By Matthew Hodson (@Matthew_Hodson)

In the wake of the data-leak from a London sexual health clinic, Matthew Hodson, Chief Executive of GMFA, on why the silence surrounding HIV needs to be challenged.

When I first found out that I was HIV+, I emailed my best friend to share the news and solicit his support. I accidentally BCC’d a colleague of mine. Within hours of my own diagnosis I had outed myself to someone I barely knew. It was a mistake and it was my own, stupid, fault.

Similarly, with one small manual error, the names and email addresses of hundreds of clients at 56 Dean St, the sexual health clinic in the heart of Soho which serves thousands of gay men every week, were shared. Although not every person on that email list was living with HIV many of them were, and believed that their HIV status had been made public.

It’s not surprising that this was a big story. HIV remains one of the most stigmatised of all viral infections, a hangover from the days when there was no effective treatment, where the virus could go undetected for years, prompting doom-laden advertising featuring icebergs and tombstones. No other sexually transmitted infection carries the same power to strike fear into the hearts of the population.

Considering the millions of people who are now living with the virus globally, the list of people in the public eye who do so openly is exceedingly short. In the world of music I could name John Grant, Holly Johnson and Andy Bell, in politics, the former MP (and now member of the House of Lords) Chris Smith and a couple of candidates at the last General Election. I can't name a living openly HIV-positive actor or actress.

The problem with this lack of people in the public eye who are openly living with HIV is that for many people (uninfected or undiagnosed) they have no idea how much the situation has changed for those of us with HIV since combination therapy became widely available. The thought that people living with HIV are working full-time, in jobs as stressful or as trivial as any other section of society comes as a shock.

People with HIV are now somewhere akin to where homosexuality was just a few decades ago. Back in the 1970s or 80s, coming out as lesbian or gay to family or colleagues was an act of exceptional bravery. But we soon discovered that when someone encountered gay men or lesbian women in their lives, in their families or workplaces, or even when they saw gays and lesbians on television, it could have a huge impact on their perception of what it meant to be gay. The power to change society was in our own hands. If we had the courage to be honest about who we were, to our friends, family and colleagues, we could change attitudes and we could change the world. Gradually, we did.

Today the increasing invisibility of HIV hampers our efforts to prevent new infections. If someone can go out on the gay scene and kid themselves that they don’t know anyone living with HIV, it must be easy to imagine that they’ve never had sex with anyone with HIV. And if they’re not having sex with people with HIV, why should they care about safer sex? 

The old images of inevitable and rapid death make many so fearful that they can’t bring themselves to test. The great irony is that this fear of finding out means that some people, if they do have HIV, won’t access treatment at the optimum time, leading to a far greater likelihood of illness and death.  We can change this. We can let people know that there are people living with HIV in their workplaces and their families, in the pubs and clubs that they visit and in the churches where they worship. 

I salute all of those members of the HIV community who have had the courage to stand up and say: “Yes, I have HIV”. I have been living with diagnosed HIV for seventeen years now. It’s not the most important part of me but it is constantly with me and I will not deny it. 

Being open about your HIV status is still a brave thing to do. But if more of us are willing to do it, the easier it will be for all. There is far too much ignorance about HIV in our society. The greater the number of people who are willing to answer questions, address concerns, and challenge myths and prejudice, the more informed the coming generations will be. 

The fear that those who may have been outed by the Dean Street error undoubtedly feel has been compounded by the level of stigma surrounding HIV. Coming out of the closet, as lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people know all too well, requires courage. However it is by coming out that we can inform others, it is by coming out that we can change hearts and minds. It’s now time for those of us living with HIV to break down the doors of the viral closet.