The Positive Side

Fall/Winter 2005 

Sexual Healing: Interview with Danielle Layman-Pleet

Interview by Darien Taylor


Peer Network Coordinator
Diagnosed with HIV in 2001

I identify as queer. I used to have relationships with men, but I came out around the same time I was diagnosed with HIV. It was interesting to deal with those two things at the same time.

Are you in a relationship now?

I’ve been with my partner for about four years. We got married about a year ago. We have our ups and downs like every relationship, but it’s a good relationship.

HIV has been something we’ve had to negotiate around in our sex life and our emotional life. Initially, I had to go through a waiting period for her to decide, it felt like, whether I was worth it, in relation to me having HIV. Would the HIV win or would my personality win? HIV isn’t something she was used to having to deal with. Lesbians don’t tend to see HIV as part of their reality. It’s not something they often talk about.

Not only was I having my first serious relationship with a woman but I had to negotiate sex and figure out what’s safe and what’s not. Because there’s such a lack of information around safer sex for women who are with women, my partner had a lot of fears around transmission that sometimes weren’t realistic. So I had to find the information and reassure her, but I didn’t have anything to back up what I actually thought was realistic in terms of transmission. For instance, there isn’t much information around oral sex for women. We hear it’s low risk, but it’s a confusing space to be in when you’re negotiating around that stuff.

I told my partner I didn’t want to be the only one providing her with this information. She needed to do her own research and talk to other people. I didn’t want her to feel that I had some kind of agenda. I think the onus is often on the positive person to be the educator. But, at the same time, people need to find out for themselves because each of us is comfortable with different levels of protection. What’s right for me isn’t necessarily going to be right for someone else.

How did this all affect your sex life?

Sometimes we wouldn’t have sex or we’d stop because I felt like she wasn’t comfortable doing certain things. That was hurtful sometimes, especially in the beginning of my diagnosis because I felt kind of poisonous around sex and being touched, almost like I didn’t have a right to be sexual. Some of it was me projecting my feelings about myself onto her and feeling shitty about my body and sexuality. And she didn’t want to hurt me by saying she was uncomfortable.

Now my partner and I check in with each other from time to time. I’ve had to say to her, “I feel like we don’t ever talk about HIV and that’s weird for me because it’s such a big part of my life.” I live with HIV and work in the community, and yet I don’t talk about it with her very much. So I make sure we do. I’ll bring home an article for her to read or I’ll try to bring up how I’m feeling about stuff. If there’s tension around sex, we try to talk about it.

How did you deal with coming out and finding out you had HIV at the same time?

When you’re first coming out, under usual circumstances it can be a chance to explore different people and try different things sexually. Being diagnosed with HIV inhibited that in a lot of ways because I was scared of infecting other people and of how people would react. I felt that I couldn’t have sex without disclosing because there’s so much guilt around it, whether or not you use protection. I told my partner I have HIV on our second date because I wanted to get the rejection over with.

Ever since coming out, my sex life has gotten better. Sex with women made that happen as well. I feel comfortable being a dyke and being with a woman and feeling solid in my relationship. Also, that stuff around early diagnosis and feeling poisonous and ashamed about my body has for the most part dissipated, which has made sex a lot better.

Where did you access support and safer-sex info?

There isn’t a lot of support in the lesbian community around HIV. Women with HIV are pretty invisible in a lot of ways. As I started to tell some of my queer friends, I realized they didn’t know much about HIV.

On the flip side, a lot of the workshops on safer sex don’t focus on woman-to-woman transmission or sex. In HIV support groups, at first I didn’t feel comfortable talking about being a dyke because I wasn’t sure how it would be perceived by other women with HIV.

So I didn’t have much support. But four years later, I’ve found a handful of other lesbian and bisexual women with HIV. It’s great to have social relationships with them and have a bit of a community. Having the peer support — hanging out, joking and laughing about sex, and celebrating the fact that we are sexual and have sex lives even though it’s complicated — has been so important for me. I think it’s great to celebrate sexuality when you’re a positive woman because it’s something that’s not acknowledged a lot. Also, Voices of Positive Women, where I work, is a queer-positive space.

How is your health?

Really good. I haven’t had any health scares yet. I’ve decided to try to stay off meds for as long as I can; I’ve never taken them. My CD4 count has stayed pretty stable around 350. I’m doing some alternative therapies: I see a naturopath and do acupuncture, take supplements when I remember, and try to get lots of exercise.

Have you had any health problems that affect your sex life?

I don’t feel very sexy when I have a yeast infection. Sometimes sex can kind of irritate that stuff and make it happen more frequently. We’ve had to figure out how to be creative—sex toys are definitely a fun way to have safe sex. When I get a yeast infection, I use this stuff from my naturopath called Megadophilus (a really strong dose of acidophilus in a vaginal and oral capsule) that clears it up. I try to avoid sugar and alcohol when I feel something coming on. Yogurt’s good. I’m all about the natural remedies these days.

Do you have any final thoughts on sexual dysfunction in the context of HIV?

I have a problem with the phrase sexual dysfunction. We all have different experiences that contribute to the way we feel about our bodies and sexual identities. Some of us have been raped or been through sexual abuse or have come out — all kinds of things. An HIV diagnosis can be part of that as well, and I find the whole idea of labeling these things as “dysfunction” kind of problematic.

Of course these experiences are going to affect the way you experience sex and express yourself, and I think that’s sexually a really normal response. To be pathologized isn’t helpful. Immediately I think of those kinds of sexual diagnoses and my mind jumps to “medicate.” I don’t think that’s always the answer for people. It makes you feel like you’re a freak for feeling a certain way or responding in a certain way to stuff that’s happened in your life.

I think sex can be a really powerful place for people to heal some of that stuff and to connect with other people and feel good about their body. Everybody deserves to have a good, healthy sex life, and that’s their choice, too. Love your body, if you can. Sex is an important part of all of our lives, and it’s important to make sure you have an outlet to express what makes you feel good and not just what makes your partner feel good.

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Photo: Jacob Peters