Is the stigma around HIV finally disappearing?

2016 saw breakthroughs in research and a visibility increase around the virus – but how much work is still to be done?

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Larry Clark's controversial film Kids addresses the rapid spread of HIVKids, 1995, Larry Clark, via www.batcol.com

2016 may have been a tumultuous year for queer communities worldwide but, in the UK, it seems at least that progress is finally being made with regards to HIV research and accessibility of treatment. One breakthrough came in August this year, when the NHS – which previously argued it wasn’t responsible for HIV prevention – lost a legal battle against the National Aids Trust. The verdict was appealed and finally upheld in November, resulting in an announcement earlier this month that the NHS will launch a 3-year trial of pre-exposure prophylaxis, better known as PrEP or its brand name, Truvada.

In yet another sign of progress, British scientists then revealed in October that they may have discovered a treatment which fully cures the virus. Currently, HIV treatment relies on antiretroviral medications (ART) which reduce the blood load of the virus to undetectable levels, thus entirely eradicating risk of transmission through even unprotected sex. The new treatment proposed by scientists, however, aims to go a step further, hoping to reactivate dormant cells and clear them from the body, essentially eliminating all trace of the virus.

Although the research and development of this treatment are still in their early stages, the signs are looking brighter than ever before. The ruling that the NHS is responsible for funding HIV prevention is another key step forward; it was revealed earlier this year that the extortionate cost of acquiring PrEP privately was forcing many to ‘clinic hop’, going from place to place claiming risky sex in order to receive PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis), a treatment which consists of two Raltegravir tablets and one Truvada – or PrEP – tablet.

“Not only is there the implication that PrEP’s sole function is to facilitate gay promiscuity, there’s a deep undercurrent of homophobia which indicates that HIV’s stigma as a uniquely gay disease renders it unworthy of treatment”

Despite these steps forward, Jason Reid – a journalist himself responsible for several illuminating articles on living with HIV and the stigma still attached to the virus – is quick to point out that the media has used the discussion to further demonise minorities. “PrEP is a game-changer in the fight against HIV, that’s a fact. The controversy surrounding it, however, only feeds into the stigma that we have to endure. In 2016 we’ve seen media organisations that have an agenda against minorities – despite HIV being on the rise amongst heterosexuals – using the advances in HIV prevention to beat up LGBT people. These publications have dwindling – but sadly, still large – readerships, so it’s up to all of us to hold them accountable and to offer up the facts.”

One such publication is the Daily Mail which, the morning after the National Aids Trust’s court victory, published a scathing front page which branded PrEP a “lifestyle drug” and claimed the decision displayed “skewed values.” Not only is there the implication that PrEP’s sole function is to facilitate gay promiscuity, there’s a deep undercurrent of homophobia which indicates that HIV’s stigma as a uniquely gay disease renders it unworthy of treatment. Using HIV to buoy homophobia is, of course, completely ignorant – in 2015 alone there were 2360 new diagnoses resulting from heterosexual sex, a statistic usually omitted from articles fuelled by homophobia.

Perhaps surprisingly, gay dating apps are especially rife with discrimination. “(We need to) keep calling out this ‘clean’ and ‘riddled’ shit”, explains Reid, referring to the language commonly used to insult and degrade HIV+ users. “It’s toxic and hugely damaging to people living with HIV. Grindr has not been proactive enough in addressing this.” In fact, in July this year, it was revealed that the app had created a survey to ascertain whether users would like the option to filter their matches by HIV status, thus presenting the possibility to block HIV+ users from contacting them entirely. Not only does this fuel stigma and completely ignore the fact that HIV, when treated, can render the virus undetectable and thus enable healthy, risk-free sex lives, it also provides an incentive for people to hide their positive status. In 2016, this should not be happening.

“PrEP is a game-changer in the fight against HIV, that’s a fact. The controversy surrounding it, however, only feeds into the stigma that we have to endure” – Jason Reid

This links into yet another problem – sex education. Reid points out that charitable organisations including the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) and Gay Men Fight Aids (GMFA) are doing their job in providing vital information, as is FS Magazine. Jason Domino, the man behind Porn4PrEP, is another key voice in the conversation – not only does the group actively campaign to make PrEP more readily available in the UK, they create porn scenes which open a dialogue on sexual health and actively demonstrate the meaning of terms such as ‘undetectable’ in real sex scenarios. 

Unfortunately, this kind of education is still desperately needed. Just last week a First Dates star, Alex Causton-Ronaldson, saw his story go viral after he revealed that show organisers forced him to disclose his HIV+ status before meeting his blind date. Speaking to Buzzfeed News, he explained that, although his blood load of the virus was ‘undetectable’, he was still deemed a risk to his dinner companion. In fact, it was only when Causton-Ronaldson informed producers they had acted illegally that they backed down – this was after Channel 4’s psychotherapist had breached confidentiality and passed on his medical information without permission.

This mistreatment is proof of the stigma that still surrounds a virus, which is becoming increasingly easier to treat and control. ART has been proven to enable HIV+ people to live healthy lives without posing risk to sexual partners, whereas the landmark ruling on PrEP funding looks set to make protection against the virus as straightforward as possible. 

Education and awareness of these breakthroughs is the next step towards eradicating stigma around the virus. “I do think there’s more of a general understanding of the term ‘undetectable’, explains Reid, “but that’s speaking from my own sphere of contacts. It’s vital to educate those not in that sphere; friends, colleagues, family. I think my mum is now more in tune with HIV knowledge than most people I know.” Groups such as Porn4PrEP are helping to proliferate this information but there’s work to be done. Dating apps could – and should – be doing more to dispel the rumour that HIV+ users undergoing treatment are still a sexual health risk, whereas mainstream media outlets must do more to share and make visible the stories of people – of all genders and sexualities – living their lives without risk.

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