I was lucky enough to address a group of politicians at the EU Parliament this month, talking about HIV stigma – but how did that come about?
In October I received an email with an interesting proposition – would I travel to Brussels to speak at a hearing at the EU Parliament about my experience of stigma surrounding my HIV status as a young gay man? It took me less than a minute to decide to do it – I mean how often does one get such an opportunity.
Four weeks later and I find myself on a Eurostar train hurtling at 300kph under the sea towards Brussels. I’m still working on what I want to say to the amassed MEPs and political aides – there’s so much to cover, how do I fit it all into my ten minute slot?
I arrive at 7pm on Tuesday evening, check into my hotel and head out for a drink to steady my nerves and catch some of the beautiful architecture of Brussels. I end up at The Vineyard next to the EU Parliament, and from there I met a good friend of mine, Captain Europe, and we headed to for some dinner.
Wednesday comes around. I’m ironing my shirt and trying not to overthink what was about to happen – it didn’t work. I had time to pop into the city centre and grab a sandwich near Le Grand Place before heading over the the ILGA offices where we went through who’d be present, what I was planning to talk about and some notes on speaking to a multi-lingual audience. Then it was time. I walked, with Sophie from ILGA, over to the EU Parliament and passed through security up to the chamber where I’d be speaking.
After a brief intro to the others on the panel and some of the guests it was time to start. I took my place up at the table along with Luiz Loures (Deputy Executive Director, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS)), Toni Borg (European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy), Michael Cashman MEP and the Belgian Minister for Public Health – Laurette Onkelinx., I was to open the event – no pressure then.
I spoke of my roots, where I grew up, my coming out, my diagnosis and the work I’ve done since. I talked about the stigma I faced when I had my HIV status forcibly disclosed by spiteful third party, and some other examples of stigma other friends have had to contend with. During all of this I could see the look of shock and disbelief on some of the attendees faces, and indeed some came up to me and said that they didn’t realise that this still happened in 2013.
There were talks from Michael Cashman MEP, Tonio Borg, Luiz Loures and the Belgian Minister for Public Health – Laurette Onkelinx. After which the panel changed, myself and Michael Cashman MEP stayed but were joined by representatives from EATG amongst others.
After the second session I was given the chance to close the hearing by Michael Cashman MEP – I gave my thoughts on some of the things that had been discussed that day (such as community testing and the reality behind “just one pill a day”).
All in all the day was really useful, worthwhile and for some of the participants incredibly eye-opening. It’s not often individuals such as myself get to engage with organisations so high up the food-chain as the EU Parliament or UNAIDS and I’d like to thank them for granting me the opportunity.
I hope that people have taken away a new understanding of the struggles faced by LGBT people in accessing healthcare and the stigma facing those who are living with HIV also.
Some quotes from the day:
“We need to work together to shape, implement and monitor action to fight not just the virus, but also to fight the stigma and discrimination around it. I am committed to doing everything in my power to help fight HIV/AIDS and abolish all forms of stigma and discrimination” – Toni Borg, European Health Commissioner
“AIDS is no longer a fatal disease, but people living with HIV still have to confront the social death.” – Ferenc Bagyinszky, European AIDS Treatment Group
“The significant progress of the global AIDS response is the legacy of the AIDS solidarity movement emerging from the gay communities, saving millions of deaths. We have to pay back that legacy. We can go to the end of the AIDS epidemic, but we cannot leave people behind” – Luiz Loures, UNAIDS Deputy Executive Director for Programme