Ant: “The support I received from friends was utterly overwhelming. It emboldened me to keep going on my journey”

Thank you again Ant for taking part in our #STIGMAWARRIOR campaign. Before we move on to HIV, let’s get to know you a little better… Where are you based and what is it that you do?

I live in London – I’m currently in north-west London, but I’ve lived all over the city in the past 10 years. I make the joke that I’ve been collecting a postcode from each London postcode area. I only need a W postcode to complete my set.

I grew up in the West Country, went away to university, and then moved back afterwards and worked in the media in Somerset for six years – I spent nearly five amazing years working for the BBC in Taunton.

It was while I was there – on 2 January 2007 – that I was diagnosed HIV positive. More on that in a bit, but it did hasten my move to London, which I’d been planning for a while, six months later.

I moved to London and into theatre marketing – I worked as marketing manager for an amazing theatre company called The Drill Hall that was famous for LGBT work. 

One of the things I feel produest to have worked on while I was there was a touring play and film called FIT with Stonewall that tackled homophobic bullying in secondary schools.

My current role is in marketing for a university. We have a strong LGBT staff network, who were really supportive on World AIDS Day.

I take it you’re a fan of London then? Have you ever considered a change up North? We’d sure be happy to have you!

I love London – it’s an amazing city. I think it took time to find my tribe here though. I think that came with volunteering for Terrence Higgins Trust and a number of HIV charities and community groups. I have met so many amazing people over the past few years. It’s been so personally empowering in my own journey with HIV to be surrounded by people who’ve done such great work.

Ant working with the Terrence Higgins Trust

I really like Manchester – it’s definitely a city I could live in with so much going on culturally. I’ve come up to see things at the MIF a number of times. What I like most about smaller cities like Manchester, Brighton and Birmingham is that the Gay Village in each case serves as a great way to bring the LGBT community together. In London, we have lots of LGBT people and we have areas like Soho and Vauxhall that are ‘our’ areas, but the sheer number of us (with differing interests, tastes and backgrounds) as well as how spread out geographically we are across the city, as well as the loss of many LGBT venues, can mean it can sometimes feel like we don’t have a strong LGBT community anymore. It *is* still there – but it can be difficult to find unless you know where to look.

One of our other interviewees, Brady-Dale told us that he had his ‘lightbulb moment’, a moment that triggered and motivated him to become an HIV activist. Was there a particular moment or action that made you realise that you wanted to get more involved with HIV activism?

I think my lightbulb moment came a while after I started volunteering for THT. I started with them in 2010 and became a peer mentor on their myHIV online community form when that opened in January 2011. From the encouragement of Garry Brough [someone definitely to bear in mind for your next interview as he is an amazing guy] and the support I received on the forum, I started to progressively come out more publicly about my HIV-positive status. I first came out on Twitter and in a Pink Paper online article with just my first name and photo. Then at the end of 2012, I came out to all of my Facebook friends when I was featured in an exhibition of portraits of 30 people living with HIV to mark thirty years since the discovery of the virus. The support I received from friends was utterly overwhelming. It emboldened me to keep going on my journey. 

During 2013 and 2014, I did a number of quite high-profile interviews about living with HIV via YouTube videos and I was also featured in Attitude magazine – in my pants – and did a naked photoshoot for GMFA’s HIV Stripped Bare edition of FS magazine. 

Earlier that year, I was invited to speak at the European Parliament in Brussels about discrimination for LGBT and HIV-positive people in healthcare.

Ant posing for GMFA’s HIV Stripped Bare edition of FS magazine

How are things over at the Terrence Higgins Trust right now? I see that they have now endorsed Bruce Richman’s #UequalsU statement/trend from his Prevention Access Campaign. You already know where we stand with #UequalsU, are you excited to have THT implement this?

So, as I mentioned, I started volunteering with THT in 2010. then stood for election as a trustee in 2013. I continue to volunteer in a number of roles for the charity. I occasionally peer-mentoring shifts on the myHIV forum. I do outreach on the LGBT scene with our amazing scene team here in London. One of the things I’m proudest of having been involved with is helping in the recruitment to the PROUD study, which produced such stunning results about the effectiveness of PrEP.

I also have been a mentor as part of pioneering Work Positive programme, and I’m currently co-faciltating my first newly diagnosed group. It’s been amazing to give back to the charity these past few years. The newly diagnosed group I went to in 2008 – about 18 months after my diagnosis – changed the way I thought about living with HIV. It gave me so much more confidence and suddenly I didn’t feel quite so alone. Anyone who says volunteering is a completely selfless act is quite wrong – I’ve got so much out of all the things I’ve been involved with as a volunteer, much more than I could ever hope to give.

At the moment, it feels like I’ve come full circle in my journey – I was given support in a newly diagnosed group and now I’m the person giving the support. The #UequalsU message is hugely empowering for me personally and positive people generally. It’s something we’ve been talking about quite a bit in the newly diagnosed group.

The next ‘blast’ of the It Starts with Me campaign – the big HIV prevention campaign across England that THT leads on – has just launched. It talks about undetectability meaning you can’t pass on the virus.

I’m really excited about all of us at THT getting behind this message. We’ve talked about it in outreach settings before, but giving it lots of prominence is what’s needed.

On the 22nd of November 2012, Ant posted the above image on Facebook and came out as HIV-positive with the following caption; “Here goes the most difficult post I’ve ever written. Here I am with my photo in an exhibition of portraits of 30 HIV+ people”

In every interview we always ask the interviewee if they have any words of wisdom that they can offer to the newly diagnosed. Do you have any sort of message you would like to send out to those suffering from HIV stigma to help them feel better about themselves?

I think the best advice I can give to a newbie is that although there might be challenging times ahead, you *can* make HIV a small part of your life.

Don’t ever feel pressured into telling anyone your positive status – it should always be *your* choice who you tell. While thankfully I’ve got to a place where I feel comfortable being really open about my status, I know that might not work for everyone.

Find your support network. I found mine through volunteering at THT – did I mention I have the most amazing people in the past few years? – and through talking to other members of the myHIV forums. Remember support can come in lots of different forms – ‘formal’ structured support through your HIV clinic or an HIV charity like THT or Positively UK, or it could be ‘informal’ support from your friends. Take time to find out what’s available and what’s going to work for you.

Receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis can feel very isolating, but it needn’t be like – there are people out there who will have gone through similar things and can help you get through it.

Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions about your treatment, especially if you’re getting side-effects from meds that are causing you problems. and try to build a good relationship with all the people involved in your care. I’m really lucky at my clinic – they are amazing and world leading. 

This final bit of advice works for me, but it’s entirely personal and might not work for everyone. I guess it’s because happily I’m a bit of a geek. Learning as much as I can about how HIV works, the different treatment options (the different classes of antiretrovirals etc), the latest research and knowing where to look for reliable information has helped me to feel in control. I’m in control of the virus rather than it being in control of me.

Finally Ant, before we let you go, is there anything else you would like to say and also, is there anything we can do to support you as an individual or your fantastic work?

These past few years I’ve really come to understand the importance of challenging HIV stigma, where you can, and making sure that support continues to be available not just for people living with HIV but also everyone who is affected by HIV. This is why I am so passionate about PrEP – it’s not only another way for HIV-negative people to be able to protect themselves, but also my hope is that it will reignite the discussion around HIV across our LGBT communities. I’m lucky in that I don’t often get openly confronted with HIV stigma, but sadly when I have the worst has come from other gay men.

That has to change. I believe in the power of our LGBT communities to provide support and acceptance – that is more important now in a seemingly more divided world than ever. As our slogan at THT says, it starts with me. I embrace that and try to my little bit to change things. All of us can be activists in our way. Getting involved doesn’t have to be something huge. It could be as simple as supporting a friend or loved one. Or you could start volunteering with a local charity. But promise me one thing – you will do something.

Tweet Ant here

Find out more on THT volunteering here

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

We are also working in collaboration with ‘But I Like It’ a local photography company who are a major contributor to our campaign. For those in the Greater Manchester/West Yorks area, you will be eligible for a free photoshoot with our good friend Johann who will be happy to give you a free photoshoot for those wishing to take part in our campaign.

If you’d like to check out ‘But I Like It’ tweet them here or visit Johann’s website here