I once met a beautiful man in a Vauxhall club. He had everything the gay scene adores: youth, perfect body, eight pack abs. A dark-eyed smoulder and a masculine swagger. But underneath the surface trappings, he had this shyer, nervous beauty. Like when he made a joke and checked to make sure I smiled. He seemed to be blithely unaware of his power. I happily went back with him and spent some of the most pleasurable time of my life inside him.
Yet I made sure to pull out before I came. Both being inebriated we hadn’t used protection, and PrEP wasn't yet on the horizon. I remember thinking to myself, even as the orgasm built, that I had not been tested for a year: what if I unwittingly gave it to him? Enough of the HIV message had seeped in to lace my pleasure with fear and guilt. As a young gay man who wasn’t in a relationship, had multiple partners and was haphazard with condoms, I was a ‘Bad Gay’.
We parted ways after that weekend. But a month later, back in that same Vauxhall club, I bumped into a mutual friend. Trying not to appear too interested, I nonchalantly asked about the Beautiful Man. The friend was instantly alert.
“You did use condoms, didn’t you?”
Alarm bells began to ring: “Yeah, of course.”
“Because everybody’s catching HIV off him. Slag.”
I was finally confronted with the reality of HIV, after years of dancing with risk. I’d knowingly slept with two positive guys by that point, and we’d been intensely careful with condoms. But that unprotected sex I was having: HIV wasn’t part of my queer indie dance floors and happy-go-lucky club nights. I found myself caught out by my own stigmatising stereotype: I had thought that Beautiful Man simply looked way too good to have HIV.
“Stigma relies on stereotypes,” says Professor Rusi Jaspal, Chair in Psychology and Sexual Health at De Montfort University. “Psychologically, we stigmatise others in order to protect ourselves. We devise stereotypes to make sense of the world. People draw on negative stereotypes in order to understand that person X has HIV and in order to reassure themselves that they will never get infected.”
I naively thought that I knew no-one living with HIV. I had to ask myself seriously what I would do if I were diagnosed positive: and my immediate reaction was that I wouldn’t tell anybody. I’d experienced enough feelings of ostracisation growing up gay without experiencing it from within my community too. As I was agonising over a test, I felt completely alone. Part of the reason I’ve written my play The HIV Monologues is to combat this silencing stigma about HIV.
Shyelle Richard Anthony is a 22-year-old gay man who has spoken openly about his status, taking part in a #stopHIVstigma campaign for gay men’s charity GMFA. “The first emotion that hit me when I was diagnosed was FEAR,” he tells me. “Nothing had prepared me for the news. The uncertainty of people’s reactions really made me withdrawn and my usual outgoing self disappeared for a long vacation to Cape Verde. I was left isolated. I find it disturbing that people still use someone’s status to attack them. Problems can arise when a person isn’t in a mentally stable place to handle potentially toxic responses.”
“Honestly, it hit me hard in the beginning,” he says. “I now feel constantly frustrated that people haven’t educated themselves and are just blissfully ignorant about HIV, due to a lack of understanding… The fear around HIV is down to a lack of knowledge or being misinformed. Providing people with a basic understanding of what HIV is and how it affects people empowers them with knowledge so that they don’t spread prejudice.”
One person who has been working incessantly to educate people about HIV is Greg Owen. Greg is one of the leading PrEP activists in the UK, spearheading the fight to make the potentially game-changing HIV prevention drug available on the NHS. In fact, he went so far as to co-found the website ‘I Want PrEP Now’, specifically designed to spread information and enable those who need it to buy PrEP safely online from veritable sources.
I remember Greg coming out publicly about his HIV status, the day after he was diagnosed in August 2015. I ask him if he feels it’s important for people living with HIV to be open about their status in order to combat stigma?
“I think it’s important but it’s not easy for everyone,” he replies. “I’m lucky: I’m a gay man living in London, my community is HIV aware. I have a supportive family and they live 500 miles away in Belfast so they are out of the range of direct fire. I don’t belong to a faith group that would victimise me. I was also single when diagnosed so there was no one else to consider. Disclosure has to be the best thing for each individual and at the right time.”
“Stigma is actually the thing that we all can challenge and deconstruct, regardless of status” – Greg Owen
Greg received his own share of particularly venomous online abuse from a troll on Facebook. He felt like he’d been “punched in the stomach” upon receiving the messages. How does he feel the fight against HIV stigma can be won?
“Stigma is actually the thing that we all can challenge and deconstruct, regardless of status. You don’t have to be a trained medical professional or work in the HIV sector. We can all decide right now to learn something about HIV… Google. Learn a fact, educate yourself and reach out and be kind. Stigma comes from fear and ignorance. If you combat those, stigma begins to die.”
Education is the word that this discussion revolves around. And education about HIV is necessary not only to tear down stigma, but as an effective prevention tool in its own right. “We like to associate risk, danger and negativity with others because this allows us to distance those disturbing phenomenon from ourselves,” says Professor Rusi. “The paradox is of course that the strategy of attempting to keep HIV away from us by stigmatising HIV-positive people makes it less likely that people will get tested, disclose their status, and engage with HIV care, thereby perpetuating the cycle of onward HIV transmission.”
The HIV Monologues explores this modern day stigma juxtaposed against the history of HIV amongst gay men, from the 1980s to the life-saving ART meds of 1996. In researching the extraordinary compassion of the queer community shown during the AIDS epidemic, I spoke extensively to our cast member Jonathan Blake. Jonathan was diagnosed in 1982, and was played by Dominic West in the film Pride. I asked him about HIV and young gay men.
“Happily they haven’t lived through what we lived through,” he says. “I don’t think enough is talked about in terms of the early years. Schools have got a lot to answer for. They will not talk about gay sex or relationships, so they’re not preparing young kids for what there is around them. And I think that’s criminal, it’s outrageous. Without education, how are kids ever going to learn? How do you learn ways to behave if people aren’t there to explain and guide?”
While we can’t be a replacement for secondary school SRE education, hopefully our play contributes to a wider and honest conversation about HIV amongst the gay community. And when I finally plucked up the courage to take my own test, I was diagnosed negative. But I never forgot the loneliness of my scare. So when I saw my Beautiful Man again, still as shy and nervous, I didn’t shout at him. I held him to me close, for a moment, or maybe more.
The HIV Monologues plays at Miranda London, the Ace Hotel, 100 Shoreditch High Street, E1 6JQ from 2-19 February. To book tickets, click here.