A few months after he learned that he was HIV-positive, Michael Mancilla decided he was ready to date again. So he placed personal ads in the Washington City Paper and the Washington Bladeunder the heading “Tainted Love.” Though one respondent thought Mancilla was just a big Soft Cell fan, the ad’s body text made his meaning clear: His personals persona was a “T-cell tease” with “more Aztec in his blood than AZT.” But both papers, Mancilla says, refused to print his final line”searching for someone to redefine the term ‘night sweats.’”
In the nine years since, the 41-year-old clinical social worker, a Northwest D.C. resident for a decade, has remained steadfast in his belief that serostatus shouldn’t be a barrier to sexual expression. “A lot of us have to work past the feeling of feeling stigmatizedor even taintedand it’s my belief that we have a right to have complete romantic experiences.”
It was Mancilla’s ultimate success in his quest for love and romance, in fact, that inspired Love in the Time of HIV, a guide to navigating the sexual politics of the post-AIDS era. “I myself was in a very loving relationship with someone else who was HIV-positive, and I wanted people to know that it was possible,” he says.
By way of interviews, personal experience, and sociological research compiled by Mancilla and co-author Lisa Troshinsky, the book documents the stages and permutations of a hypothetical relationship. Its seven chapters include “Tell and Kiss,” which unravels the issues surrounding revealing one’s status to a love interest, and “Love in Contrast,” which sketches out the potential bonuses and pitfalls of relationships between HIV-negative and HIV-positive partners.
Mancilla says his own positive status allowed him to build trusting connections with the more than 30 subjects who detail their quests for romance in the book. “A lot of people have written about HIV, and in a lot of ways, it’s like Margaret Mead studying the Samoans. At a certain point, the Samoans have to write about and study their own experience.”
Along with his relationship, Mancilla’s muse was awakened by the many HIV-positive patients he saw in group therapy. “A lot of the writing was done right around the time, and after, the new drugs had come out,” he says. “Now that they were living longer, they started to ask more of the questions of lifelike ‘How do I meet someone?’ ‘How do I tell someone?’ ‘Can I tell someone?’”
Since he started working on Love, in 1996, Mancilla has shaken off apathy and far worse. “I myself went through a couple of literary agents, a whole slew of rejections. A lot of people felt like, We’ve already done the AIDS book.” More tragically, Mancilla’s partner died. After taking some time away from writing to get emotional distance, he finally finished the book in August of this year.
Now that Love has been released, Mancilla, who confesses that he “overlearned the book business,” is finding it hard to shake the literary bug. After a long day at the office, he now stays up until midnight reading manuscripts for Greystone, the literary agency he recently founded. The fledgling firm already has three authors in its stable.
When he learned he was HIV-positive, Mancilla made a promise”a reverse deal with God,” he saysto help other people like himself, but he wasn’t sure exactly how. “That was of course before I had an agent,” he says. Josh Levin