This was the dilemma Jennifer Vaughan, 49, faced after her HIV diagnosis three years ago. Despite her partner Eric Champoux, 51, testing negative for the disease, his family and friends initially raised concerns about their relationship. The pair recently married in an intimate ceremony in Montreal, they now advocate for HIV awareness on social media - showing the world there is life after a diagnosis. Jennifer told Barcroft TV: “My whole world stopped in a split second and I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Here I was, across from this guy who I’m madly in love with and I had to tell him what was going on in my body,” she added.
When Jennifer first met Eric on Tinder, she had no idea was living with the disease undiagnosed. Describing the early days of their relationship, Jennifer said: “We met for coffee and from that day on we were pretty much inseparable. “Eric is a very passionate person and I was drawn to that energy and zest for life.” Eric, a keen snowboarder, found a similar attraction in Jennifer: “She’s very positive, very active – we definitely clicked. She’s beautiful and from the first smile, that was it.”
But just one year into their relationship, Jennifer became increasingly unwell and everything they knew was thrown into question. “I was starting to get sick and I didn’t know what was wrong – my symptoms became more extreme and nothing felt normal.” After being tested for everything from lupus to meningitis, Jennifer felt sure she was going to be diagnosed with cancer – it never occurred to her she would test positive for HIV. Four hours after Jennifer left the doctor’s, she received a call that changed everything: “I was at my lowest point when I got that phone call and heard those 3 letters.”
Jennifer was told she’d been exposed to the disease from a former partner before she met Eric. However, Eric needed to be tested: “The first time I realised she had it, I thought I had it too, but I was negative. There was a lot of questioning like what would happen to us in the future?” Despite being in the all clear, friends and family close to Eric became worried when they heard the news: “They were concerned about my health and the risks I was taking.” Once Eric and Jennifer explained how low the risk was of Eric contracting the disease from a woman, those closest to him began to accept the situation. Jennifer, however, was hard on herself: “You are immediately filled with shame that you’ve done something wrong and you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life.” Jennifer’s daily medication means her viral load is now so low the HIV disease is undetectable.
The forty-nine-year-old has set up a YouTube channel educating people about the U=U campaign (undetectable means untransmittable) and speaking about her personal experiences: “I tried to show that you can have something so horrific and horrible happen that you think it’s going to ruin your life but show you can change it into something good. “I’m helping people and I never realised that it would be positive and it’s all because of social media – it’s amazing how far we can reach, who we can reach and who we can help just by sharing our story.”
Despite finding the good in the online community, Jennifer’s decision to open up about her disease wasn’t without consequences. Jennifer was blamed for her diagnosis and the basis for people’s arguments ranged from having sex out of marriage to sleeping around without a condom. “People immediately assume you’re a whore – that you’re a bad person,” Jennifer said. “But they don’t know my story or what happened or how long I was with this person or that I was in love with them.” In defence of Jennifer, Eric said: “There are always negative people that judge – if you can use it to your own advantage to understand how people think then do it.” The criticism isn’t only directed towards Jennifer. Often, Eric is accused of giving Jennifer HIV or contracting it from her and denying it. Jennifer understands that a large part of this comes from people’s ignorance towards the disease: “Judgement is based on fear and a lack of information – fear is directed at me and I get it, there’s never going to be a time where people are on the same page about HIV.”
Despite the harsh judgement they continue to face, Jennifer and Eric made the decision to get married. “It was a very small and intimate affair, it was perfect. “The people that might have been scared for Eric to be with me made my wedding day.” Eric added: “There was no HIV at the wedding – it wasn’t invited.” Although Jennifer was sure of their love and commitment to one another, becoming Eric’s wife has given her a new sense of welcomed security. “It feels amazing – it’s great to show people that this relationship is totally possible, and you have someone who is HIV positive with someone who is HIV negative and have a completely normal marriage.”