Thanks so much for allowing us to interview you today Ross. Please tell me more about yourself and what is it that you do?
So I’ve been living in Manchester for about 5 years now, I moved here from Lincoln for career purposes. I’m currently a general manager of a restaurant in the city centre. Before that I was a bar manager of a gay club in Lincoln from the age of 18. Manchester has been good to me and it’s definitely home now.
Going back about 12 years is when I realised and worked out my sexuality, growing up gay in a relatively small city could be hard sometimes and it made me a very angry and misunderstood little boy. Having a small bout of anger management and counselling helped me work out who I was. Fast forward to 2012 and I made the big decision to up and leave all my friends and family in Lincoln and move to Manchester in the dead of night not telling a soul. It was a difficult adjustment for the people who were close to me back home and in hindsight I could of done it in a better way.
I was in a long term relationship not long after moving here, we ended up being together for 2 years and we are still friends now. But after the break up I started to go off the rails a little bit. Dabbling in drugs and casual sex which wasn’t the best move.
2016 is when everything changed. After a one night stand I became extremely ill, and I just knew in the back of my mind that I was sero converting, My housemates tried to calm me down and we ordered a home testing kit which came back negative, huge sigh of relief. But I still had this niggling in the back of my mind that it was wrong. So I booked an appointment at my local GUM clinic, a few days later I got the phone call…
Sitting in the waiting room of the clinic just knowing in the back of my mind what they were about to tell me was the longest 15 minutes of my life, Then they told me.. I was HIV+.
As you just mentioned about sero-converting I’m assuming you already had a good education behind you about HIV if you knew that term and what it was before you were diagnosed?
A few of my friends had been diagnosed in the time I knew them so I got to know what it was, what it involved and what to look for.
And how has your life changed since your diagnosis?
It’ll be a year next month since my diagnosis, and in the beginning my life crashed around my feet. I knew it wasn’t a death sentence, but there was burning questions in the back of my mind. What if I get ill with something else? How will I navigate sex and relationships in the future? Both of these questions have been answered now. I became very ill with bacterial meningitis last September. Hospitalised for 12 days. My HIV status didn’t come into it. My viral load stayed low and my CD4 count stayed high. Doctors reassured me that being compliant with my medication means that i would be fine.
Sex and relationships. I’ve had some negative experiences since my diagnosis. Dirty looks, whispering and out right bullying, but for every time that’s happened I have had twice as many people be kind and understanding, this is usually been from people who already know about HIV. My close network of friends, family and my work colleagues have been amazing.
HIV now doesn’t really affect my day to day life. I take one little pill a day and forget about it. I’m happier and healthier now than I have been for years.
Medication has come so far over recent years. Something we are asking about in every interview right now is PrEP…
What is your overall opinion on PrEP?
PrEP is absolutely amazing and is something that should be readily available for anybody who needs it. Having another way to protect ourselves against HIV can only be a good thing. Don’t get me wrong I don’t feel it should be a replacement for condoms, I feel it should be used in conjunction with these as another preventative measure, but the studies speak for themselves. It’s a shame that so so many have to self fund PrEP but for now it’s definitely worth doing. The more people who are aware of it and use it the better of we will be as a community.
I agree! Have you received or witnessed any form of HIV stigma since your diagnosis?
I have! And unfortunately it has always come from people within the LGBT community which is dissapointing. It all boils down to education and these people not understanding what HIV actually is. To have people from your own community verbally attack you and tell you you’re disgusting or not worthy is painful.it used to affect me alot. Not so much now. Now I just feel sorry for them and I stay away. A good thing that has come from my diagnosis is that I get to find out what someone is really like alot faster than I would of done a few years ago.
Internalised HIV stigma within the LGBT+ community has always been and continues to be an on-going issue in my personal opinion, this is however something we would like to change.
You may not have heard of #UequalsU – it is campaign which was started by a great individual from the states, Bruce Richman. Undetectable = Untransmittible/Uninfectious.
We believed in #UequalsU so much we brought this in back in January and we continue to promote #UequalsU at every opportunity. Tell me, have you heard of #UequalsU and do you think when word gets around it can have a great impact in terms of reducing HIV stigma?
I have heard of this yeah, from your website actually! I think it’s a great campaign and straight to the point it’s simple and easy for people to understand. If people know that being undetectable means being uninfectious then the battle is already half won. As most of the stigma I have received is that it’s I’m ‘dirty’ or ‘you’ll catch something off of him’ #UequalsU addresses that kind of hate directly, and I think we need that.
We think you do too! In every interview we always ask the if you have any words of wisdom for the newly diagnosed? Is there anything you feel you can say right now that could potentially help somebody who is now on the same journey you’re also on?
I would say to not let your diagnosis eat you up. You may be feeling pretty low but know that there is so many organisations around that can help you get through it. Look at all the good you have in your life. Turn to friends and family you may be surprised by how much of a support network you already have in place. The world can be a nasty place, but there is so much love there aswell you just have to be open to it. You will come out the other end of this as a confident and stronger person.
Would you like to say anything to those who were not aware of your diagnosis prior to this interview?
I would say to them, I’m still the same person I have always been. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you all sooner but it’s taken me until now to become fully comfortable with who I am. And if any of you have any questions about HIV. You know where to find me.
We said to somebody some months ago that you shouldn’t need to be brave to tell people you are living with HIV but due to stigma, we have a duty to tell you that we think you are wonderfully brave for speaking today.
Do you have anything else you would like to say before we end this interview?
They say that ignorance is bliss, But when it comes to your health it’s a different story. Get tested. Know your status, and lead a happy, healthy and hopefully a stigma free life.
Want to take part in our #STIGMAWARRIOR campaign? Have your say on HIV stigma and get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
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