By Hadley Stewart | @wordsbyhadley

The first time I had an HIV test was when I moved to London and registered with a new GP.

I’d gone to the GP with the infamous ‘Freshers’ Flu’ that had been doing the rounds at the university halls, when she asked me if I wanted an HIV test. The doctor paused, leaving the question floating above my head, like an unwanted cloud threatening to rain on a picnic. I immediately froze and became defensive. “But why are you asking me if I want an HIV test?” I retorted.

I fidgeted nervously in my seat while she explained that the GP surgery was offering all new patients the test. My heart was racing, my hands were clammy. I suddenly asked myself a question I hadn’t thought of before, “What if I’ve got HIV?”

At the time, I only had a limited knowledge of HIV. It wasn’t something that I spoke about with friends or family. My biology teacher once insinuated that the reason there is a higher prevalence of HIV among gay men, was because we were more horny. Another conversation I recall a few years prior, was my mother telling me about how she’d attended a funeral of a young man who had died from AIDS in the 80s. And of course, there were slurs about gay men and HIV from other kids at school too.

Perhaps my reaction to being offered an HIV test was understandable, given the somewhat one-sided narrative I’d been fed while growing up. The test was negative and I thought nothing more of it, until it came to going for the next test, and the test after that, and after that. As gay men, we’re encouraged to test for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections regularly; it’s a bit like coming out, it’s never a one-off event. For some reason, the fear of getting the results back always comes creeping in, no matter how many times I’ve sat in that clinic chair. 

More recently, we’ve seen more ‘mainstream’ conversations about HIV. The fact that Prince Harry had an HIV test in front of the world’s media, with fellow high-profile figures following suit, hopefully suggests that attitudes towards HIV might be  changing. They’re encouraging others to test for HIV, and for it to become more of a routine rather than a ‘moment’ in our lives.

Of course, it might be easier for some than for others to give a nonchalant shrug to going for an HIV test: not everyone has access to appropriate sexual health services and sex education. That being said, we are slowly starting to erode decades’ worth of stigma that’s still attached to HIV and those living with the virus, breaking down barriers to testing and accessing timely treatment.

On a personal note, I hope that I reach a point where I can go for an HIV test and not feel like my heart is pumping out of my chest. Is there an element of internalised homophobia? Do the stigmatising messages about HIV leave scars that never really heal? Could my fear of HIV testing be linked to broader issues around societal homophobia? I think they’re all possible conclusions. Rationally, I know that people living with HIV who are on treatment live long and healthy lives, and should a positive test results come back, there are options. I suppose the irrational side of my brain hasn’t cottoned on to that yet.

My fear, however, is perhaps nothing compared with those who feel unable to even get a test in the first place. I hope that more conversations about HIV in the media, greater visibility of people living with the condition on social media, and campaigns on billboards on bus shelters begin to melt away those angsts. By ensuring that we all go for regular HIV tests, we take into consideration the health of our partners, as well as our own.

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