At 18-years-old I met a rather amiable and attractive man, who just happened to be a considerable number of years my senior. We started dating and went about our courtship like any other gay couple, navigating a potential life together. I had all the enthusiasm and exuberance of an 18-year-old, but I was considered to have an ‘old soul’. No more than a month into our dating, something unexpected happened – my other half was diagnosed with HIV. In his emotional state, he said that he didn’t expect me to stick around and that he would have no qualms about me leaving.
As much as I am ashamed to admit it now, I knew nothing about HIV then. I didn’t exactly fear it either, but that’s mostly down to the fact that I thought HIV only existed in this faraway land called Africa. As ignorant as the thought may have been, I genuinely didn’t suspect it was something that could ever affect me, my friends or my family. I definitely did not think that it’s possible to contract it orally. Or that understanding the specifics of my boyfriend’s viral load could have in fact played an integral part in avoiding a positive diagnosis.
All the same, his diagnosis frankly did not bother me and I decided to stick around. It is a decision that I don’t regret as he was, and still is, an absolute riot. Alas, he and I were not destined to be star-crossed lovers, and subsequently our relationship ended.
Not long after we had broken up, I went to 56 Dean Street to have a general check-up. When the results came back, the doctor said that my immune system had started to produce antibodies. Perhaps registering the bewilderment on my face, the doctor explained that this could well be a false reading. I had further tests that were sent off to a lab, and a couple of weeks later I got a call at home that I was indeed HIV-positive.
I hung up. Not a second later, I register the clicks of the key sliding into the front door. My mother and stepfather bounce into the living room, their faces all lit up, a day well spent in their wake. I ask my mother to sit down next to me in the least dramatic way possible. But, she who misses absolutely nothing senses immediately that something serious has happened.
“Oh god, your invitation to university has been taken back, hasn’t it?!” I was two weeks away from flying the nest to start studying Chinese at university in London. My mother and I were both truly excited at the prospect of me no longer living in the family home.
“No. I have HIV.”
I immediately burst into tears. My mother collapses on to the sofa next to me, and I slouch into her arms. Deflated, and cradled by her, she is rocking me and wailing in pain. My mother is an extraordinarily strong woman, and I have never witnessed her so undone. Looking back, I know that she was not only crying for the death of my teenage purity, but also for all the challenges that were yet to come. It was the single most overwhelming moment of my life.
Contracting HIV from someone with whom you are in a committed relationship immediately obliterates the myth you hear being spoken loudly by ALL kinds of people, that you will ‘only get HIV if you are a slag’. Never mind these dumdums. Just because someone is capable of speaking passionately about HIV for an hour does not mean that what they say yields any truth whatsoever.
It is also extremely easy to trust your friends when they tell you certain untruths about the virus. Taking second-hand information from anyone is always risky, unless they hand over the source openly or unless it is from an HIV specialist. Since being diagnosed I have heard some ridiculously hilarious ‘opinions’ about HIV. The safest course of action is to educate yourself.
The day I found out I was positive, the only thing I could think about doing was blaming someone. So, I sat down at my computer and violently typed out an angrily-worded email to my ex-boyfriend telling him to basically die. A week later when I’d cooled off, I decided that essentially no-one is to blame and he was just as traumatised as I was by this whole experience. To this day we remain good friends.
The next thing I decided to do was to form a support network by telling my closest friends and family. I didn’t predict that this would backfire, seeing as my loved ones are all progressive, liberal types. While yes, a couple of friends didn’t vanish in a puff of smoke, the rest, including close family members, justifiably, had to digest the information and deal with their own misunderstandings regarding the virus.
For my older friends and relatives, I believe this has something to do with the residual fear of witnessing the AIDS epidemic in the 80s and the fact that I was now the only healthy HIV-positive person that they knew. Friends who are my age, I think were misinformed about the virus altogether. Some still are. Of course, you also have to take cultural and educational backgrounds into consideration.
Four years on, I feel that in the end, having to be independent in the management of my illness has served me better. However, supporting someone close to you who has been recently diagnosed is also a precious thing, and only requires you to be open minded and loving.
I believe it is my moral and social obligation to continue to educate myself on the matter of HIV, and then talk about it whenever possible to anyone who will listen, no matter their gender or sexual orientation. In this way, I hope that the landscape of what is really going on will be less clouded.
GMFA ask you to ‘Think Again’ about HIV
In response to the increasing number of HIV infections amongst gay men in their teens and twenties, GMFA has launched a new campaign focused on raising awareness of HIV.
The campaign invites young gay men to start thinking again about their sexual health and reconsider some of the things they think they know about HIV.
In 2012 there were more gay men diagnosed with HIV than in any previous year, and a third of these men were in their teens or twenties. GMFA conducted a number of focus groups with young gay men to see why infection rates were so high in this group and found that many young gay men thought that HIV was something that was unlikely to affect them, with some thinking that there was already a cure for HIV.
GMFA’s Chief Executive, Matthew Hodson, said, “Sadly, we can’t rely on gay men getting the sex education that they need at achool. If we are going to avoid a generation of gay men getting infected it’s important that young gay men are given the opportunity to think again about HIV, arm themselves with the information and the skills they need to prevent transmission.”
In the first four weeks:
- 2,954,258 people have seen the campaign on Facebook
- 213,718 interacted with the campaign (clicked on the link, commented, liked or shared it).
- 68,900 people have seen the campaign on Twitter.
- 18,100 interacted with it.
- 1,792 people have shared the campaign on Tumblr.
- Stephen Fry tweeted it, describing it as ‘brilliant’.
- More than 12,000 people have come to the Think Again page on GMFA’s website.
- The number of HIV testing kits ordered through the GMFA website quadrupled, with 80% of kits now being sent to men in their teens and twenties (up from 45%).
And there’s still more to come. Over the next few weeks ‘Think Again’ will be appearing in more of the gay press, on posters in gay bars and, from July, on bus shelters in Clapham, Shoreditch, Vauxhall and Dalston.
For more info about ‘Think Again’, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/thinkagainHIV.
Think Again is funded through community support. Help GMFA to contnue this campaign by donating. Visit, www.gmfa.org.uk/donate.
This article was taken from FS magazine issue 142. To read this issue in full, click here.