By Matthew Hodson | @Matthew_Hodson

You’re proud to be gay, right? Maybe not every hour of every day, but when you’re in the midst of some LGBT Pride event and there are lesbian and gay soldiers, sailors, families, policemen and women, bankers, shop assistants, celebrities, politicos all joining together – that’s a great feeling. 

Thousands of men, women and men dressed as women marching in the parade and getting cheers and whoops from the crowd, then filling the streets and partying until the early hours. It’s all so different from the first Pride marches I went on, when uniformed officers were forbidden from marching with us, when we expected heckles and abuse from passers-by and parents would shield their children’s eyes. 

So what’s changed since then? Chiefly, I believe, it’s what the general public think of when they’re asked to imagine a gay man or a lesbian. The main depiction of homosexuality that I can recall from childhood was John Inman’s character on Are You Being Served? Back then, in the 1970s, coming out as lesbian or gay to family or colleagues was an act of exceptional bravery. But we had a weapon that was capable of changing hearts and minds. We knew that when someone encountered gay men or lesbian women in their lives, in their families orworkplaces, or even when they saw gays and lesbians on television, it could have a huge impact on their perception of what it meant to be gay. The power to change society was in our own hands. If we had the courage to be honest about who we were, to our friends, family and colleagues, we could change attitudes and we could change the world.

Fast forward to today. While prejudice is far from eliminated, it is no longer considered an act of unusual bravery to be open about your sexuality. Our rights as employees are protected, so we can’t be sacked for being gay. Celebrities, such as Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory or Zachary Quinto of the Star Trek movies, came out without fuss. And this progress would not have been possible without those who came before, who were brave enough to risk their friendships, their jobs and even their lives to stand up and proudly declare their sexuality. 

For people with HIV, we are now somewhere akin to where homosexuality was two decades ago. In the world of music I could name Holly Johnson and Andy Bell, in politics, the former MP Chris Smith. Considering the millions of people who are now living with the virus globally, the list of people in the public eye who do so openly is exceedingly short. 

The problem with this is that for many people (uninfected or undiagnosed) they have no idea how much the situation has changed for people with HIV since combination therapy became widely available. The thought that people living with HIV are working full-time, in jobs as stressful or as trivial as any other section of society comes as a shock.

And the increasing invisibility of HIV hampers our efforts to prevent new infections. If someone can go out on the gay scene and kid themselves that they don’t know anyone living with HIV, it must be easy to imagine that they’ve never had sex with anyone with HIV. And if they’re not having sex with people with HIV, why should they care about safer sex? 

The old images of inevitable and rapid death make many so fearful that they can’t bring themselves to test. And the great irony is that fear of finding out means that, if they do have HIV, they won’t access treatment at the optimum time, leading to a far greater likelihood of illness and death.  We can change this. We can let people know that there are people living with HIV in their workplaces and their families, in the pubs and clubs that they visit and in the churches where they worship. 

So I salute all those members of the HIV community who have had the courage to stand up and say: “Yes, I have HIV”. I’m thinking of people like Kristian, and those who have preceded him, who have used FS to talk honestly, wittily, and intelligently about living with the virus. These people inspire me. On the basis of trying to be the change that you want to see in the world, I guess I should declare that I have been living with diagnosed HIV for fifteen years now. 

Being open about your HIV status is still a brave thing to do. But if more of us are willing to do it, the easier it will be for all. There is far too much ignorance about HIV in our society. The more people who are willing to answer questions, address concerns, and challenge myths and prejudice, the more informed the coming generations will be. 

Matthew Hodson is the Executive Director of NAM