Gareth Thomas doesn’t look like the kind of person who scares easily. He is a big, brawny man and a former international rugby star, but you could see the fear in his eyes as he paused before announcing on Saturday: “I am living with HIV.”
Despite the enormous progress we have made in treating HIV, despite the fact that someone with diagnosed HIV can now expect to live as long as anyone else, this infection remains one of the most stigmatised of all medical conditions. People with HIV are frequently feared, shunned and rejected. Being open about your HIV status still requires courage.
Globally, there are now more than 37million people living with HIV but very few in the public eye have been willing to talk about it. Gareth joins a group of celebrities, including Eurovision winner Conchita Wurst and the actor Charlie Sheen, whose decision to go public about their HIV status was driven by the threat of being outed.
Celebrities living with HIV may face the additional threat of tabloid exposure but stories of blackmail by a current or former partner, threatening to expose someone’s HIV status to friends or family members, are all too common.
Although I have no regrets about choosing to come out of the viral closet, it has created challenges. I have to deal with the judgement of others: that I must have been stupid, reckless or irresponsible; that I am not a ‘good gay man’. The truth is, we all make mistakes. We do so, whether or not we are punished for them.
Once you’ve told someone that you have HIV, you can’t ‘un-tell’ them. If you’re not willing or able to be open about your status to everyone, it’s entirely justifiable that you consider very carefully who you tell. The intense fear that people still have of those of us living with HIV means that even the act of talking about our status may not be safe. Just recently, two women in Texas were murdered by their partners after disclosing that they had HIV.
Counter to this is the great good that can come when people are open about HIV. Through being visible and unashamed, we can make it easier for others living with the virus. We can, as Thomas has done, share the news that when we are on effective HIV treatment we can’t pass it on to our sexual partners. Most of the fear that people have of HIV is misplaced. In the UK, almost half of people say they would never date someone with HIV, although 95% of those of us who are diagnosed cannot pass the virus on sexually.
I refuse to think of my HIV status as something to be ashamed of; it’s just a virus, it’s not a moral judgement. The more of us who are willing to answer questions, address concerns, and challenge the myths and prejudice, the better it will be for those who follow us.
For so long as people are routinely judged, rejected or excluded as a result of their HIV status, the benefits of openness will still compete with the security of discretion. I will not judge others who are not ready to be open about their status.
Despite the potential risks to our mental and even physical health, many people who are not living with HIV expect us to tell every sexual partner that we have, even when there’s no risk of transmission. This expectation displays a naivety or callousness to the genuine concerns that accompany any disclosure of HIV status.
I ask that those who believe that all people with HIV should discuss their status with sexual partners work to create an environment where it is safe for us to do so. Understand that our life expectancy can now be equal to those who do not live with the virus; share the news that when treated successfully we cannot pass the virus on through sex; call out people who attempt to shame us; challenge HIV stigma and demonstrate, through your words and actions, that everyone is able to talk honestly about HIV, without fear of violence, scorn or blackmail.
Help to create the environment where all will be free to talk about HIV without fear.
Matthew Hodson is executive director of NAM, a charity which supports people living and working with HIV. For more information, visit their website here