Zak: “I would just like you to know that you’re still you”

How are you Zak? Would you mind telling our readers a bit about yourself and where you’re from?

I’m very well thank you, very busy but thoroughly enjoying what I do. Im 22 and live in Wigan (Outside of Manchester) I am Managing Director and Co-Founder of an organisation called BYOU+, which is a LGBTQ+ provision for adults in the Wigan borough, we provide social groups and opportunities for the community, launch and support campaigns as well as deliver training and resources to community workers, professionals, teachers, public and private services, families and of course the LGBT community. I’m also co-founder and heavily and by heavily I mean extremely obese, involved with Wigan Pride, which was a huge success with our first one last year, myself and the rest of committee are working hard to ensure Wigan Pride 2017 is even bigger and better.

Zak is currently one of the co-founders for Wigan Pride

Very recently you took part in the AXM Foundation’s Pitch to Enrich 2 event, can you tell us about your experience from the evening?

At first, nerve-racking. Talking to big groups of people wasn’t a problem, but I really needed these people to be interested and believe in what I had to say. It can be difficult to get support when you’re not a big organisation or a city Pride. I was there representing both BYOU+ and Wigan Pride along with my amazing colleague Jess Eastoe and BYOU+ member Thomas Dale. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone in that room that made me feel welcome and truly believed in what I had to say.  

I can understand that for some it can be nerve-wracking pitching an idea to an audience about something you’re passionate about. How did you feel afterwards knowing that you had people believe in you and your ideas? Are you happy you pitched?

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, I didn’t know what to expect, I’ve never pitched before so my experience in pitching was a little out of tune. However actually pitching to a room full of people who were listening and understood my passion was incredibly rewarding. It put a lot of my faith back into our community and I left that night not only with a beaming smile because I’ve walked away with £500 for BYOU+ & Wigan Pride but also because I had the opportunity to meet some amazing and passionate people. 

Zak pitching for Wigan Pride | Image credit: AXM Foundation

Before we move on to HIV, we know each other or at least know of each other from another social circle in our lives, ‪Lady Gaga‬! Did you enjoy the Super Bowl performance?

You won’t be able to shut me up asking that question, I absolutely adored the entire performance and being part of her fan base which feels like a family, she did us all really proud. She played her hits but I think we all appreciated the Dance In The Dark intro as she dropped down and the lines from of her other songs. She’s also got an impressive new disco stick which makes me excited for the Joanne Tour!

Now let’s talk HIV. Where do you think we are both locally and nationally in terms of HIV stigma? Do you think we can do more to educate those who aren’t as educated as we would like them to be regarding HIV?

I think HIV stigma has decreased through brilliant campaigns such as this, but unfortunately it’s still there just like homophobia. I think people who don’t have HIV or aren’t educated or know someone who is living with HIV really understand. The biggest issue is the stigma! We are so lucky to have the advancements in medical care to support those living with HIV, it’s no longer a death sentence, but the stigma and attitudes towards people living with HIV, heartbreakingly, leads to people taking their own lives. Surprisingly a lot of people don’t know what PrEP is either. I think a lot of work needs to be done to educate not just the LGBT community but everyone. I strongly believe you can overcome stigma and prejudice through educating people. It’s looking at how you educate everyone, your biggest influence on people is the media, a dangerous tool to use but I believe we need to get people talking. To those living with HIV, talk about it! Talk about your experience and how the attitudes towards HIV effect you. 

Something I instantly picked up on during your pitch to the AXM Foundation was that you highlighted that small towns and villages need more education about LGBT+ relationship with more pride events. Would you say the same about HIV?

Indefinitely, working on Wigan Pride it’s incredibly important for us to use the opportunity to educate the local community. A lot of towns don’t have any LGBT+ provision or pride event and we are people, we exist not just in the city. 

Do you think HIV should be taught in schools as part of their sex education along with LGBT+ relationships?

I’ve worked quite a lot in schools on both LGBTQ+ and Sexual Health, unfortunately not all schools teach either. Working with teachers, a lot feel uncomfortable or scared of saying something wrong. Fortunately I’ve had the opportunity to go into schools and deliver workshops for students and teachers. I feel there is a lot of things that aren’t in the curriculum that should be. I think it’s important for schools to provide these lessons even if it’s getting someone external like ourselves. The response and difference made to young people’s lives are priceless. A very memorable moment for me was at the end of the session I let people write questions anonymously and of course there was a lot of humorous questions or kids after a cheap laugh but I got one that thanked me for coming in, they are in the closet and gay, they were so glad they came into school that day and it’s really meant a lot. That comment inspires me. So in answer to your question, yes teach young people about HIV. Although HIV is not a gay disease, it’s a huge part of LGBT history and that I feel should be taught in schools also. We need to get young and older people talking openly about sexual health with each other so we are not ashamed and it’s not a taboo but really important to your health.

Have you heard of PrEP? What is your overall opinion about PrEP and how do you think we can use PrEP to reduce HIV transmissions?

In the position I am in working with and supporting the local LGBTQ+ community, I have indeed heard of this ‘PrEP’. I think it’s an amazing advancement and feel it should be used and it should be regularly available. I do however strongly want to enforce the importance of staying safe by playing safe. By no means do I want to enforce the typical “should of worn a condom” comment often aimed at those living with HIV because it’s incredibly irrelevant. But it’s so important to stay safe and get tested often. Unfortunately with a lot of cuts to health services testing and treatments are affected but it’s huge importance to everyone.

Have you faced or witnessed any HIV stigma either in the workplace, social circles or anywhere else?

I’ve recognised HIV stigma on many platforms, some of which from surprising sources. I’ve seen disgusting comments made on social media and apps like Grindr. I have friends living with HIV and it really aggravates me to see such insensitive and intolerant remarks.

Our target audience are the newly diagnosed, we’d like to give them a place to go where they won’t feel judged and have some immediate reassurance to know that both HIV positive and negative people are educated and stand by them. Do you have any words of wisdom to pass on to the newly diagnosed today?

“You can sit with us”

I would just like you to know that you’re still you. You are no less of a person in fact you’re probably more human because of it. Although it’s difficult, speak up, speak to others living with HIV, speak to people at brilliant organisations such as DESTIGMATIZE and George House Trust

And finally, before we wrap this up, do you have anything else you would like to say?

A few things if you don’t mind.

Thank you, firstly, for taking the time to read my interview I’d like to thank Junior Maxwell for this opportunity and the amazing and inspiring work he does. 

I’d like to invite everyone to Wigan Pride on 12th August 2017, please head over to http://wiganpride.com 

If you live in the borough (or near) BYOU+ has a range of opportunities for the LGBTQ community. Please give us a like on Facebook and head over to our website at www.byoupluswigan.com for more information.

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

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