The disclosure of my HIV status has been a bit like coming out for a second time. I came out when I was fifteen; I had a pretty rough couple of years at school after doing so, but I’ve moved on and now I can live the life that I want.
Since I was diagnosed HIV-Positive in 2006 I’d told very few people. It had been something that I never felt that I wanted to tell people. Over the last seven years I’ve grown more confident in myself and have found the courage to “come out” as HIV-Positive. Not in the way of shouting it from the rooftops, or making it a part of my identity, but rather being open and honest with people who care about me. Having this level of openness has created some brilliant bonds with people that I would have never expected.
The thing with HIV is that it is not a condition that people seem to have an interest in until they have to. I was certainly guilty of this in my pre-HIV days; I had very little knowledge of the virus other than what I’d read in the news or seen in films – and that’s exactly where stigma relating to it comes from.
One of the hardest parts that come from disclosing your HIV status, to people who are ignorant to what it’s like to live with the virus, is that you end up having to be the one telling them that it’ll all be OK – when you’re newly diagnosed as HIV-Positive, you want it to be the other way around.
For the people living with HIV, it’s just something that you eventually have to understand isn’t going to go away, and will be with you for the rest of your life. But your life will be a long and healthy one so long as you go for your regular check-ups and stick to the regimen of your medication.
As a means of battling stigma we come up with facts and figures and information that we have to relay to people in order to inform them of what our status means. A commonly used phrase is “it’s just like living with diabetes, I have to medicate myself in order to stay healthy”, a phrase that seems simple enough and often seems to gain the right level of understanding. But the flip-side of that is that people who are newly diagnosed with Diabetes would never say to a family member “oh, it’s just like living with HIV…”. Regardless of how much we try and normalise the virus, there’s still a huge amount of ignorance that comes from the ways that the virus is transmitted, and furthermore, that comes from campaigns that still use fear-mongering tactics to lower transmission rates.
The alarming rise in HIV transmissions in the last year has certainly struck a chord with the wealth of brilliant HIV charities that there are, and they’re starting to step up their game with new campaigns, but we’re falling into a situation where there’s criticism from each side of the camp:
If a campaign promotes HIV as a treatable, long-term illness that isn’t “the end of the world” and is less transmissible when on treatment then there are accusations that it’s encouraging unsafe sex by “softening the blow” of becoming HIV-Positive.
If a campaign goes down the route of saying “If you’ve slept with this many gay men in London there’s a chance you have HIV” (a Terrence Higgins Trust advert from 2008) then there’s accusation of fear-mongering and shaming those who are HIV-Positive, or those who live active sex lives.
I think we need a little from Column A, and a little from Column B; there should be balanced, informative campaigns that don’t pander towards fear-mongering, but also don’t take away the seriousness of the what it means to live with HIV.
My final word on this being that people are free to have enjoy sex as they please, with or without condoms; so long as they’re aware of the risks involved and are proactive enough to get tested and treated regularly. Inform and inquire any sexual partner. Honesty is sexy.
Hamish (@agaytoremember on twitter)