“If you decide to tell someone about your HIV, think about it. Really think about it. Because once you tell them, you can’t ever take it back”.
This was the advice given to me by a counsellor at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. Half an hour before, I had received my diagnosis and taken ownership of a condition I knew very little about. Like the worst arranged marriage, we had not even been introduced prior to me discovering that I am to share the rest of my life with HIV.
I left Northern Ireland when I was twenty two, having just recently come out as gay to my family. Yes, I know some of you may think that was a bit late, but you have to remember I am from a part of the world where many people agreed with the wife of our First Minister, who once stated that homosexuality is comparable to child abuse.
To get away from this poisonous atmosphere I headed to London to start life as a professional actor. For fifteen years I travelled around the UK performing on stage and even writing and directing some of my own work. Life was great. Then, one day, I made the decision to return home, and I joined the police – quite a change of direction, but I had my reasons. I had been worried about coming back to this place. On the face of it much had changed over the course of those fifteen years. People had stopped killing each other, almost. Tesco had opened a store on every available patch of land. Foreign workers had started to arrive in large numbers for the first time. However, if you scratched the surface, ignorance, prejudice and religious condemnation were just as prevalent.
But I was a different person, all grown up and ready to face whatever life in Northern Ireland had to throw at me. Then along came HIV.
In the six years since my diagnosis, I have never spoken about it to anyone outside a hospital setting. I think about HIV every single day, and sometimes the urge to talk to another human being about it, someone not wearing a white coat and discussing my CD4 count, has been overwhelming. But I have resisted the temptation, always heeding the advice I was given back in 2008.
Living with HIV in Northern Ireland is…difficult. Of course, ignorance and prejudice can exist anywhere, but here we have them off to a fine art. As a police officer I have witnessed first-hand the effects of this prejudice, and it has scared me so much, I still cannot bring myself to talk about being HIV positive.
While on patrol one evening in the middle of winter, I found a nineteen year old guy, sitting alone in a car parked on a quiet country road. At his feet were a number of empty pill bottles and an almost empty bottle of vodka. He had just let his family know he was HIV-Positive and they threw him out of the house before putting all his belongings into bin bags and burning them in the back garden. When we got him to hospital, my colleague began obsessively disinfecting her hands, while a nurse announced loudly to the other staff that this patient had HIV and everyone should “double glove”. This same nurse advised me that if I was going to stay with him then I too should “double glove”. God, I so wanted to tell him where he could shove his gloves, but that may have aroused suspicion so I said nothing. Instead, I sat with this guy, held his hand and chatted to him while the hospital staff tried to find him a bed, and my colleague stared disapprovingly at me from the other side of the ward before reaching again for the disinfectant. Before I left, the young guy thanked me. When I asked what he was thanking me for, he said “for not running away”.
We all need to stop running away, to be more open and talk to each other honestly, but nowhere more so than in this little corner of the Kingdom. It is not easy though, especially in a part of the UK where many people believe HIV is a deviant disease caught by deviant people indulging in deviant acts. We are to be pitied and prayed for and denounced from the pulpits. Northern Ireland may be only eleven miles away from the mainland at its closest point, but in terms of sexual maturity and modern thinking, we are so far away you would need a TARDIS to reach us.
Perhaps writing this article is for me a first step on the road to changing things and educating people here about HIV. Perhaps, too, it is good that finally I can begin to talk about my experience with HIV. It may be just a tiny step but you have to start somewhere.
Running away is no longer an option.
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