The AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) Sirens, a Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ( CMSA ) league Sunday summer softball team, has many team members who are taking Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis ( PrEP ), an HIV prevention drug, including Larry "LT" Todd ( nee: Johnson ) Cousineau.
LT is in a serodiscordant relationship with his husband Vincent "Vinny" Cousineau, who is HIV-positive. Vinny, who also serves as the team's coach, has been HIV-positive since 1993, while LT, who's been on PrEP for about a year, is HIV-negative.
The team was previously sponsored by the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus, of which both men are currently membersLT as a singer and Vinny as a chorus husband.
To promote PrEP awareness, the Sirens, who recently won the Division Championship, have #PrEP on their uniforms and the Cousineau's see their involvement with the team as a way to not only have fun but also to educate the public about serodiscordant relationships and the benefits of PrEP regardless of one's relationship status.
"It's a way for us to take away the stigma that people still have about those who take PrEP as being sexually promiscuous people," said LT. "The initial exposure to PrEP information wise was negative in nature and the more I learned about it the more I saw that the numbers don't lie regarding how many people this helps in terms of saving lives and a lot of money. The key is to get as many people on PrEP who are with someone who has HIV so HIV doesn't spread.
"When I first started taking PrEP, which is one pill once a day, it was a huge weight off of my shoulders. We were always well aware of and well researched with what was and wasn't recommended sexual behavior for us but there was always this nagging feeling that I was going to get a positive test and with PrEP that feeling is gone for me. It's a big weight off of my shoulders psychologically. Me being on PrEP hasn't changed our sexual habits either."
The Cousineaus were together for six years before LT started taking PrEP.
Joshua A. Oaks, AFC's digital policy manager, said, "We're proud to sponsor a team of advocates who truly care about making the LGBTQ community aware of this new option for HIV prevention. With the significant amount of misinformation and stigma associated with PrEP, it's so important to meet people where they are and have this conversation. We thank the team for having the courage to take a stand and let their voices be heard."
"The AFC is so proud of the Sirens for not only winning but also for plugging PrEP along the way. Integrating PrEP into fun, healthy, sport and social activities makes so much senseand it's sexy," said Jim Pickett, AFC's director of prevention advocacy and gay men's health. "We strongly support PrEPa program consisting of daily pill taking, regular HIV and STI testing and sexual health and adherence counselingand have long advocated for a variety of new prevention technologiesmore things to put out on the prevention buffet beyond male and female condomson the global stage."
Both men lost partners ( LT's partner, Thom, in 1987 and Vinny's partner, Steve, in 2005 ) due to complications from AIDS, however, LT never contracted HIV.
"This was back in the early days of the disease and my case is very, very rare and I don't know how it happened," said LT "Maybe it's because we were careful or if I'm immune."
The Cousineau's met in Palm Springs in the summer of 2007 when LT was in town celebrating his birthday and Vinny was in between visits to two Southern California Major League ballparks. They moved to Chicago so they could be together in one city in the summer of 2009 after sustaining their relationship for two years despite living on opposite coasts.
"My good friend Joaquin and I were staying at a gay resort and when I went out to the pool the only person there was Vinny," said LT. "Joaquin was pushing me to talk to Vinny and if it didn't work out then we would go home because it was in the middle of July when no one is in Palm Springs at the resorts. I went up to Vinny and asked him if he would put sunscreen on my back with the line, 'I know this sounds like a pickup line but can you put this lotion on my back.'"
"After Steve's death, the romantic side of me had been completely shut down, but meeting LT woke up that part of me," said Vinny. "He flew to D.C. for a visit in September and that's when I realized this was something serious. The cool thing was that most of the time, all we had was phone conversations, so we'd talk for an hour or more every day and really get to know each other. Sometimes when we were apart we would watch the same movie together by timing it up with each other and staying on the phone while we watched. We would go to restaurants on our own in our respective cities and have headsets on and have dinner dates where we talked to each other via phone. When we were together, we did things we couldn't do on the phone: cuddle, work out or cook together, cuddle some more."
They decided to move to Chicago, in part, because of the city's theater community and scene which LT has said is better than New York City or any other city's theater community due to the diversity of theater companies and venues. They've lived in the same Edgewater condo since moving to the city.
Both LT and Vinny love how friendly and unpretentious everyone is here and the fact that people are more willing to get together without an agenda. LT noted that when they first got here he called a couple of theater people and they offered to give him a tour of their theaters and have lunch with him right away and in Los Angeles no one does that.
Vinny explained that, at his old school, teachers would have two-minute conversations in the hallway and at his current school people sit and hang out for 25 minutes. This was a big shift for Vinny and at first he was criticized for not socializing enough during the school day.
"We're the odd couple because all of the important stuff in our relationship happens in odd number years beginning in 2007 when we met each other and then in 2009 when we moved to Chicago," said Vinny. "In 2011 we did the whole wedding ceremony which was considered a civil union here in Illinois. In 2013 same-sex marriage was legal in California again so we eloped in Palm Springs so we could get a marriage certificate and shortly after that our marriage was legal in Illinois and then this year it was legal nationwide."
Vinny grew up in western Massachusetts in a blue-collar town before moving to Connecticut. He went to the University of Pennsylvania as an engineering major but realized he wanted to be a teacher so he switched and became a math major. Vinny also wrote about gay issues for his college paper.
For the past six years, Vinny has taught math at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka and was previously a math teacher at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., for 19 years. He's been out as a gay man at both schools and is involved in student leadership and diversity work at his current school.
"This article will be my coming out as HIV-positive publicly and the administrators at my school are completely on board and prepared for the inevitable questions that will come their way," said Vinny. "I'm looking at this as a way to provide educational opportunities for the students, faculty and the world at large."
Vinny also came out as HIV-positive to his previous school after Steve died. At first he told people that Steve died due to non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma but nine months later the school had an assembly where they brought in specialists to talk about HIV and that's when he told the school how Steve died and that he was HIV-positive. That was in 2007.
"I got lucky because I contracted HIV when the cocktail was introduced and haven't reinfected myself," said Vinny. "My viral load is undetectable and I even took a year and a half off of my meds because I felt so good and because of my undetectable viral load. At first I was taking a number of pills with and without food at different times of the day but now I'm down to one pill in the morning with or without food and three pills at night with food."
LT was born in San Diego and went to UCLA for his undergraduate degree in acting. While attending college he did a lot of behind the scenes work in community theater. From the time LT was a kid he was always writing lyrics for songs and since he continued to write musical theater productions while in college he was able to get his work produced at UCLA. He continued his education and got a masters degree in playwriting at Cal State Fullerton.
"In the middle of getting my graduate degree Thom died," said LT. "While he was sick I was writing a show about what would happen after he died. When I met him I knew he was HIV-positive but I still started a relationship with him because I loved him and I thought I would be fine. Right around the time he died that show became a musical theater production called 'All That He Was' at Cal State Fullerton which ended up being my thesis project. He got to see it before he died. It ended up being a hit in the smaller theater world. We toured with the production for a few years and it's still being put on by theaters across the country."
Currently, LT writes for Chicago theater productions and has a day job as an office manager at a financial consulting company in the Loop. He previously spent 15 years at Disney in Los Angeles working as a line producer and on the writing staff of two animated seriesGet Ed and Yin, Yang, Yo! as well as writing for other productions outside of Disney including the reboot of the Care Bears show and Angela Anaconda.
LT also sings at venues throughout Chicago and has a show on Dec. 14 at Uptown Underground.
"It's a compilation of original songs called 'Songs From My Holiday Closet' which is 30 years worth of songs that I've written," said LT. "I do this show with four other friends and the songs we sing are original, fun, crazy, gay, holiday songs."
When not working, playing softball, performing with the chorus or hanging out with friends, the couple see lots of theater productions since LT is a Jeff Awards ( Chicago theater awards ) committee member.
Both men have also competed at various Gay Games. Vinny played volleyball in the 1992 games in New York City, was on a soccer team for both the 2006 games here in Chicago and the 2014 games in Cleveland while LT competed in the 5K at the 2014 games in Cleveland and got a medal in his age bracket.
Vinny's soccer team won at the Out Games in Montreal in 2006.
For more information on LT's work, visit www.larrytoddjohnson.com . To purchase tickets to LT's show visit www.uptownunderground.net/ox_portfolio/songs-from-my-holiday-closet .