Bob Leahy interviews HIV-positive Olympic medal winner Ji Wallace.
Bouncing right back. Australian Ji Wallace announced he was HIV+ just this year. Bob Leahy talks with him about being gay, coming out of two closets, HIV stigma, the ENUF campaign he is a spokesperson for – and what he thinks of Canada.
Ji Wallace is an Australian gymnast and Olympic trampoline silver medalist.
Earlier in his career Ji Wallace won many Australian national and international titles in all four Trampoline Sports disciplines. Ji made his major international breakthrough in 1996 by winning gold in the DMT (double mini trampoline) discipline at the 19th World Championships in Vancouver.
Ji competed in the Individual Trampoline event at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney winning a Silver Medal.
In 2002, he came out publicly as gay and in 2005 was the first Australian to be named a Gay Games Ambassador. In an August 2012 letter to the Sydney Star Observer, he revealed he is HIV-positive.
Ji was a cast member in Cirque du Soleil with their show in Macau, China. In Oct 2008 Ji fell badly and spent 21 months learning to walk again. In August 2010 he took a coaching job in Montreal at the Cirque Du Soleil headquarters.
After his HIV diagnosis in 2011, 2012 saw Ji return to his native Australia for treatment and a restart at his life. Ji continues to live large and dream big.
Bob Leahy: Hello Ji. Many thanks for talking to PositiveLite.com.
Ji Wallace: Appreciate it. Thank you for having me.
Now, you were diagnosed HIV-positive in 2011, Ji, and you revealed your status in August 2012. You’ve got a lot of accolades for coming out HIV-positive. How did all that process feel?
I am still in the process of understanding it all, to be honest. I am only 12 months diagnosed so I am taking giant leaps forward every day and the support I have received so far has been nothing short of humbling. I have created a circle of people around me that lovs me for me and all of me included, but there are many people out there that don’t have the support I have so this - me standing up to be counted - is in a way for them.
We’ve told this story on PositiveLite.com before, but do you want to tell new readers what it was that prompted you to take this step. I think you said you had a sleepless night, right?
Well, I was at the 2012 Olympics in London and my boyfriend had left for home. I was watching TV late one night as I couldn’t sleep and I came across an interview with Piers Morgan and Greg Louganis. The interview was refreshing as it focused on Greg as a person and what he has been up to. It wasn’t a typical mediOGRE story about HIV and I wanted to share my thanks with Piers so I wrote to him.
And the rest is history. This isn’t your first coming out story, though, Ji. You’d previously come out as gay, in 2005. Why did you do that?
After the Olympic Games I was free to explore social environments, I was not confined to rigorous training and that exploration included being out on the strip and in the community. Being an only child and not having told my parents of my sexuality I took a bold step and told them face to face. After this, I was not afraid of being caught in a mini scandal or having my photo taken out and about and the ‘coming out’ story really evolved from there. I was always gay so it was not a shock but I didn’t reveal anything publically before the Games because I was an athlete first and I had a job to do. Anything and everything else in my life at that time came a distant second in importance. I had the lifelong dream of being a successful Olympian right at my fingertips and I wasn’t going to let anything, including my sexuality, get in the way.
So would you say that coming out poz was more difficult than that, or not?
When I came out (gay) there was still a lot of buzz around the Olympics, plus I was still young. 24. Now I am 35 and have been through some quite dramatic experiences in my life, so outside of the respect of telling my parents, anything that comes my way is water off a duck's back. I have thick, thick skin now and I am not afraid anymore.
Prior to coming out poz, did you find it challenging to keep your status out of public knowledge?
My only goal was to tell my parents directly. I couldn’t tell them over the phone so I had to wait until I got home to Australia to tell them. Once they knew and I had allayed any fears they might have had about HIV I was free to be more open about it. I am not an ostrich that sticks his head in the sand and hopes something will go away. I wanted to tackle this head on. The more you talk about an issue the better you can deal with it. HIV needs an open forum to begin to tackle it.
Ji, now you‘re an ambassador for People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) Victoria’s ENUF campaign, a program designed to help end stigma. Tell me why you chose to take on that role.
I am strong ENUF to take a shellacking from anyone these days but many people out there are not, so my story is in part a little light for them. People with HIV are people too. We breathe the same air and the same sun warms our skin. We deserve the same respect as afforded to everyone. There are not ENUF campaigns out there fighting the stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and I want to support them all.
So why do you think that in 2012 there is still considerable stigma directed against poz guys, even from within the gay community?
There is still stigma and discrimination simply due to fear. Most often when you fear something you act out against it. People living with HIV are not to be feared. We eat, breathe, sing and dance just like everyone else.
You are in a sero-discordant (mixed status) relationship, Ji. How do you think that fact changes the dynamics of your relationship?
My relationship is based on truth and trust and honesty so I feel I have a better relationship with him, even being discordant, than most people do in their own relationship. If you can tell someone about your status and be accepted for it than all other meaningless problems become irrelevant. We educated ourselves on our circumstance and act accordingly. It is pure gold I must say.
What would you say to couples in a similar position, contemplating a mixed status relationship.
Love who you want to love and take them wholely and solely. Educate yourselves and let your love be unconditional.
Now you have a Canadian connection in that at one time you worked for Cirque du Soleil and in fact lived in Canada for a bit, didn’t you. How was that?
I have met some amazing people though my travels around the world and the Canadians I have met are no different. Genuine and special, though Canada does evoke vivid memories for me. In ‘96 I won a Trampoline Sports World Championship in Vancouver but in 03 also in Vancouver I fell while mountain biking and broke my collarbone. In 07 at the World Championships in Quebec City I failed to qualify for the Beijing games but at the same competition I managed to gain a contract with Cirque du Soleil. In 08 I injured my ankle rendering me acrobatically useless and in ‘11 I tested positive for HIV. None the less I did enjoy my time in Canada - but you can keep the snow. I am not a fan of minus 30!
And what are you doing now?
Since the revelation of my status around 10 weeks ago I have been moved to tears many times reading peoples; stories of triumph and tears. The stories I have read truly distress me as the world may be in 2012 but we really do have some growing up to do in the way we treat each other. Coming soon is the Silver Lining foundation. It’s a foundation I am developing to bring a ‘silver lining’ to people who may only see dark clouds. It is a no brainer for me to be kind to one another and if I can do that on a larger scale then I will focus on that.
You’ve said “I’ve still, got big dreams, big goals”. Tell us what those are?
I am an action man so next year I am going to run in the LA marathon with T2, a team to end AIDS. My Olympic routine was 22 seconds long so doing a marathon is a huge goal. Also I am going to organise a group of HIV-positive people to trek what is known in Australia as a rite of passage, the Kokoda trek. And, I plan on raising awareness of the plight of the world’s HIV population. HIV is still here and people are still being infected. Ultimately I am on a march towards a cure and when that day comes, and I believe it is coming, I can stand up with the 35 million other HIV positive people in the world and say "YES - take that, HIV! You may have won numerous battles but we have won the war!"
Ji, thanks a million for talking to us here at PositiveLite.com . Good luck with the campaign – and good luck with those dreams.