In the 1980s, or to be more precise - May 11th, 1982, the world heard about what we now know to be HIV. Back then, however, it was known by as Gay-Related Immune deficiency (GRID). Synonyms such as “Gay Cancer” or the “Gay plague” were used interchangeably to a point were it was seen that AIDS appeared to be an almost inevitable end product of being a gay man.
If we fast forward to 1986, this was the first time the virus was referred to as HIV. Fortunately, since then, medical advancements have allowed HIV to no longer equate to a death sentence but instead it has become what one can consider to be a manageable condition.
Breakthrough in our understanding of treatment and transmission are rapidly emerging. One such breakthrough is that of the PARTNER Study, which first involved 1166 couples where one partner was living with HIV and on ART with an undetectable viral load. This spanned over 75 clinics in 14 countries. The study covers approximately 58,000 acts of condomless sex and confirms all risks are estimated to be zero. This was later extended to the Partner 2 study, totalling over 77,000 acts of condomless sex
This research was groundbreaking news and its findings that Undetectable viral loads equate to an Untransmittable virus (U=U) were endorsed globally by bodies such as the CDC, WHO & UNAIDS. Unfortunately, Malta has fallen behind in recognizing scientifically proven data and to date there is no indication that it will be doing so anytime soon. With this also came the introduction of PrEP and PEP which respectively prevent an individual from acquiring HIV either pre- or post possible exposure to HIV
Nonetheless, even though these are incredible achievements in the field of HIV, overall little to no dent has been made in the perception of HIV and those living with it on a daily basis, at least in Malta. I am in no way ignorant to the images sprawled across sources of what was “the face of HIV” however times have changes, knowledge has increased and medical advancements are continuously being made.
As much as we try educating in relation to HIV and knowing it is not a death sentence anymore, it raises the question of where are the stories. Where are the people living with HIV? If it is as simple as managing a condition, why is it kept under the wraps? How can one believe statistics without stories of successes? Well, for that you would have only to look around you; The fear, the stigma and shame which society has chosen to associate with HIV is what keeps individuals living in the “closet”. Our sexual history is something that is extremely personal to us as individuals and when that overlaps with our medical history it makes this extremely personal.
There is safety in anonymity. As much as at times living with something you fear to tell anyone can be exhausting, in most circumstances it is a requirement to avoid facing the repercussions of being open about one’s status, be them on a personal or professional level. It also helps avoiding glaring looks, comments and questions like “we used the same glass, can I catch it?”
As a young gay male being diagnosed with HIV why would I put myself in a situation to constantly face the stigma, shame and humiliation imposed by others on a condition I definitely did not ask or want to have?
Dating as an HIV positive man is something of a challenge in itself. When disclosing my status, reactions have varied from being blocked completely from the get go, to individuals who genuinely understand the virus, to one of my personal favorites, the slow ghosting. At times, when you find someone who understands and might be a perfect fit, one tends to run, not as things wouldn't working out but out of fear, often not rooted in rationality. It’s the fear of not being that what you are expected to be, the fear of HIV interfering with what you really want or envision for a relationship- This is especially true in serodiscordant relationships. (Editor's note. Serodiscordant refers to a couple where one party is positive, one is negative).
I feel that from personal experience, most of the stigma or better yet discrimination has been from within my own “community”, attracting waves of aloneness and loneliness spiralling into negative thoughts and possibly depression. It is extremely hard trying to process a mourning, a mourning of yourself and what you thought your life would be, all on your own whilst having to maintain the collected exterior to hide from even more stigma.
It is even in the language individuals use to describe someone living with HIV that resonates with a tone of distain, seen across dating apps and sites. We see phrases like: “clean for same”.
Having HIV does not make me dirty. I am still the same person, HIV does not and will not define me. I live with HIV, HIV does not live with me.
We need a change, not only in antiquated medication provided, not only in provisions of PrEP and PEP but also in the mentality and attitudes towards people living with and affected by HIV. Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
*Author of this piece would like to remain anonymous.