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Dating Service Fights Solitude of HIV-Infected : AIDS: Response to free offer is phenomenal, organizers say. Fear of rejection is lessened, say clients.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For too many, living with the AIDS virus has meant living alone.

Now, a Los Angeles organization has started a dating service for people with AIDS, or with the virus that causes it.

The response to the new service has been phenomenal, organizers say, tapping a need for companionship among those suffering through the uncertainty, pain and despair that comes with the virus.

It has been a week since the group sent out its first mailer to its confidential newsletter’s 9,000 subscribers.

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Since then, as news of the dating service has spread, hundreds of people from coast to coast have written to Being Alive, the nonprofit organization operating the dating service, and calls have flooded the office’s phone lines.

What started out as a local dating service modeled after a similar one in San Diego will be expanded to accommodate clients nationwide, said Warren Swil, a Being Alive volunteer responsible for entering the names of clients into a computer.

“We have to do some planning to try to deal with what is going on,” said Swil. “It is wonderful. I didn’t expect it to be this big so fast.”

The free service, called Connect, allows clients to look for friends, companions and even lovers without fear of rejection, which often comes when HIV-infected people tell potential dates that they have the virus.

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By the time the second newsletter goes out in mid-January, the number of people who have sent short biographies to the dating service will have quadrupled, Swill predicted.

The biographies will contain clients’ background, sexual orientation and interests.

Ferd Eggan, Being Alive’s executive director, said the service has struck a responsive chord because people with the HIV virus yearn for company, love and companionship more than most people.

“People with AIDS are living longer and reporting to us that they don’t need as much support in issues of grief and dying,” said Eggan, who tested positive for the virus in 1986 but remains healthy.

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“This will help people deal with their lives, to feel the hope and confidence they need to go on living and to lead joyful lives, as every person is entitled to,” Eggan said.

“Even if their physical capacity to experience love and companionship may, in time, be impaired or diminished,” Eggan said, “the psychic need is just as strong.”

In Los Angeles County, 13,647 people have contracted AIDS, and 9,534 of them have died from the disease, county Department of Health Services statistics show. At least another 36,000 people in the county have the HIV virus, health officials say.

Tony Morton, 31, one of the first to sign up for the service, wrote in his biography that he gives good foot rubs, likes going out to eat and to the theater, and is fond of country-Western dancing.

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Morton said he has seen a few men on the dating service’s list who look promising, and his biography has prompted a few responses. “Maybe I’ll call them on the phone,” he said, “and meet them for a cup of coffee.”

Several clients said the service has been successful because there is a common bond that comes from suffering, loss and diminished expectations.

“It’s a very lonely existence,” said Lauren, a successful film industry executive who said her social life all but disappeared after she tested positive for the HIV virus several years ago. Like others, she asked that her last name not be used.

“We are robbed of the opportunities of doing what we had hoped and dreamed of doing--having kids, a family,” she said. “When people find out you are HIV-positive, they don’t want to have a relationship with you. You could die on them, or possibly infect them.”

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Lauren is passing out flyers for the dating service to dozens of women who have the virus. These women are particularly lonely because there are so few heterosexual men who have tested positive for the virus and are available to enter into a relationship, she said.

“We’re not even talking about sex,” she said. “We’re talking about two people establishing a rapport and sharing the same fears and anxieties. This is an opportunity for a lot of people to have some pleasure and enjoyment in their lives.”

Some clients are merely looking for a companion to help them battle the disease. Others are looking for a sexual partner but fear a social climate that continues to blame those with the virus for the spread of AIDS.

Eggan cited proposed legislation in Sacramento calling for a prison sentence of up to four years for anyone who exposes someone to the virus through unprotected sex.

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Not all the responses to the dating service have been positive. Eggan said one caller read him Romans, out of the New Testament, saying the dating service “is a sinful thing to do.”

But the vast majority of calls have come from potential clients, most of them gay men.

“The news of this service is the best Christmas present I could get,” wrote Clay, from Palm Springs. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re right up there at the top, with Santa!”


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