This article by Kristian Johns @guy_interruptd first appeared in FS Magazine, a publication of GMFA here.
“Do you suffer from any long-term medical conditions?” the piece of paper in front of me demanded. “Do you regularly take any medication?”
Innocent enough questions, but when it’s your first day on the job at a startup with no real HR department, those innocent questions can suddenly seem pretty loaded. Diabetic? Oh, poor you. Do you need to store insulin in the fridge? Bad back? We’ll get you a lovely Aeron chair. Pregnant? Congratulations! Have a year off! HIV? Ooh. You’re not going to be ill all the time are you?
Being open about my status has never been a problem for me. After living with HIV as long as I have, I’m of the opinion that if you have a problem with it, it’s your problem, not mine. I am who I am, and HIV is a part of that. Does that make you feel weird? Then stop breathing my air and go read a fucking leaflet. But as someone who’s very accustomed to living life out in the open, I wasn’t expecting to run dashing back into the closet so spectacularly, based on two questions on a new starter form.
I wrote ‘no’. Obviously. The fact of the matter is this: if it’s a small company in rural Hampshire (seriously – there’s a fishing tackle shop in the village up the hill), chances are they haven’t dealt with an HIV-positive staff member before. And since the vast majority of middle class hetero England thinks that positive people look like Tom Hanks did at the end of Philadelphia, I wasn’t going to risk uncomfortable conversations while still in my probation period. I’m good at what I do. I’d rather they saw that without misguided preconceptions that they’re going to catch something nasty if I make them a cup of tea.
So when does privacy end and secrecy begin? It’s been a fine line, and an uncomfortable one to balance on. If you’re reading this and you’re not HIV-positive, chances are you’re gay and we’ve all been there on the coming out front. When it’s a new job and new colleagues, our default setting of “Don’t let on that I’m gay” kicks in, fuelled by apprehension. How are they going to react? Are they going to treat you differently? HIV is no different. I was in the closet again. And I don’t like closets.
The first OMG! moment came when my new boss sent round the standard all-staff email welcoming me to the agency. “Don’t Google Image search him” he quipped, then added ‘#famous’ on the end of the sentence. There’s an above average number of pictures of me on Google Images, you see. It comes with the job. A few of them have the red ribbon attached to them. If anyone were to click through to a site where I’d written a column, or given an interview, my secret would be out. And that’s what it was now – a secret. And moreover, it felt like a dirty secret.
The second cringe moment: colleagues soon found me on Twitter, then Facebook. It’s a small company and they socialise outside work a lot. They wanted to include me. It should have been nice. It wasn’t. I had to change my settings to make sure they wouldn’t see links to articles I’d written. I was policing everything I was tagged in to make sure social media wouldn’t give away my secret. There’s that word again: secret. That’s not what Facebook is to me. I don’t silo my Facebook friends and selectively share content. I’m just… me. Except I wasn’t being me. I was being… well… not me.
I was trying to prove myself in a new job before I dropped the H-Bomb, while at the same time preaching to others about being open and accepting of their HIV status. In short, I was being a big fat hypocrite.
World AIDS Day came around. The phone usually rings constantly the week beforehand. My email inbox pings with invitations to events and fundraisers. Sometimes people want me to write stuff or do an interview. I shrank away from it all. Bloody Facebook and Twitter would probably give me away and I was sick with apprehension. The other half and I were in Liverpool visiting friends that weekend, and as we sat scoffing fry-up on Sunday morning, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I’m supposed to be one of the community’s voices on HIV, and here I was with my lips zipped on the one day people are tuned in to the message.
I logged on to YouTube and shared a speech I gave at City Hall four years ago. I gave old Mayor Boris a run for his money that day – one of my better moments. My final words were “My name is Kristian Johns. I’m HIV-positive. And I refuse to hide – because I shouldn’t need to.” Very apt. I shared that and my latest FS column several times, and retweeted any mentions of them. I put them all over Facebook and to hell with anyone who got freaked out.
The next day, one of the guys at work came up to me. We’re about the same age, we have similar interests: namely Arsenal, beagles and puerile jokes from the 90s sitcom ‘Bottom’. He likes girls and I like boys. Our similarities outweigh our differences. We get on well. But you never know how people are going to react.
“Amazing article, mate,” he said. “Well done. I showed my girlfriend too and she thought it was fucking brilliant.” He promptly shook my hand. I went a bit red. So did he.
We caught up on email later when I apologised for coming off a bit awkward. I told him his support meant a lot. “As someone that doesn’t know a thing about it,” he replied, “You made it real. Hats off to you.”
Can someone call a carpenter? My closet just exploded. Am I bothered? Nope. You see, I’ve learned there is a big difference between privacy and secrecy. Privacy is when you prefer to keep your business personal. Secrecy is when you’re ashamed of it. This columnist might have lost his way and forgotten what was important for a while, but self-imposed prisons really ain’t my kinda thing. My ‘secret’ is out and I couldn’t be happier. Watch this space.
About the author: Kristian Johns is an author and former editor. When he’s not raising awareness of HIV issues, his sole mission in life is to convince his boyfriend to let him have a dog.
Are you newly diagnosed as HIV-positive?
GMFA has a whole section of its website with information, factsheets and links to support services. Visit www.gmfa.org.uk/living-with-hiv.
This article was taken from FS magazine issue 140.
To view the PDF: CLICK HERE