It’s been busy few weeks in the world of HIV.
Former Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas and Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness both came out and told the world they’re living with the virus. It’s great to see two prominent LGBTQ figures being so open and honest – showing the world you can thrive, not just survive thanks to the progress we’ve made.
We’ve come such a long way medically over the years. We’re now at a stage where the majority of people living with HIV are on treatment, undetectable and can’t pass it on to sexual partners. New diagnoses in the UK have fallen by a third, and are now at their lowest levels since 2000 which is incredible.
Despite all of this progress, stigma is unfortunately still very much alive. That’s why I’m so happy to see two powerful figures sharing their stories. The more people that talk about living with HIV, the more misconceptions get squashed. People will realise it can happen to any of us – gay, straight, male, female, young or old. HIV doesn’t discriminate.
Everyone needs to know you can live a happy healthy life, have children and live as long as someone who is HIV negative.
Disclosure is a choice
I was really sad to learn Gareth was pushed into coming out by a tabloid newspaper. I know from personal experience how hard it can be being sharing your status and to have that done without permission is incredibly unfair. Whoever was responsible should be utterly ashamed of themselves. No one has the right to take that decision away.
What they did not only made Gareth’s life hell, it adds to the stigma that we should be ashamed of ourselves and hide in the shadows. I thought we left that sort of behaviour in the past after the AIDS crisis.
Luckily, Gareth came out the other side stronger and the response has been incredible. I just hope this is the last time we see someone’s status used so viscously. Being open about your HIV status is a personal choice and should NEVER be shared without the permission of those involved. Like being LGBTQ you don’t just come out once, it’s for the rest of our lives. How and when is down to the individual and no one else, we’re all different.
It’s been heartwarming to see all of the love and support for Gareth and JVN, but the reality for others isn’t always as positive. People living with HIV still face discrimination and stigma is a big problem. Many LGBTQ people experience negativity when they disclose their status, especially on dating apps.
It’s common to be blocked, ghosted or even get abuse; it has happened to me a number of times. You just have to remind yourself it’s their problem, they’re the ignorant ones and I can do better. The reality is you’re safer having sex with someone who is HIV+ undetectable than with someone who doesn’t know their status.
If you’re HIV+ and reading this, please don’t let other people’s ignorance chip away at your happiness. Easier said than done sometimes, but you can’t let them win.
HIV doesn’t define us. we’re not dirty, unclean or unloveable. We’re human.
We all have a part to play in fighting HIV stigma. Call out stigmatising language and behaviour when you see it. When someone confides in you, listen and don’t be afraid to ask questions, just don’t blank or ignore them. How you react can stay with them for a lifetime, so please be mindful of what you say because that can playback in their mind.
We’ve definitely seen an increase in people talking openly about life with HIV, and after seeing the overwhelming support for Gareth and JVN followed by the news HIV rates are at their lowest in almost 20 years, I have so much more hope for the future. It’s moments like these you realise the world is slowly changing, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
We will get there
Attitudes are changing and people are realising life doesn’t end with HIV. We just need to continue to tackle the inequalities and stigma we face within the LGBTQ head-on. Thankfully there are plenty of inspiring HIV activists doing some great work. Some worth checking out are Matthew Hodson, Phil Samba, Tom Hayes, Lizzie Jordan, Marc Thompson and Bisi Alimi to name a few.
I’m grateful for how far we’ve come, but we still have a way to go. Step by step we will end HIV/AIDS and stigma.
Get tested regularly, know your status and look after your sexual health.
Follow Tom on Twitter – @TJ_Knight