Gay Times Magazine - - CONTENTS -

As my hus­band Paul will tell you, I’m not a big fan of birth­days or Christ­mas. But World AIDS Day ev­ery 1 De­cem­ber is a big one for me, both per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally. It’s a wel­come op­por­tu­nity to take some time out from my busy life to re­mem­ber all those lost much too soon – good friends who never reached the age I am now, as well as the mil­lions of oth­ers across the globe.

I also make sure to think of Terry. Terry Hi­ins was one of the very first to die in the UK of an AIDS-re­lated ill­ness back in 1982. He was just 37, worked in the night­club Heaven and, after grow­ing up in ru­ral Wales, lived Lon­don life to the full. After his sud­den death from a then-new and lit­tle un­der­stood ill­ness, his friends set up our charity in his name to hu­man­ise the epi­demic and pro­vide prac­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion to other gay men to slow the spread of HIV. It wasn’t un­til six years after Terry’s death that the first World AIDS Day was held on 1 De­cem­ber 1988.

The charity and the epi­demic have changed a great deal since then, but en­sur­ing we’re of­fer­ing prac­ti­cal, com­pas­sion­ate sup­port con­tin­ues to be a guid­ing prin­ci­ple for us.

Now I wear my red rib­bon with pride on World AIDS Day and ap­pre­ci­ate all the op­por­tu­ni­ties the day of­fers to up­date peo­ple on the progress made in the fight against HIV, to tackle stigma and to re­mem­ber all those lost to HIV across the globe. Op­por­tu­ni­ties like this one for Gay Times. But I’ve not al­ways felt like this. I ac­tu­ally don’t re­ally re­call my first World AIDS Day after my di­ag­no­sis in 1996. Back then, while not ex­actly a death sen­tence, an HIV di­ag­no­sis meant your life was go­ing to be cut short. It meant you’d miss out on things – do less, achieve less. It was one of the hardest years of my life.

That’s why I didn’t join any of the vig­ils that year, and I cer­tainly didn’t wear a red rib­bon with pride. In­stead, I did what­ever I could to block out my di­ag­no­sis and the shadow HIV now cast over my life.

In the mid-90s, an­tiretro­vi­ral drugs were first be­com­ing avail­able and I signed up for a trial in the hope it would ex­tend my life. I thought it was worth a go. By this point I had lost sev­eral dear friends to AIDS.

I took al­most a dozen tablets a day at a range of dif­fer­ent times. Some with food, some with­out. Some first thing in the morn­ing, some before bed. Some to tackle the side ef­fects of the HIV med­i­ca­tion. The side ef­fects were hor­ren­dous – you name it, I got it. Diar­rhoea. Nau­sea. Rashes. Then there was the fact that they made me feel worse than when I didn’t take them and that there was no guar­an­tee they would ac­tu­ally help.

HIV treat­ment has been one of the bi­est tri­umphs of ei­ther sci­ence or medicine. Now I take two pills a day in the evening and they’re side ef­fect free. My life isn’t just ex­tended by them, it’s now the same as any­one else’s. In fact, be­cause I’m mon­i­tored ev­ery six months or so, I’m prob­a­bly health­ier than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

We also now know that some­one liv­ing with HIV who’s on ef­fec­tive treat­ment – just like me – can’t pass it on. That’s be­cause the med­i­ca­tion I take re­duces the amount of HIV in my blood to un­de­tectable lev­els to pro­tect my im­mune sys­tem, which also means it can’t be passed on to any­one else. And this is the rule not the ex­cep­tion. In the UK a mas­sive 97% of all those di­ag­nosed and on treat­ment have an un­de­tectable vi­ral load.

So, while World AIDS Day is a day of re­mem­brance and light­ing can­dles in the mem­ory of all

those lost much too soon, it has to also be a time for cel­e­bra­tion. That’s be­cause we’re now at the point where we can talk about the am­bi­tious but achiev­able aim of reach­ing zero new HIV in­fec­tions in the UK, some­thing which seemed com­pletely un­ob­tain­able just a hand­ful of years ago.

That’s be­cause we have all we need to stop HIV. Peo­ple like me who are di­ag­nosed and on ef­fec­tive treat­ment can’t pass it on, while con­doms, reg­u­lar test­ing and HIV pre­ven­tion pill PrEP mean there are more op­tions than ever to help you stay neg­a­tive. But we won’t get to zero with­out elim­i­nat­ing stigma and en­sur­ing peo­ple liv­ing with HIV can live full lives free of dis­crim­i­na­tion. Be­cause it’s a dan­ger­ous com­bi­na­tion of stigma and com­pla­cency that per­pet­u­ates HIV in the UK.

HIV. Three let­ters that carry so much ba­age. Would you feel dif­fer­ently if I (or your date or your match on Tin­der or Grindr) said I had a con­di­tion which af­fects my im­mune sys­tem? Be­cause that’s what it is and, be­cause I’m on ef­fec­tive treat­ment, I can’t and won’t pass on HIV. That’s why at Terrence Hi­ins Trust we chal­lenge stigma and dis­crim­i­na­tion wher­ever pos­si­ble. At the den­tist, at the doc­tor, in the workplace and in the me­dia. And why, when talking about World AIDS Day, I want to cel­e­brate all that’s been achieved – the ad­vances in test­ing that means you can get a re­sult within 15 min­utes, the im­prove­ments made to con­doms and lube, and the free HIV treat­ment that keeps us well and halts the spread of HIV.

See­ing peo­ple wear­ing their red rib­bons on 1 De­cem­ber fills me with a huge sense of hope. It’s a pow­er­ful sym­bol ac­knowl­edg­ing that HIV isn’t over and that we need to re­dou­ble our ef­forts to get to zero HIV. When I look around the train or the tube and see peo­ple of all back­grounds – young and old – wear­ing a red rib­bon the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It shows sol­i­dar­ity, peo­ple stand­ing to­gether to re­mem­ber the mil­lions lost since the start of the epi­demic and a col­lec­tive will to do some­thing about it.

That’s why it’s im­por­tant you wear a red rib­bon on World AIDS Day this year and ev­ery year, and think about why you’re do­ing it. To­gether we can elim­i­nate stigma and end HIV trans­mis­sions – but we all have to play our part.

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