Life TRUE LIFE: Sexy and I don't know it By Ruaidhri O’Baoill | @RuaidhriOB If the above were the lyrics of LMFAO’s annoyingly catchy hit song in 2011, I am not sure the song would have done as well as it did. The above, though, was definitely how I’ve felt since 23 August 2014. It was how I’ve felt since I found out that I was HIV-positive. I can safely say that on that day my life changed. It is quite staggering how much your life can change as a result of a few spoken words – “Sorry, but your results have come back positive.” When I found out on that day, I must admit I didn’t scream in agony or cry in despair. I just sat there and listened. I could feel an odd sense of calm surrounding me. Everything went very quiet. Looking back on it, I think it must have been the shock of it all but at the time I surprised myself with how ‘well’ I was taking the news. A lot of my close friends have asked me since how I handled the news, and in all honesty my initial reaction could be considered quite shallow and vain by others, but I clearly remember my first thought was “Am I still attractive?” Will guys no longer think I am sexy? This may sound ridiculous but the idea of not being attractive any more to other guys really affected me. Living in London, as a young twenty-something gay man, I unfortunately put a lot of importance on how I looked. Before my diagnosis I went to the gym four to five times a week. I wanted to be seen at the right clubs and parties. I started to collect a wardrobe of tight vests and jock-straps. If truth be told, I started to become a party boy. However not long after my diagnosis I started to lose my confidence. I started to feel dirty. It came to a point when I built it up so much in my head that I thought I could even feel the disease running through my veins. Very quickly after this I started to feel somewhat worthless. No matter how much I tried to outwardly portray ‘sexiness’ I knew that there was this ‘vile’ thing inside me, and there it would be until I died. I even stopped wanking for months because I just did not feel sexy in the slightest. I started to feel very alone. Each and every morning I would get up feeling absolutely shattered. I started to look in the mirror each morning and ask myself what’s the point? I didn’t seem to have the energy to care any more if my hair was a mess or if I hadn’t been to the gym in a while. I knew my appearance on the outside wouldn’t change the fact I am now HIV-positive, so I told myself why should I bother? This, for me, was the most upsetting. I was starting to lose my personality, my character and in my mind my looks. I was giving in to giving up. I had to work out some way of getting myself out of this rut. I soon realised that when I started confiding in more people about my status I started to become more like myself again. As I became more open about it, it started to make it less of a shameful ‘dirty secret’. Slowly I got some of my confidence back and this was when I realised there was no-one out there for me to look up to. There was no one in our gay community. No public role model as such. More importantly, there was no one my age. There is no one in their 20s who is out there saying “I’m a young positive gay man and I’m attractive as I ever was”. This led me to contact Ian Howley, the editor at FS, to see what, if anything, I could do to help raise awareness and remind those living with HIV, especially my age, that we are not to be left on the shelf. Ian asked if I would be interested in taking part in an upcoming naked photo-shoot aimed at ending stigma surrounding HIV, called HIV Stripped Bare. Up until my diagnosis I was pretty relaxed about taking my clothes off. However my diagnosis changed that, which resulted in me feeling the need to cover up more. When I said yes to Ian and the naked photo-shoot I didn’t think it through. I was not nervous at all about it up until a couple of days before when it really sunk in what I was about to undertake. It hit me really hard that once I do this there was no turning back. It would be out in the open. I would be ‘laid bare’ for the gay community to know and perhaps in turn make judgements. I had to remember exactly why I wanted to do this. It was to help other guys my age: to give them a voice, to put a normal face to the disease, to show other guys that apart from this disease we were still the same person as before. I put aside my fears and made my way to Heaven nightclub one Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, we were made to feel at ease straight away. Excuse the choice of words, but it was a positive environment to be in. Everyone was encouraging and we all felt that this was something to be proud of. I was second up and within minutes I was half naked with only a pair of red skimpy shorts on. I had never been to a photo-shoot before so I told myself to enjoy this. After all I had been through recently it felt quite empowering just standing there with only the shorts covering my best bits. (Within five minutes the shorts had come off…) I posed like there was no tomorrow – I would have given Kate Moss a run for her money! After ten minutes, it was done and the sense of achievement and pride I had was quite immense. I left Heaven with a smile on my face knowing that what I had just done could possibly help someone else in my shoes. When the article was published the feedback from readers was instant and incredibly affirming. It was a very honest article that pushed the myths and stereotypes to one side and told it exactly how it was. I started getting recognised from others in the gay community who would congratulate me on my bravery along with the other participants. Their kind words really got to me and I was over the moon that I actually went through with it. I looked at my half naked self in the article and only saw one thing staring back at me: a sexy confident young man, not someone who was living with this horrible disease. What happened next really made me realise how far we have come since the days of the Tombstone adverts of the 80s. With how popular the article was becoming on Twitter and Facebook I knew that somehow it would reach some of my other friends I hadn’t told before. I made the decision to publically use the article to ‘come out’ on Facebook to everyone I knew. My reasoning behind this was I am proud of this article but also I am proud of how far I had come in such a short space of time since finding out this life-changing news. The response I had was beyond incredible. I had messages of congratulations and best wishes from people who I had not expected to. People who I would have thought would not have wanted to know me anymore. As it was now out in the open, nowhere to hide, I felt on top of the world. I knew that from now on no matter when I felt down or not sexy I had a huge group of people behind me telling me that I was. I suppose this is what I want to do from now for other gay HIV-positive men my age. I want to be that person behind them reminding them that nothing has changed just because you are positive. I want them to shout out from the rooftops that “I’M SEXY AND I KNOW IT!” To read HIV Stripped Bare, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/fs145-hiv-stripped-bare-stigma-gay Combatting stigma is vital. Stigma causes harm, not just to those who are living with diagnosed HIV but to our whole community, by obstructing our 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. Just because someone is living with HIV, it doesn’t mean they are doomed, it doesn’t mean they are ‘unclean’, and it doesn’t mean they are predatory or dangerous. If we are going to be successful in reducing the number of new infections, we need to do all the 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. To learn more about the #stopHIVstigma campaign, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/stopHIVstigma.