Comment: Gay men should lead the way in understanding of HIV

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Writing for on World AIDS Day, Yusef Azad from the National AIDS Trust, says he remains surprised that so many gay men remain “ignorant” about HIV.

This year NAT’s World AIDS Day campaign is focusing on what people should know about living with HIV but don’t. It asks people to Fact Up. It always surprises and depresses me in equal measure the level of understanding of the actual reality of what it means to live with HIV. Even amongst gay men.

Gay men should lead the way in understanding of HIV. One in 20 gay men are living with HIV in the UK, in London that rises to one in 12 and in Brighton one in 8. Many of the readers of this article will be living with HIV and those who aren’t will all know some, if not many, men who have the condition.

However many may feel they can’t be open about their status due to the stigma unfortunately people living with HIV still face. This takes many forms; from friends disclosing people’s status without permission to sexual rejection because of your status.

One of the men who we interviewed for our Fact Up campaign told us that when he broke up with his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s best friend sent him a text message saying “I’m glad you’ve split up so now he won’t catch your AIDS”.

Using HIV as an insult or a blot on someone’s character is a common way people stigmatise people with the condition. Even words such as using the term ‘clean’ to describe someone who is HIV-negative comes with the implication people with HIV are unclean.

It felt different in the early days of the epidemic. There was a sense of solidarity that seems lost now.

We must not ‘other’ HIV. The idea that HIV happens to ‘someone else’ and that if you are not like them then you will be immune. It’s a human response to something that scares us. However people with HIV are like anyone else. And pretending won’t change it.

In 2012 the number of gay and bisexual men who were diagnosed in that year with HIV reached the all-time high of 3,250 cases. And in the past ten years new diagnoses amongst young gay men have doubled. Half of all the gay men diagnosed with HIV had never had a HIV test before in that clinic.

Learning about HIV in the 21st Century, facing down stigma, showing support and respect for people living with HIV, talking about our sexual health with partners, testing for HIV and other STIs repeatedly and regularly – doing all of this would make our community stronger, happier and healthier.

Yusef Azad is Director of Policy and Campaigns at the National AIDS Trust.