Brian: “I hated that gay people were stereotyped with HIV”

Brian thanks for letting us interview you today. You’re the first teacher we’ve interviewed for this project so we’re pretty excited to hear what you have to say! Can you introduce yourself to our readers please and tell us a bit about yourself and where you’re based?

My name is Brian. I’m an American living in a small village in Norfolk with my husband, who is British. I’m a secondary school teacher. My specialty is Health Education, which you call PSHE here.

I moved to England last September, so only been here a little over a year

That’s great! How are you finding Britain so far?

I love it here. It’s very different… Much slower and less “stuff”, but it’s great. I really enjoy living here.

Glad to hear it Brian. Before we move on to HIV stigma, I’d like to hear your opinion about teaching children about LGBT relationships as a compulsory measure in secondary schools. There is no law in place (yet) but many of us feel very passionately about this in hopes that it will reduce bullying against LGBT youth. What are your overall thoughts on this issue?

I think it absolutely should be compulsory. Part of a comprehensive PSHE programme includes discussing relationships, families, sex education, bullying and mental health. LGBT relationships are part of those topics. They are just as important to discuss, if not more because of the discrimination and misunderstandings people have. I’m lucky to work in a school that supports this and allows me to address LGBT issues in my lessons. I’m completely out to my students and encourage them to ask questions. What’s really great is my husband is the Deputy Head at the local primary school, so many of my students know him and see how normal it is.

That’s great to hear! Do you think we should include more up-to-date information about HIV when children are taught about sex education?

Absolutely. I think many HIV lessons are based on outdated information teachers were given years ago. So much has changed and we know so much more. Teachers need to receive updated information properly in order to teach students about what HIV is today.

I agree Brian. Can you please share your story about your diagnosis and how you dealt with it in the beginning?

I was diagnosed in 2005 when I was living in San Diego, California. I was actually working for an HIV research project at the time, so I was pretty comfortable with talking about HIV. I started getting very sick. I couldn’t keep food or drink down, I had bad diarrhoea, and was losing massive weight. I also had excruciating pains in my shoulder. I kept going to my doctor trying to figure out what was going on. A few times he mentioned testing for HIV but I assured him that it wasn’t necessary. Since I worked in the field, I honestly felt like I knew better and it couldn’t possibly be HIV. 

After several weeks my doctor said he wanted to do a HIV test and I agreed. I got a call from the doctors office asking me to come in to speak to the doctor. I panicked! I thought he found cancer or something and I was dying. I went to the doctor and as soon as he walked in the room I looked at his eyes and I knew. I said “I’m positive aren’t I?”. He said yes, you are.

I told myself I was ok, left the office and went to a park to think and have a good cry. I knew I was going to need support during this, so I spent the next hour or so calling my family and letting them know. It wasn’t easy, but I didn’t want to hide things. It was really important to me that I had people around. I did feel like I had let my family down and become a stereotype.

I remember when I first moved to California several people, my mother included warned me to be careful because of HIV and I would get so upset. I hated that gay people were stereotyped with HIV.

Yet, here I was, gay and HIV+. That was the most difficult part for me. Forgiving myself.

A very moving story Brian. I’m sorry you went through that, to us, you’re Brian the friendly teacher, not Brian the stereotype. Can I ask have you experienced any first hand HIV stigma?

Thank you, but I’ve dealt with it and have forgiven myself. As for experiencing HIV stigma, to be honest, I’ve really had so much positive support from people. I think it’s because I’m so open and I’m a teacher. I use my diagnoses to educate. I open myself up to questions and allow people to understand what living with HIV is like. I’ve definitely had some people who were very ignorant, but never offensive. 

I had one employee of mine bring a dog into work once. His dog was licking my face and he stopped for a minute and asked it that dangerous for the dog. I explained how it wasn’t, and we moved on. So, things like that, silly things involving people just not knowing the facts, but nothing serious or discriminatory.

I will say that I am not open about my diagnosis to my school here. I feel like being gay is enough for them to deal with. The HIV thing might be a bit much at this point.

That’s great to hear and I’m sure that would be reassuring for a newly diagnosed person to read. With regards to your school and your status, I don’t think anybody should be pressured to disclose their status. Although we would like people to feel comfortable with their status. Staying on topic of the newly diagnosed, as asked in every interview, what advice do you have for those newly diagnosed? Particularly the vulnerable in the younger HIV+ groups. What reassuring words would you have for them if they turned to you for advice?

The best advice I can offer is that it may seem overwhelming right away, and feel like your whole life has changed, but you need to take it one day at a time. You don’t need to do everything right away. You can tell people when you are ready and the time is right. It is a good idea to have at least one person you can turn to about things. It’s really important to get the proper healthcare. HIV may not be a death sentence anymore, but it is still serious. If you get it under control you can have a very healthy and “normal” life.

Thank you Brian. As a project, do you have any feedback for us on how we can reach more people and help educate others?

I think continuing to do what your doing is the best thing. Get the message out there, show people what living with HIV is like and to not be scared or freaked out.

Thanks Brian I really appreciate that. Before we wrap this up is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

Just that being HIV positive is not easy, but it’s not the end of the world. If anything it can help to take more responsibility for your health. It causes you to really look into the things you do and how you treat your body. Use it as a tool to promote discussion and self reflection into your health behaviours.

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