FS Magazine Upfront HIV isn’t dirty, stigma is By with Matthew Hodson | @Matthew_Hodson I was at a party the other day and found myself chatting to a guy I’d not met before. He was in his early thirties, seemed smart, funny and was kind of cute looking. Honestly, I’m not using this column to try to pick people up. I only mention that he was cute because you’d think that someone like that would have no problem getting a date or meeting someone for sex – but this guy did. In fact, he told me, he hadn’t had sex in 18 months, ever since he was diagnosed HIV-positive. Like most people who receive a positive diagnosis, it had hit him pretty hard. Even today, when medication means that HIV shouldn’t have too much impact on your life-expectancy, hearing that you have HIV, probably the most stigmatised virus of the modern era, feels like you’ve been punched in the stomach… repeatedly. I don’t like to generalise; I’m sure that there must be men who have been diagnosed and who are genuinely blasé about it, I’ve just never met one. And I’ve met and spoken to a lot of men who have been diagnosed positive. This guy at the party had made the decision that he was going to be open about his status with his sexual partners. He’d tried hooking up with people through the usual dating apps, at parties and in bars and clubs; each time he had been rejected. His confidence was now circling somewhere around the ocean floor. I wanted to give him a hug, to tell him that things would get better, but he wasn’t able to hear that right then. This guy was trying to do the responsible thing by talking to his potential sexual partners about HIV – and he was being punished for it. Other people with diagnosed HIV choose not to tell casual partners and risk being ‘uncovered’ and vilified. Sometimes those same casual encounters become serious relationships and the guy with HIV then has to choose the right moment to disclose to his partner, not knowing what reaction he may get. Although the number of gay men living with HIV in the UK has only ever increased year on year, the number of gay men who believe that they know someone living with HIV has gone down. The reluctance to disclose (and become subject to the judgements and rejection that people who are open about their HIV status will often encounter), coupled with the impact that treatment has had in preventing the visible symptoms of HIV, means that HIV is becoming increasingly invisible within our community. It’s obvious that this is a problem for guys like this chap I was speaking to, who had become miserable and desperate about his life. What is more, this is a problem for all of our communities, if we, as gay men, through our inaction, our disregard or our fear, drive people to such a place. Where is the support? Where is the love? But combatting stigma isn’t just about supporting our brothers who are living with HIV, it’s also vital for HIV prevention efforts. When we become unable to talk about HIV, we are unable to have those important health related discussions that can prevent transmission. When HIV is seen as the worst thing that can happen to a gay man, we are telling people with diagnosed HIV that there is no longer any need for them to take care of themselves, physically or emotionally. When the dread of acquiring HIV becomes too great, gay men are less likely to test – and as a result will be late to access the treatment that will both extend their lives and make them less infectious to their sexual partners. So much has changed since the era of the tombstones and the icebergs. People with HIV live full, productive lives. We work hard, sometimes we play hard, and we’re subject to all the same stresses and strains as everyone else, plus a few more. We are not doomed, we are not ‘unclean’, we are not predatory or dangerous, just because we are living with HIV. Until we have a magic wand, a vaccine or a cure (and don’t hold your breath waiting for any of these) we will continue to see the number of people living with HIV in our communities increase. If we are going to be successful in reducing the number of new infections, we need to do all those things that stigma hampers: testing, talking, honesty and openness. If you hear people talking about people living with HIV as if they have lost their right to a fulfilling, happy love-life, challenge it. When you hear people gossip about people who are living with HIV, challenge them. When people talk about HIV as if it were a matter of personal hygiene, or a moral judgement, remind them that HIV is just a virus. Stigma doesn’t just hurt people living with HIV, it harms all of us. Matthew Hodson is the Executive Director of NAM.