By Matthew Hodson | @Matthew_Hodson | Photo: shutterstock.com

The first time someone told me that they had HIV, they knew that they didn’t have long to live. We hugged and talked until the early hours. By the next year they were gone.

The first time I knowingly had sex with someone with HIV, I remember feeling relieved that they had told me. They put their trust in me and I was confident that sexual safety was not going to be something I needed to negotiate. We were safe and I wasn’t afraid.

The first time I knowingly dated a guy with HIV, I had guessed his status weeks before he told me. I was impatient to tell him that it was OK, that his HIV status wasn’t going to be a barrier to the feelings that I was starting to have for him.

Back then I don’t recall people talking about HIV stigma as much. The horror of an incurable illness, that was likely to result in an early and often painful death, meant that tackling stigma wasn’t the priority. We were all fighting for survival.

Since my own diagnosis I have experienced both kindness and hostility when people found out my HIV status.

I get asked whether stigma is increasing and the honest answer is, I don’t know. Sometimes it feels that some of the care and compassion that we had, back when there was no effective treatment for HIV, has disappeared. HIV saw our gay communities come together, united to fight a threat that was decimating our numbers. Lesbians and trans people stood shoulder to shoulder with us, as did some cis-gendered heterosexuals. I want to reclaim that caring community.

Now, when the deaths that triggered such an amazing response have become little more than a folk memory, passed down by we survivors to a generation who have never known a time when there wasn’t effective HIV treatment, it sometimes seems that sense of unity, of compassion, has been lost.

If you’re living with HIV you’re unlikely to go long without encountering stigma in some form or another. It may be a careless comment by a friend or acquaintance, a blanket rejection on a dating app or some judgmental comment posted under an article that you’re reading.

Stigma flourishes despite the increasing number of our community who are living with HIV; it maintains its grasp despite the fact that with treatment we now have normal life expectancy. People with HIV deal daily with the fear of others, although it’s now established that when our virus is reduced to undetectable levels through effective treatment we pose no credible risk of transmission.

When someone refuses to contemplate sex with someone who’s living with HIV it isn’t just a matter of personal preference, it’s a blow for ignorance over reality, for prejudice over equality. Stigmatising doesn’t help keep you or anyone free from HIV, rather stigma provides fertile ground for new HIV infections.

Stigmatising people with HIV discourages people from testing and accessing the treatment that can save their lives and make them less likely to transmit the virus to their sexual partners. Stigma discourages honest discussions about HIV status and past risk behaviour. This is why it’s so vital that we bring an end to HIV stigma by dispelling the ignorance and fear that still surrounds this virus.

It isn’t enough to not perpetuate stigma yourself. It is our responsibility, whatever our HIV status, to challenge prejudice when we encounter it. I believe that this is true for the racism that blights our gay scene, for the casual sexism that is too often promulgated, for rampant transphobia and for the all too frequent erasure of bisexual people’s lives. Combatting HIV stigma is also central to building a strong and inclusive community.

In these times more than ever, it’s important that we hold onto the belief that love can, and will, trump hate.


For more information on HIV stigma and how to fight it, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/stophivstigma


THIS ARTICLE WAS TAKEN FROM FS ISSUE #156. TO READ THE ISSUE IN FULL CLICK HERE.