David: “My ears are always open and I’ll never judge”

David, after hearing about what an incredibly motivated individual you are, I’ve been really looking forward to this interview! Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and introduce yourself to our readers?

Sure thing! I’m David, a 24 gay male from Essex. Currently working in retail but I have been and still am involved in youth work programmes, as well as being a scout leader. Last year I spent three months in South Africa with a charity rising awareness about HIV in townships just outside of Capetown.

That’s amazing! Can you tell us a little bit more about your adventures in Africa? What was the most fulfilling part of the experience?

Ooh where do I start? Went out last October, arrived in the community (Gansbaai) and it was certainly a shock. I had expectations but they were completely different to what I expected. The black community are living in shacks, much like Anderson shelters, made from sheet metal it’s very basic living spaces. Some with toilets some without. Electricity is supplied by one power company for the whole country which means that they have frequent blackouts. I was living in a coloured community across the road. The homes there were a lot more comfortable. I was lucky enough to live with a family who were heavily involved in the community. My ‘dad’ helps drug addicts who can’t afford the expensive rehab that is on offer, by welcoming them into their home and supporting them.

The stigma surrounding HIV is horrendous. Mainly in the black community, the beliefs are that straight men cannot contract it. Young women and gay men can. Rape in elderly woman is high for theis reason, as it is believed that they can’t get it.

The most fulfilling part was seeing how some members of the community are working really hard to educate people about HIV. We worked along side them to host a few events in the three different communities (white, black and coloured). Unfortunately because of the majority view, they weren’t as successful as we had hoped, however we certainly managed to do what we intended. Educate as many people as possible. The nurses who run the free health care units are incredible in what they do and were a great source of contact, information and resources.

If you can educate at least just one person, you’ve already done a great job! What are your thoughts on tackling stigma here in comparison to the stigma you witnessed in South Africa?

In terms of South Africa, it was sexual health education as a whole. Sex Ed is already a part of the curriculum here but HIV and the stigma surrounding it is not dealt with enough, sometimes at all. I had to educate myself. I know of adults that believe HIV can be spread by sharing the same cup as someone! Ignorance is main problem.

I’ve had a few people voice their concerns to me about a friend of mine referring to something similar. I’d like to know what your take is on how the mainstream media portray HIV, particularly with PrEP more recently. Do you have any said words for such newspapers such as the Daily Mail?

I feel my true words would be censored! Scare mongering is not ok. It’s people’s lives they are meddling with. PEP and PrEP are amazing drugs, along with ARVs, that allow those living with HIV to have healthy lives. HIV is no longer the death sentence it used to be.

We only censor hatred, words of expression through anger towards hatred are absolutely fine. There’s been a lot of mention in the media referring to PrEP as a lifestyle drug to allow gay men to play ‘Russian Roulette’ at sex parties. I haven’t personally seen or met anybody play this mythical sex game before, not that it doesn’t exist but how do you think the general public will react to headlines like that? Fighting the mainstream media is difficult but do you think that now because we have social media tools at hand that we are essentially our own media which we can use to our advantage?

Again it goes back to education. If people aren’t educated they’re going to lap up everything the media throws at them. I know of these sex parties and I say each to their own. Some gay men go out with the intention of contracting HIV, so that the fear is no longer looming over them. I understand their intentions, drugs can mean they can live healthy lives and if they have control of it, keeping their viral load down then good on them. It’s just the more people that have HIV the more people are at risk of contracting it and not everyone is as educated as others or mentally able to handle such a disease because of all the negative stigma around it.

Social media is amazing if used in the right way. Without these platforms many businesses wouldn’t have the advertising they currently have. So why shouldn’t we use those same platforms to educate people. I for one do, I started spreading word of the work that was being done in regards to HIV and the progress we are making, as well as killing off the mass amounts of myths.

Yes I’ve noticed and we think you’re a great role model! We ask in every interview if our interviewee could offer some personal words of reassurance to the newly diagnosed. In my last interview with Rylan, I asked him hypothetically if one of his friends were diagnosed with HIV, what words of advice would he share with them? I’d like to ask you the same thing as even though some can take their diagnosis better than others, the ‘others’ unfortunately we’re not too aware of because they are not ‘out’ as HIV positive. Do you have any inspiring words for them?

Be open and be strong. Although there are a lot of people out there who want nothing to do with HIV, there are even more amazing people like yourself willing to help. Support can be found everywhere.

Initially, of course it’s going to be a shock, but find that someone you can confide in and seek the support. My ears are always open and I’ll never judge.

Thank you for those inspiring words David. We’re launching in two days time or rather tomorrow at midnight. Do you have any advice for us going forward?

Just be understanding. Some people are not as lucky as us, in terms of education and open minds. However I know we will get there one day. As we won’t stop until we do! If you need anything from me, I’ll do all I can to assist.

Very grateful for your feedback David, we’d love to have you involved in every way possible! Do you have any advice for our readers who may not be educated about HIV but are willing to learn and help contribute to stamping out HIV stigma?

Yeah, read. Read carefully, especially if you’re going to share stuff on social media, and talk. Talk about HIV. It’s not a taboo subject, it needs to be talked about.

Couldn’t have said it better myself! Is there anything you would like to say to those who are afraid to disclose their HIV positive status?

If you’re not comfortable being out that’s cool. Just make sure you are looking after yourself and keep healthy. But please find someone you can talk to. In terms of partners you should always be open.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today, keep using your voice to inspire and we will do everything you we can to do the same. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

No worries! Keep up the hard work and I look forward to the possibility of working with you in the future!

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