came when other people found out we were dating. There were friends who thought it was not a good idea for him to be dating me. They made comments like: 'You can do better than that.'"
The remarks stung, especially because she was trying to come to terms with her HIV, she said.
Such couples also face the challenge of protecting the uninfected partner during sex.