GMFA - the gay men's health project has launched a new campaign as part of its FS Magazine (the gay and bi men's health and life magazine) to provide people living with HIV a platform to talk about being undetectable, while tackling stigma associated with HIV. 

The campaign, which features 17 prominent and up-and-coming activists, focuses on the simple message that anyone living with HIV and on effective treatment cannot sexually pass on HIV. The common term for this is U=U, which means undetectable = untransmittable. 

Ian Howley, Chief Executive of LGBT HERO, the parent organisation of GMFA said, “It’s been a known fact for several years now that people living with HIV, who are undetectable, cannot pass on the virus to their partners through sex. While this information has been liberating for gay and bisexual men, we are not seeing a big shift in attitudes towards people living with HIV. What we are seeing is a community who understands what being HIV and undetectable means, but there is a lack of trust either in the science behind the U=U movement or they do not trust what people are telling them. This is why we have brought prominent and up-and-coming activists, who are living with HIV, to tell everyone in our community that any fears they may have is just wasted energy. These men who are living with HIV are standing proud and telling you, you cannot get HIV from them.

Ian adds, “This campaign is not just about sharing what U=U means but also to focus on the stigma people receive. In a recent issue of FS, we surveyed over 600 men living with HIV. 92% said they have experienced some sort of stigma, with 72% saying they received stigma on apps and social media from other gay and bisexual men. This is not acceptable and we should be better than this. We know that newly diagnosed men are far more likely to experience mental health issues based on becoming positive, with some taking their own lives. This is why the U=U movement and our The Undetectables campaign is so important. We’re putting the power back in the hands of those who pose no health risk within our community. That’s empowering.”

The campaign features prominent activists including, Greg Owen co-founder of iwantprepnow, Matthew Hodson – Chief Executive of NAM, Marc Thompson of Prepster and several up-and coming activists, including Ameet Shah, who told us why he took part. Ameet spoke about his reaction when he first learned he had become undetectable, “It was a celebration and relief, and almost hard to believe because of old information and attitudes towards HIV. I believe we all carry internal phobias in many ways for many things because of our conditioned upbringings in society, as well as general external attitudes of people. For months after my initial diagnosis, I was unable to meet anyone for a date or hook-up because I felt unclean or not good enough. Talking to my consultant was such a relief for me and it changed the way I felt and behaved by empowering me again.” 

He adds, “I also think that it’s important more faces from minorities need to step out and be part of awareness projects for both LGBT and HIV populations.”

Another up-and-coming activist, Nicky Deboo, 29, tells us whether he thinks HIV stigma in society is getting better and talks about his own internal struggles: “Unfortunately HIV stigma is still very much alive, and I fear it lives deep inside of me and many others who are in my position. I’m lucky, I’ve only experienced the stigma first hand on two occasions. I’m also lucky that I’ve got so many supportive people around me. I worry more so for the newly diagnosed, the young guy, or the newly out guy, who maybe hasn’t built his community yet. What will happen if he finally builds up the courage to tell someone about his status, and they turn him away and call him names. I can’t bear the idea of these guys having no one to turn to.”

Prominent activist and co-founder of iwantprepnow Greg Owen, explains how he deals with HIV stigma: “I try to be kind because not everyone is in the same place and it’s a journey for everyone. I allow people to ask questions. I also welcome people to challenge me if it respectful. I keep reverting to the holy grail of everything: evidence.”

In relation to some of the negative comments the U=U movement has seen, Ian says, “I’ve heard over and over again that by stating U=U we are telling people they should have unprotected sex. This is simply not true. At GMFA we always recommend a combination approach of Condoms, PrEP and regular testing as the best way to prevent transmitting HIV and STIs. But it’s about empowering men with all the ways to prevent HIV and STIs and allowing them to make the best choice for themselves. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to HIV prevention. This campaign and the U=U movement is about highlighting the fact that you cannot get HIV from people who are undetectable. Our ‘The Undetectables’ campaign is powerful force in the bid to stop HIV stigma and to end HIV once and for all.”