It was around a decade ago that I ‘came out’ as gay. A few people knew before then, either from me telling them, or them guessing. For a long while it didn’t seem like such a big deal hiding the fact that I was gay, why should it matter? If I want to keep it to myself then what’s the big deal? But it’s surprising how many little lies it takes to keep something like that private, and that wasn’t really something I felt comfortable with. Eventually, I needed to come out, not just to a few people whom I’d then burden with having to keep it quiet; I needed to be open with everyone.
Looking back, I think everyone in my life now would agree I made the right choice. Now, all these years later I find myself in what feels like a similar situation again.
I found out recently that I was HIV positive, and I’ve kept fairly quiet about it until now. Why the silence? For the many familiar reasons… Why should it matter to people? If I want to keep it to myself, what’s the big deal? Plus, if I’m honest, I’ve been terrified about the reactions I may get.
Perhaps some will read this and wonder why the hell I would even consider being open about it? Many of the 35 million people living with HIV today have chosen to keep quiet. Some tell a few others in their life, some tell no one at all, very few set up a website and broadcast their HIV status to the world (though I’m not alone in doing this, and I have much admiration for those who’ve done this before me).
There is of course a big difference between coming out as gay, and coming out as HIV positive. Everybody understands what it means to be gay, and I’d guess most people reading this must have at least one gay friend, family member, or colleague. Being gay isn’t an issue in 21st century Britain, there’s no stigma attached to homosexuality anymore, and nobody in his or her right mind would suggest it’s something to be ashamed of.
HIV however, is far less understood. How many openly HIV positive people are there in your life? How many openly HIV positive musicians can you name? Or actors? athletes? MPs? business leaders? There are people with HIV in every walk of life, but it simply isn’t talked about, because the people who could talk about it, who understand it, who live with it, often choose not to talk.
HIV is just a medical condition, yet some attitudes towards HIV can be a world apart from attitudes towards other conditions. There’s no stigma attached to being diabetic, asthmatic, or epileptic. No one would suggest someone with high blood pressure or cholesterol should keep quiet about it.
There’s a vicious cycle of stigma, caused by ignorance, caused by silence, caused by stigma. It does nobody any good. Attitudes will only change if people with HIV stop hiding in silence.
The reality of living with HIV has changed so much since the last big public awareness campaign in the late 1980’s, “Don’t die of ignorance” was the tagline of that campaign, it’s unfortunate that despite the efforts of some great charities and organizations, so many people are still unsure about what the virus is, how it can be transmitted (and equally importantly, cannot be transmitted), and what the difference between HIV and AIDS is.
For those really not aware of the facts around HIV or how things have changed since the discovery of the virus a little over 30 years ago, I’d like to point out that I’m neither dying nor ill – and I’ll explain why that is in a moment.
HIV is a virus, most commonly transmitted through unprotected sex or infected blood, it’s not possible to catch HIV through normal day to day contact or such things as hugging or kissing, sharing cutlery or drinking from the same glass. If someone with HIV coughs or sneezes near to you, you’re not at risk – it’s not like a cold or flu virus.
What the virus does, in simplified terms, is weaken the immune system. It invades blood cells used by the immune system to find infections, and uses those cells to replicate copies of itself. Left untreated, the immune system would become gradually weaker until it was unable to effectively prevent infections. The term AIDS refers to the condition where an immune system so damaged by HIV that a person is at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying.
As I said above, I’m not dying. There have been incredible breakthroughs in treatment during the short time since the discovery of HIV/AIDS. Each and every day at 6pm I take three tablets, those tablets work together to fight the virus in various stages of its lifecycle. Last week I got the results back from a blood test, after three months of treatment, there were no detectable copies of the HIV virus. This doesn’t mean I’m cured – new copies of the virus continue to be produced deeper in my body, so I’ll be on a combination of these drugs for the rest of my life, or until a cure is found.
Crucially, while the virus is not running wild in my bloodstream, it’s not able to damage my immune system, which has already begun to show signs of recovering.
When my doctor first informed me that I was HIV positive I asked a number of questions, quite naively one of them was about life expectancy. His answer I think really sums up the reality of life with HIV today, “You shouldn’t worry about AIDS, you’re far more likely to die of something else”. What he was getting at is that HIV is now a manageable condition, and most people who are HIV positive and on effective medication will grow old and die in just the same way as anybody else.
So, to bring this long post to a close. I’m Chris, I’m HIV positive, but still the same person I’ve always been, I’m happy, I’m healthy, and I hope that through this blog I can help in at least some small way to challenge attitudes about HIV.
I’m sure everyone reading this will have some kind of opinion or unanswered questions, so please comment below.
Thanks for reading! :-)