Cabaret writer and producer Jason Reid shares his HIV coming out story and explains why role models such as Gareth Thomas and Jonathan van Ness are vital in the fight against shaming


Fighting HIV stigma

Whenever I see a news article in the mainstream media about someone coming out as HIV positive — which, let’s face it, is a rarity -— I always stop to acknowledg­e their courage.

I’m not saying they’re braver than the average Joe, like me who has done the same thing. But it’s not that long ago that coming out as gay, never mind HIV positive, could spell the end of a person’s career in the public eye.

With former rugby star Gareth Thomas ( see p116) and Queer Eye’s Jonathan van Ness’s recent disclosure­s in quick succession, followed by an outpouring of love, I feel we’ve reached a turning point in how people living with HIV are perceived by wider society.

The impact their coming out has had and will have, much of which is due to their huge online following and media presence, simply can’t be ignored. Their words are being directly embedded into the subconscio­us of millions of young people, especially, in Gareth’s case, with his emotional video, at a time when they are at their most impression­able. That’s invaluable.

Twenty years ago, that message would’ve been twisted and

“HIV is different because of the social shame attached to it for so many years”

sensationa­lised by the gutter press to flog papers. Today, those newspapers that look to shame people living with HIV are rightly challenged for such stances, and social media has changed the rules of the game.

The more enlightene­d media, who are living in 2019 not 1983, have caught up with the rest of the world in their understand­ing of what it means to live with HIV. Gareth’s revelation even prompted a tweet of admiration from Piers Morgan.

When Gareth spoke about being outed to his parents by a so- called journalist, I was repulsed. But, sadly, not surprised. My HIV coming out happened in a similar way, albeit not on such a large scale, back in 2014.

I’d never felt the need to tell the world, the same as anybody else with any other chronic condition wouldn’t. But HIV is different because of the social shame that has been attached to it for so many years.

Older generation­s who may have never met a person with HIV will only remember those terrifying tombstone adverts of the 1980s. Too many schools still do not educate young people about it. To many homophobic people, it’s still a “gay disease”. This can often result in people threatenin­g to use it against you — as they did with me.

When I decided to tell my story in a front- cover story for London scene magazine QX, I had been living with the virus for nine years and just a handful of people knew.

Sharing my experience forced me to relive ( as I’m doing now) my three- month stay in hospital after developing Aids; the drastic weight loss, cognitive disabiliti­es, seizures, psychosis, parents crying at my bedside. I had to bring those memories to the fore again. That’s not easy — but it is essential.

I own my HIV. I live it. Those experience­s flash up in my brain from time to time and there’s no off switch. That’s how I will live the rest of my life, and I am at peace with it.

The emotional rollercoas­ter of coming out as HIV positive so publicly was absolutely worth it because of the freedom that followed. We should never allow anyone to hold such power over us. It is my story to tell. It is Gareth’s story to tell. It’s Jonathan’s.

Even now, four years on, when I meet young HIV- positive people, many still mention my coming out story and how it helped them.

So, just imagine the huge impact Gareth Thomas and Jonathan van Ness will have. I applaud them, with tears of joy in my eyes, and I hope to see more HIV- positive public figures following in their huge footsteps.

 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom