By Matthew Hodson | @Matthew_Hodson


When GMFA put our ‘Think Again’ campaign posters up on bus shelters we got some kick back from people, mainly younger gay men, saying that we were portraying HIV as a gay disease. I take issue with that. 

It’s true that worldwide the majority of people living with HIV are heterosexuals but here in the UK gay men make up about half of all cases. The majority of new infections that take place in the UK are through gay sex, which is all the more chilling when you consider that we make up only a small fraction of the population. 

Of course it’s not really a ‘gay disease’ – it’s a virus and a virus doesn’t have a sexual preference – but it is a disease that is affecting us more than other groups within society. So why is that gay men continue to suffer such a disproportionate burden of HIV? 

Straight off, let’s be clear that it isn’t a moral judgement. It’s a virus, it doesn’t have a sensibility. We don’t have HIV because god hates us and gay marriage doesn’t cause flooding. Anal sex is just a particularly efficient way of transmitting a host of infections. Anal sex between heterosexuals is just as efficient at transmitting infections as anal sex between gay men. 

It’s true that we have more sexual partners than our heterosexual brothers. Not all of us, of course. Not you, possibly. But the average gay man’s annual sexual turnover makes us the envy of many of the straight boys. And with a virus like HIV, once it reaches a certain level within a group, the rate of transmission will continue to escalate. The higher the proportion of gay men who have HIV, the more likely it is that your sexual partner will be HIV-positive. 

So the susceptibility of gay men to infection through anal sex (for those of us who do) combined with high partner turnover (again, for those of us who do) mean that gay men are likely to continue to carry a heavy burden of sexual ill-health. 

None of this is inherent in being gay. We can bypass the increased risks of anal sex by using condoms. We can limit the number of sexual partners we have. We can ensure that unprotected sex is only between people with the same HIV status, verified by testing rather than by crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. 

Can we make such changes? Yes, individually we can all do our bit to prevent new infections; acknowledging that we have personal responsibility is a major part of this. But there is a bigger picture too, which is about ensuring that all gay men are informed, equipped and capable of preventing transmission. For that we need HIV prevention programmes that speak to gay men, with the voice of gay men, without judgement or rancour. We need to ensure that our health needs are considered as important as those of our heterosexual brothers and sisters. We need to make certain that gay men are taught from an early age to value ourselves and to believe that we deserve to live long and healthy lives. Right now we are far from that goal. 

Acknowledging that gay men carry a disproportionate share of the HIV burden in the UK is part of the process. Pretending that it’s an equal opportunities infection only serves to build complacency among gay men and to prevent resources being targeted where they are most needed. It is the stigma attached to HIV which makes us so fearful of it being labelled a gay disease. Rather than deny the impact that HIV is having upon us, we should acknowledge it – and redouble our efforts to end the stigmatisation of HIV and of all the people who live with it. 


Matthew Hodson is the Executive Director of NAM


This article was taken from FS issue 146. 

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