Nick Baker, Training and Workshop Manager at GMFA, reflects on a recent conversation he had with a guy about HIV and just how HIV stigma hurts us all. - @bicknaker


Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.

I’d been chatting to a guy from a dating app on and off for a couple of days and the subject of work comes up – now I usually don’t say exactly what I do for a living straight away, because I’m not spending my Sunday afternoon giving personal advice to everyone on Tinder, Grindr, Hornet, Scruff or Twitter (if you don’t think Twitter is a dating app then you’re just not doing it properly) – anyway in this instance I do tell him and we open a can worms…

He asks about PrEP, and says he feels confident in using condoms all the time but wants an extra level of protection. We discuss how PrEP could be used by people for different reasons and at different times of their lives. For him though, having previously been cheated on he wants to always be on PrEP and continue to use condoms. A great strategy to protect against HIV and STIs. When asked if he would still do this in a relationship where both had been tested before they stopped using condoms he said no, because he is afraid of STIs and admits to being paranoid about it.

We pause and discuss meeting for coffee. Remember, at this point he’s cute and at least seems informed so I’m just going with it.

It’s now Sunday afternoon and we’re comparing hangover stories from the weekend. He tells me last night he was out with a friend who convinced him to go and look in a darkroom. As you might expect this doesn’t exactly sound like fun for someone who has already said they are paranoid about the risks involved from sex.

 

I talked to him about how just by being in the same room as (even a lot of) people having sex is zero risk to him, unless he was going to have sex himself. I ask how he was even sure these guys were HIV-positive? He assumed they were and for all the wrong reasons.

 

I sent him some links to the current Living with HIV campaign videos by GMFA to try and show him that someone with HIV is still a normal healthy person, they shouldn’t be ashamed and with effective treatment shouldn’t be feared.

 

I ask if someone with living HIV deserves to be treated this way? The same as you can’t see if someone has HIV you can’t see how someone became infected without talking to them. We need to move past slut shaming and the idea of HIV as a punishment, this is not about good gays vs bad gays.

 

HIV stigma doesn’t only affect those people who have been diagnosed but it also prevents others from testing for HIV out of fear. Fear that they will then have to suffer from these views from other people. This means there are more people living with undiagnosed and untreated HIV, who are unknowingly able to pass the virus to others.

Around this point after an hour I did try to check out of the conversation. I wasn’t exactly emotionally invested in him, I was angry, and we all know a pretty face is only going to get you so far in life, but what about if he was my friend, brother, uncle or dad? There are still plenty of people who we care about that are contributing to stigma around sex and sexually transmitted infections, and we should take the time to educate them.

He himself admitted he had a problem with how he feels and said “If I could get counselling for it. I would”. That’s where working for a gay men’s health charity comes in useful and I was able to link him to a LGBT counselling service.

For this guy in particular his fear and paranoia around catching a STI was reinforced by everything he read or learned. Rather than using the information to be aware of risks and take control for himself, he’s continuing the cycle of fear and stigma. One conversation isn’t likely to change someone's views immediately, but if fear is the path to the darkside then education and patience are the best ways to turn around.


If you need help and support around these issues, get in touch with London Friend

For more information about STIs and HIV, you can visit our Sex and Sexual Health pages.


Messages have been shortened or reduced for editorial purposes. Some spellings or grammatical mistakes have been corrected for ease of reading.

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