Philip Antony Dzwonkiewicz, 36, was born in Birmingham and brought up in Eastbourne. Philip was diagnosed with HIV eleven years ago, back in 2007. This year he was crowned Mr Gay England 2018.
Congratulations on being crowned Mr Gay England 2018, how did that all come about? What made you decide to compete?
I’ve been helping people around me with HIV for about eight years now. Initially within a close circle of friends, but over time that circle has expanded thanks to being openly HIV positive on social media.
I’ve always wanted to do more, but was never sure how to do it – until I saw on advert on Facebook for Positive East’s peer mentor programme. It gave me an opportunity to meet and interact with people living with HIV outside of my normal social circle.
At the same time a friend of mine had suggested that I run for Mr Gay England 2018. My predecessors, Matt Rood (2017) used the platform to talk about LGBT fostering rights, and Joni Valadares (2016) used it to talk about suicide prevention – so I thought I could do the same with HIV.
The more I thought about it the more the little demons in my head were saying I wasn’t good enough, I would make a fool of myself, I wouldn’t be what they wanted – so I put it to the back of my head. Then on the cut-off date I texted my best-mate who told me to go for it. I bit the bullet and sent off my application and campaign strategy.
What’s the competition process like? Is it a traditional beauty pageant or is there more to it than that?
The whole process is very different to the notion a lot of people have about these competitions. You have to submit your ideas for a campaign to benefit the LGBT community, there are background checks, social media checks, and lots and lots of interviews.
The organisers want to move away from the idea of a “traditional” beauty pageant – they want the competitors to have a point of view, to have a voice. That’s what excited me, I could take my awareness work to the next level and also help raise the profile of Positive East at the same time.
Last year’s winner, Matt, went on to become Mr Gay Europe 2017 which gave him an incredible platform to talk about his passion for LGBT fostering and parenting. I’ll be going to Poland on August 4th until the 13th to compete for the title of Mr Gay Europe 2018.
It’s a long process however, and not what most people would expect from a pageant. We get tested every day on international law, equality and diversity law and LGBT history. There’s also an talent portion of the pageant, as well as an online public vote. It’s a tough process.
There’s a perception that if you say you’re Mr Gay England, like Miss Universe, that you’ve been picked just for how you look. How do you think this competition can break that stereotype?
It’s a challenging perception to break. Because you look a certain way, because you dance, because you’ve worked on the gay scene people look at me and make a snap judgement – but if they take a moment to get to know you, whether that’s in real life or through social media, you have the opportunity to challenge that and change minds.
The same is often true about HIV in our community. People still have these misconceptions about who HIV positive people are, how we look, how we act. It’s about speaking out and correcting misconceptions.
You made HIV the central issue on your campaign to become Mr Gay England 2018, when did that all start for you?
My HIV diagnosis was eleven years ago, so it’s been a while. I’ve certainly had my ups and down with it. When I was first diagnosed I was working in theatre and film, and I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want them to think “we won’t give him the job, because he’ll get ill and need time off”. So for quite some time I just kept it to myself. At one point I started to deny it was happening. I was going to my HIV appointments and my results were good, my CD4 was high and my viral load was low – I didn’t give it any more thought.
Over the years I slowly became more and more open about living with HIV. I spent some time working on London’s gay scene and people talk – regardless of whether you want them to or not, and I realised that by owning your status openly you take away their power.
I came out as gay at thirteen years old, but I didn’t tell my family about my HIV diagnosis for seven years. When I was growing up my mum said (about being gay) “that’s fine – but just don’t tell me you have AIDS”, so I kept it to myself for those seven years. Four years ago I told my family, my mum was so upset, not because I had HIV but because I’d had to deal with it on my own. Now she’s super supportive and always checking up on me.
You talked about a sense of denial around your HIV status in the past. What triggered that and how did you get past it?
Around that time I met a guy. I told him I was HIV positive on the first date, he was HIV negative but seemed open to the idea of dating a HIV positive guy. He went away and did his own research about life with HIV, he spoke to Dean Street to get their advice too, and based on that we started a relationship.
We were together for eight months, but things weren’t great. He was often unwell, the littlest things set it off, and because of that he was always worrying about how his body would react should he get HIV. After eight months the relationship ended and that really put me in a tailspin about my self identity, and self worth after being rejected by someone I had real feelings with because of my HIV.
I shut myself away from the world for some time which allowed me to process what had happened. I realised that it was his issue, not mine, and stopped blaming myself. At that moment I decided I needed to live my open life.
What is the message that you want to get across using your platform as Mr Gay England 2018?
“HIV Doesn’t Define You” is the message I’ve chosen. The platform Mr Gay England affords me is such a great opportunity to speak to not just our LGBT community but the general population. It allows me to challenge perceptions around what it is to live with HIV.
HIV doesn’t stop me living an active life. I have three jobs, I work in an office, I perform on stage and I dance. People living with HIV can live long and healthy lives, they can do any job they want, they can find love, have sex, start families. It’s 2018, HIV doesn’t have to stop you living the life you want to live.
I’ll be using my platform to talk in the media, at events and on social media about life with HIV and how #HIVDoesntDefineYou.
It’s June, which is Pride Month, what are you doing for Pride – and do you have any messages for HIV positive folks out there who’re perhaps feeling isolated?
This year I’ll be marching in the London Pride parade with Positive East. I’m also working on a couple of documentary projects – one is about how hearts and minds have changed over the years in the small town that I grew up in, the other will a round-table with a group of performers about how they feel perceptions around HIV have changed.
To those out there struggling with their HIV status, I know disclosure is a difficult thing – it’s also a very personal thing. There’s no wrong or right way or time to open up to people about your HIV status. But I would suggest talking to someone – be that anonymously to a charity, or maybe a trusted friend. It’s fine to keep your status a private matter, it’s fine to be an out and proud advocate, but either way don’t go it alone.
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