Andy: “We’ve been working with students on addressing this lack of information”

Thanks for letting us interview you Andy, for those who aren’t already aware of who you are and what you’re doing, please introduce yourself and let us know what you’re doing at the moment?

I’m Andy Harmon, I’m currently a computer science student at Manchester Metropolitan University where I’m also the campaigns officer for the student union’s LGBT society

That’s great, I’m actually a huge fan of what you’re doing. We spoke about this the last time we were together, what does a campaigns officer for the student union’s LGBT society usually entail?

They run campaigns with the society members that advance the interests of LGBT+ students at the University and LGBT+ people in the Greater Manchester area. The campaigns officer, as well as the other members of the LGBT committee, represent LGBT+ students to the university and the student union. We’ve recently done that speaking as a society to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor regarding gender neutral facilities at the University.

That’s so good to hear! All around important causes the world needs to get to grips with. I’ve invited you here because as you know I’ve been running a project to help destigmatize HIV. You might remember talking about this on the radio show but I’d like to ask you if you feel that students are educated on what HIV is like today and if they in any way contribute to the stigma?

I don’t think students are educated on issues relating to people with HIV as much as you might think. After speaking with students about HIV and the importance of getting tested, there are many students that are unaware of the developments of treatments of HIV and how it is transmitted which is very concerning. We’ve been working with students on addressing this lack of information.

I think because of this, there are definitely plenty of slip ups that are made contributing to the stigmatization experienced by people who are HIV positive. It would be naive to assume that because students are in higher education that they are more aware of how hurtful language can be.

It’s great to hear that you’re doing what you can to educate these students, not only on HIV but on other LGBT issues too. I’d like to ask have you had any friends affected by stigma or witnessed any dated education about HIV in your social circles, past and present?

I hear old, dated tropes about HIV very often and unfortunately often from gay men too. Sometimes the it’s rooted in an institutional and internalised homophobia but sometimes it’s just stereotypes that are plain wrong. A lack of comprehensive understanding of what HIV is and why it has such a dark past is to blame for stigmatising language and attitudes.

As I’ve seen people to learn and understand the virus, the more I’ve seen people understand why things they have said in the past or attitudes, that they used to think nothing of, can be hurtful to HIV+ people.

Very rightly so! It’s refreshing to hear this coming from a young person. Were you educated by others about HIV in social circles or did you teach yourself about what HIV is today?

A lot of it was self-education from sources that advocate for changing attitudes towards HIV as a virus and the welfare of HIV+ people. Though that’s not to say other people’s perspectives have had an effect on me – since I’ve started my role as part of my union’s LGBT society, I’ve become more involved within grassroots campaigns and attended events held by more established organisations.

Well you’ve definitely been getting that education from the type of sources we applaud! I would like to ask if a student were recently diagnosed and feeling confused about their new medical condition, would they be able to come to you for help and guidance?

The society obviously welcomes a safe space for HIV+ students and we exist as a means of being a group where students can be signposted to appropriate services.

The student union offers a impartial, confidential and non-judgemental advice service run by experienced and qualified welfare advisors who can help any student with any problem. Additionally, there are welfare and counselling services within the university that students can access for advice and support.

Finally, LGBT societies and student unions can help and assist students who are looking to run campaigns advocating for the welfare of HIV+ students and the associated challenges these students have that HIV- students do not have.

Hearing this makes me feel so much better that there are LGBT youth looking after our community and a safe space for the newly diagnosed is exactly what we are looking to provide to. Whilst we are speaking, do you have a message to send out to those right now reading this that are newly diagnosed and are in search for comfort and reassurance?

That there are support services available both nationally and locally, that there are activists on the ground looking to make improvements to these services and that attitudes about HIV+ people are changing!

Very inspiring to hear. Would you like to say anything else before we wrap our interview up today?

No that’s pretty much, other than a cheeky Twitter promotion @ndyharmon

Want to take part in our #STIGMAWARRIOR campaign? Have your say on HIV stigma and get in touch: stigmawarrior@destigmatizehiv.com