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One of the most violent elements within our society is ignorance. It has the capacity to shape generations, to stir cultural prejudice, and to create fear and discrimination at the expense of those without a voice. The rise of HIV and AIDS in the 1970s, at a time when little was understood about this forthcoming pandemic, gave birth to fear and recriminations against the homosexual communities and drug users. These sub-groups were the perfect target into which society could pour their fears and distrust. These communities were seen to be the corrupting influence of acceptable social norms and became the reason for this associated disease, and so stigma towards sufferers began to take root.
While HIV is an example of a global pandemic, it only came into our observable awareness in the western world around the late 1970s and the 1980s. In the UK, homosexuality among consenting adults of 21 years had only just been decriminalized under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. This was a time of open discriminatory practices and gay men, in particular, became convenient scapegoats for the destruction this disease was causing to society.
Under the conservative guidance of Health Secretary Norman Fowler, the “Don’t Die of Ignorance” campaign of 1986 created both social awareness and fear in equal measure. As a 9-year-old boy, I recall the feeling of fear on hearing the voice of John Hurt, as he informed the nation of this deadly disease.
In July 2015, I was diagnosed HIV positive and my life suddenly changed. The news came at a difficult time; my father was terminally ill and two of my friends had died suddenly. I made the decision not to tell my family. The stigma and shame I felt was overwhelming. In a heartbeat, my world came crashing down around me; I was catatonic and suicidal. The acceptance of my diagnosis was a process made bearable by the support of close friends and the exceptional counselling I received from the Terrence Higgins Trust.
I became involved with the charity Positively UK, who support newly diagnosed people understand and accept their diagnosis, and after a duration of recovery and training, I became a Peer Mentor offering advice, support, and a confidential lifeline for those struggling to accept their diagnosis.
This year, the Terrence Higgins Trust launched its “It Starts With Me” campaign, encouraging people to test for HIV and helping to educate people about the stigma faced by those with the condition. It is a stigma, which I have experienced on many occasions. Becoming the public face of this campaign was, for me, a choice to be open about my diagnosis and in essence to own it.
As World AIDS Day approached, being interviewed for magazines and newspapers became all too common and then a phone call came from the Terrence Higgins Trust, confirming that I would be meeting His Royal Highness Prince Harry and fiancé Meghan Markle to talk about my diagnosis, journey, and the work I do to help others.
Having the opportunity to share my story with Prince Harry will, I hope, help those who are struggling with diagnosis, both in the UK and the developing world and the stigma of being HIV positive. Stigma is addressed when we, collectively, stand up and challenge the status quo, to highlight the inaccuracies of HIV, and to support those living with the condition. Having Prince Harry as a patron is a great support for the charity.
Ignorance can no longer be an excuse and as a campaigner and activist, my aim is to educate and inspire people to regularly test and to talk openly and without prejudice. My hope is that HIV positive people gain greater acceptance, as we continue to educate the public. I refuse to live in shame of my own HIV diagnosis and for those who don’t have a voice, I choose to be that voice, to challenge ignorance, and bring about social change. Being on effective anti-retroviral medication allows me to remain non-infectious. My viral load (the level of HIV in my blood) remains undetectable, meaning I can’t pass it on.
So I challenge you to end the stigma that many have about HIV. If you’re concerned about HIV, get online to Terrance Higgins Trust, where you can find further information on HIV. Open up a dialogue to your colleagues, your teenagers, and your families, and let us break down the barriers of fear and judgement. Let us end stigma in the fight towards true acceptance.