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Thursday, 4 October 2012

Educating the Masses: Next-Gen GayBoys and HIV

Educating the Masses

So its been a while. Have been trying to put some order in my life. I find myself as a single gay man again and am reinserting myself into the UK scene. The initial adjustment has been a bit of an upheaval but I do think I am getting to some kind of happy equilibrium. I have a full time job, granted, it’s a bit of a leave your brain at home position, but in this current economic climate I am just grateful to have regular hours and a consistent monthly salary. I am just about managing to juggle my finances and am forging a healthy set of new friendships, maintaining the existing ones and developing an active and balanced social life. Granted, a lot of this is still revolving around sex, but for once I feel in control. I am liking this feeling. There is something quite comforting about being the master of your own destiny. Independence is a facet of existence I have not managed to wrangle control of for too long now, but finally acquiring the formative building blocks of it is working wonders for my self esteem. 

I want to talk about HIV a bit more in this blog. There are issues which have been bugging me in recent months that need to be aired a bit for further debate and consideration. It seems that we have reached a bit of an interesting juncture in the history of the virus. A new generation of guys has become sexually active and are exploring what the big old gay-o-sphere has to offer. Now these guys have been born after the fear, shock, turmoil and horror that was the 80’s and early 90’s. They have no living memory of just how scary those days were. They have not lost anybody to the epidemic and have no tangible concept of its early history. For us older guys, (Christ it feels weird to be saying that!) there was knowledge bandied around through fear, through the media, through peer to peer conversations. HIV stigma, though a shockingly negative thing in itself, served as a very positive totem in our lives. It helped promote and educate and inform us of the risks and dangers. Everybody in my peer group in school was in possession of some rudimentary information about HIV transmission, its voracity and how you could never really tell who had it. But the world has changed. Very much for the better in many senses. Stigma is waning, not to the extent that it has disappeared completely, but significantly enough for many people to get on with a normal life without worrying about being seen as a leper or something disease riddled and dirty. Medications have improved to the point that they can manage the virus effectively with minimal side effects and rendering individuals effectively non-infective. The law has changed to provide stronger employment rights and protection for those living with the virus. People are no longer dying like flies and quality of life has improved significantly. All good so far you may think.

Another interesting, if not ironic side effect of the positive community is that those living with HIV are tending to look after themselves a lot better once they are diagnosed. Eating healthier, drinking less, quitting smoking, maintaining active and liberated sex lives where they are checked regularly for any other sexually transmitted infections, working out at the gym etc etc. The consequence is that poz people look hot! People want to fuck them. The irony is that the untested and negative community see those that they know are poz and perceive that it can’t be all that bad. They see being poz as something that can actually be a positive force in your life. For some, including myself, this is true to a certain extent, but not for all. But what these guys are seeing is just a side effect of having HIV. Before I was poz I was a fat fuck. I ate utter shit and too much of it! I smoked like a chimney, drank many times more than my weekly limit in units. I really abused my body. So answer me this, why did it take HIV to make me come to my senses and take better care of myself? What kind of messed up logic is that?

What they don’t understand is that we look better and exude confidence because we don’t want them to see that having HIV is having any negative psychological or physical effects on our lives. The best way to combat stigma is to stand tall, don’t let it affect u, hold your head up high and move forward with your life whilst all the time telling yourself that this virus is not going to make things worse for you. It takes effort and courage and commitment. 

What they don’t see is the wobbly moments we all have when we are on our own. The anger and frustration we feel when we are asked stupid questions or casually rejected or are made to feel dirty by the ignorant, the uneducated, the unenlightened or the blatant bigots out there on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. So what do I mean by stupid questions I hear you ask? 

“Are you clean?”

“Will you breed me?”

“Are you safe? If so can we have bareback sex?”

“Whats HIV?”

“I don’t know what I have so we’re ok to fuck bareback mate, ok?”

“Will you give me AIDS if you cum in my mouth?”

And the list goes on. So yeah. I have HIV. I live with it. Have come to terms with it. Accept it. But does this mean it now becomes my job to be the educator for these youngsters? Why have their parents not talked to them about it? Why has the school not talked to them about it? Why the fuck are they not doing a simple Google search and finding stuff out for themselves? Can you see how being asked these questions week in week out can start to become mentally draining and frustrating? In some ways, I do feel a responsibility to pass my knowledge on and I do frequently. I regularly man the Netreach Chat service for THT in the gaydar chat rooms. I am an outspoken member of the gay and poz community. I feel that I do my bit. But sometimes I also feel that whilst we are winning the battle in so many ways, we are also losing in the worst way possible. You would have thought that by 2012 the rate of new infections in the Gay community would have dramatically reduced or ground to a near halt. With the information, treatment, ease of testing, development of highly professional specialist services, peer support groups, internet forums and social networking groups it would be a logical step to reach such a conclusion. Sadly this is not the case and new diagnoses from the Gay male demographic has remained at a peak plateau of 2500 – 3000 per year for the past 8 years or so in the UK alone (HPA 2011). So is this figure as a result of increased testing, a relaxed attitude about HIV because it is no longer perceived as a terminal illness or is it due to lack of basic awareness and knowledge around the virus itself? Probably a combination of all 3. Increased testing rates are an amazing consequence of health promotion campaigns and increased awareness amongst guys in their 30’s, 40’s and older. Whilst the increased incidence of testing is mopping up many of the guys who have been unknowingly positive for years, this rate will eventually start to decrease as a result of testing trends. Also, the more guys out there that are diagnosed, the less vectors of transmission there are in the community. Knowing your status allows you to make informed choices and decisions about the kind of sex you have and who you have it with. Also, the sooner you go onto medication the less long term damage you will sustain to your immune system and the less likely you are to pass on the virus. Guys on the right combinations of medication have the virus suppressed in their system, effectively making them non-infective. 

However, ignorance and a relaxed attitude about the reality of living with HIV are now, in my opinion, the new baddies keeping the rate of new diagnosis up at its current high levels. So how do we tackle this? Personally, I am starting to lose patience with guys. After repeating yourself several times a week it does start to get a bit tiring and wearing. Any suggestions would be warmly welcomed. I did however come up with an interesting campaign concept and poster idea today. “Don’t Die of Ignorance” was a campaign in the 80’s which increased stigma, instilled fear and caused many long lasting social problems for the poz community. However, the core message was a strong one, so I thought:

“How can I reinvent that campaign but with a positive spin?”

“How can I reclaim and revive the essence of what the old campaign was trying to communicate, but without increasing stigma?”

So I came up with this…. Not sure if I’m onto something, but the overall effect is empowering, hard hitting and brutally direct.

Finding out that you have HIV is no longer a death sentence....

NOT finding out that you have HIV may well be your death sentence.

Don't die of ignorance!

Get tested, today!

I’ll Leave you with that but please feel free to comment, or get in touch with me if you have any feedback. This blog is a work in progress but without your feedback I don’t know if I am making any sense or just rambling nonsense…