Callum: “Being HIV positive is not the end of the world, so don’t let it consume your world”

So Callum, we’ve been friends for a fair amount of years now but would you like to introduce and tell us a bit about yourself before we get started?

Sure, well as you said my name is Callum. I’m twenty-one years old from Hull, and currently studying for a LLB Law with Politics degree at the University of Manchester. But when I’m not at uni I’ll be thinking of what to cook for dinner, or trawling Facebook for hours.

For me it’s kind of strange seeing and hearing what you’re like outside of the Lady Gaga bubble we used to live in, who knew we all had other hobbies!? Would you mind if I ask what your HIV status is for our readers please?

Yeah it’s odd getting to know you whilst not camped in an underpass overnight, or in the queue for the concert. As of early September 2016 I was HIV negative but as we speak I am unsure.

Okay, do you mind if we ask why you’re unsure or are we getting a little too personal?

Oh no thats fine. I say I’m uncertain because it is the most accurate response. HIV tests are accurate to approximately 4-6 weeks so when I was tested in early September it is more like late July to early August. Additionally, in the time between tests I have engaged in what would be deemed risky behaviour – lots of it – and therefore I cannot possibly be sure of my status.

Thanks for clearing that up, you’re not the first and I’m sure you won’t be the last to say that. What I’m interested in are the reasons why some of us put ourselves at risk. A lot of it I personally think could be down to mental health based on my experiences with a few people I know. What is your take on that?

I’m sure I won’t be either. I agree with you, risk taking or risky behaviours can be attributed to mental health. Personally for me, I do believe the way I act sexually is linked to my mental health, and that even though I understand this I still act in this way. I have never been to a doctor about my mental health as I’m quite embarrassed and I don’t feel comfortable divulging details of my sexual behaviours to someone I’m not close with or hoping to become intimate with. I feel as if I have suffered from periods of mentally ill health and as a coping mechanism I have dived into sexually risky or destructive activities.

That’s really interesting, particularly the part when you say you understand why you think you can act out the way you do at times based on your mental health but the risky behaviour can continue regardless. Something else you mentioned is how uncomfortable you feel talking about this to a doctor or a healthcare professional. Do you think we’re lacking in mental health support in the LGBT community?

Yeah it is interesting. I believe that I partly (if not fully) understand the reason for my sexual actions is linked to my mental health, yet I do not feel a desire to stop these actions regardless of whether my mental health has improved. I feel like I’ve become so accustomed to acting in this way that to stop would feel strange. Sex is a massive part of my life. When I am in times of sadness or I am feeling lonely, bored, stressed, I seek out and sex as a crutch. A fulfilling sexual encounter can greatly influence my mood and how I am feeling generally. Yet, what I perceive as a fulfilling sexual encounter has over time become greater, and although not harder to achieve, more risky in nature.

In regards to your question about mental health support, I wholeheartedly believe there is a lack of mental health support in general across the UK, but specifically for those in the LGBT+ community. LGBT+ people are subjected to a very different life than our heterosexual counterparts, and this can have drastic effects on the mental health of LGBT+ individuals. However, deepening the mental health question to just support for MSM within the LGBT+ community, when I visit clinics for checkups etc., I feel the lack of sexual health guidance other than “use a condom”, and the professionals who I see do not understand that the reason an individual is acting a certain way may be linked to their mental health.

I was saying this yesterday about the questions we often get asked at the clinic and I don’t believe the questions they ask are the issue, more so the other questions they should be asking relating to mental health. Have you heard of the term ‘bugchasing’? If so, can you define this for our readers please?

The questions asked are very script like, and I understand there are certain bases that need to be compered with everyone, but other things are left out. I have not had a single professional ask me questions such as “Is there something thats troubling you?” or “When you do (action) are you happy doing it?”, and similar questions to that effect. The most common questions are “Why?!” in a pointed and confused tone, or “Do you know that’s risky?”. Not everyone can understand why they are acting the way they are, yet can fully comprehend that what they are doing is not safe. Most checkups I attend end with me politely but firmly telling the professional “I don’t know, and I don’t want condoms because I know I won’t use them”, to which I often get those two questions again. I leave feeling that they haven’t understood me, which is partly because I don’t fully understand, but also because these professionals are not trained to understand.

Yes, I have heard of the term bugchasing, and the term is one which usually comes up when I talk to sexual partners about status. The act of bugchasing is deliberately seeking out serodiscordant sexual partners and seeking transmission for the purpose of becoming infected, or in layman terms looking for an unmedicated poz guy(s) to cum in you and poz you.

I wonder why this always comes up when speaking with sexual partners?

I get most of my sex in saunas or at group meets, however sometimes I do arrange meets with specific guys. Usually when I arrange meets, it will be with someone who is positive and undetectable. I am exclusively bareback and also into a lot of fetish, so the vast majority of men I come into contact with online are HIV positive. ((This is not to say all HIV positive men are into fetish and bareback)) As someone who is assumed negative, after disclosing my status one question that regularly gets asked is “You know I’m poz?” to which I would reply yes, followed up by “You know I can’t poz you?” or “Do you want HIV cause I can’t give you it”?”. It is usually assumed that I am a bugchaser, when really I just fuck stigma free and fully understand the risks.

Thank you for being so open and honest, I hope your voice reaches those that need it the most as I’m sure there’s many in the same situation as you. Unfortunately there’s also many in the same situation without knowing it. We’ve focused quite a bit on mental health and I’d like to ask what your overall opinion is on HIV stigma?

No problem, I’m trying to be as honest as possible so that hopefully I can help someone like me.

HIV stigma is something that even as a (assumed) negative man myself I come into contact with very regularly. I believe most of it stems from lack of understanding, and the fear of HIV/AIDS. As someone who is pretty clued up on HIV/AIDS I do not personally feel stigma towards those who are positive. Many healthcare professionals or advocates of reducing HIV transmission will hate me after this, but HIV isn’t as scary as we are lead to believe. I do not fear HIV, yet I believe because MSM guys are force-fed the fear of HIV as a way to instil condom use and lower transmission rates it also feeds stigma. I have had countless interactions with friends about HI, especially in regards to my sexual behaviour, and their sheer lack of knowledge on the subject is their main reason for fear and stigma.

That’s a very fair statement to make and I haven’t quite heard somebody put it quite like that yet! Do you have any advice for the newly diagnosed? Particularly the vulnerable newly diagnosed who are looking for guidance and reassurance?

Maybe I’m desensitised to the fear of HIV because I have countless positive friends living perfectly happy ordinary healthy lives, both medicated and not, but my biggest piece of advice would be not to beat yourself up about it. Whatever your story of infection is, do not hate yourself for it.

Someone who is newly diagnosed will be going through a whirlwind of emotions and they will need someone to talk to, or they will start projecting their feelings onto themselves. My advice is not to talk to a friend or family member unless you are sure they will not place stigma upon you. There are countless agencies across the UK that can help, the Terrance Higgins Trust has a very good service where you can talk to someone who will understand and not express any form of judgement towards you. Although you should never feel ashamed for being HIV positive, some people may wish for you to feel ashamed and therefore you should only disclose your status to someone you trust. Additionally, unless they’re going to be sitting on your cock, or your cock is going into their ass, there is no reason they should need know your status so never feel pressured to tell people.
Being HIV positive is not the end of the world, so don’t let it consume your world.

Some incredible advice right there Callum! Is there anything else you would like to say either on HIV stigma or on mental health?

I don’t let the fear of HIV consume me.

On mental health, an individual’s mental health is a tough battle to face and I would (rather hypocritically) advocate that someone who feels that aren’t mentally well should seek professional help. On HIV stigma, people should not place judgement until they understand, so if someone says they are positive and you are not, try understanding how hard it may have been for them to tell you, and understand what HIV actually means and is before rejecting them or sharing your views.

Thank you so much for taking the time to sit down and express yourself in such an honest way, it was very insightful and you’ve provided some very well educated advice. I don’t normally ask this question but I’d like to give you the opportunity to address those that may cast judgement on you for being so honest and brave with me today. Do you have anything you’d like to say to those people?

Thank you for having me and giving me an opportunity to speak up. Hopefully what I have said will help lots of people, but if all it does is make one person question themselves then I have achieved something. 

I will address those who may judge me for being honest in the gayest way I know possible, by quoting Rupaul…

“Unless they paying your bills pay them bitches no mind”

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