The following piece was originally written by Australian HIV/AIDS activist Nic Holas and founder of the advocacy organization, The Institute of Many. It appeared first here in Sydney gay news magazine, SX. As is reported at ABC News, new HIV infection rates remain at 20 year highs, and sexual stigma runs rampant, especially among men who have sex with men.
Sebastian Robinson was in a production about Australia’s early response to HIV when he was diagnosed HIV positive. But rather than retreat from the play, he drew strength from the very stories he was conveying on stage.
I first met Sebastian Robinson in February of this year, in Sydney, during the Mardi Gras season. I was perusing the apps in my habitual manner when a message popped up. We got to chatting and realised we had some things in common. He was in town performing in a verbatim play, The Death of Kings, about Australia’s early response to HIV. I was an HIV positive activist and knew some of the people in the play. We were both being interviewed for a documentary, Transmission, which chronicled Australia’s response to HIV.
As a HIV negative man, I wondered how Sebastian felt about chatting with me, given my HIV positive status is openly displayed on the apps.
“I didn’t read your profile straight away, so the interaction began without me being wise to your HIV Status,” he confesses, speaking to me now many months after we first interacted. “I do admit that when I ‘scrolled down’, so to speak, I had a moment of wondering ‘should I?’”
Above: Sebastian Robinson was in the play The Death of Kings, which explored Australia’s early HIV response
Sebastian had recognised me from my cover appearance on Hello Mr, which still gets the odd bone thrown in my direction online (pardon the pun). We kept chatting, and it was refreshing talk with someone you click with. No sex was arranged though. My life went on, unaware that Sebastian’s was about to change. A week or so later I heard from him again, via Scruff.
Sebastian disclosed that had just been diagnosed HIV positive.
My heart hurt for someone I’d never really met. I recalled the feelings he might be experiencing: the wincing regret and the shame; the knowledge that things weren’t ever going back to how they were; the fear that everything would be different; the understanding that I was going to break my mother’s heart.
Like Sebastian, I was on tour when I was diagnosed, away from my friends and family. Unlike me though, he had to go onstage every night in The Death of Kings and act out the history of AIDS in Australia. As a new HIV diagnosis rattles around in your head, wasn’t it surreal to have to tell that story when yours was just starting?
“To say it was overwhelming is an understatement, but in no way would I regard that time as something negative,” Sebastian says. “I felt privileged to be telling Australian stories about our community. These stories are a necessary part of our Dreaming, and something to be investigated and celebrated for these men we lost laid the stones we now stand upon.”
Above: “I felt privileged to be telling Australian stories about our community,” Sebastian says of his time on The Death of Kings
That speaks to the purposeful manner Sebastian approaches life, but still: we’re all of us human. Surely becoming HIV positive is troubling enough without a daily reminder of it at your job? Sebastian acknowledges that it was overwhelming, but that having to perform every night helped him realise both the gravity of the situation, and his good fortune.
“I was faced with many emotions, but mostly I was thankful to be placed within the centre of the community that I had suddenly become a member of. I knew that there was nothing to fear. That beyond myself, most importantly, if I knew how to ask for it, support was there, within our own Australian history and within the people around me.”
Both the timing of Sebastian’s diagnosis and his progressive attitude makes for a very moving, and significant, storyline in Transmission. It’s part of an ongoing film project by Staffan Hidebrand, a Swedish filmmaker who has been documenting the global fight against AIDS and HIV since first coming to Australia in 1988.
Above: “I was thankful to be placed within the centre of the community that I had suddenly become a member of,” says Sebastian.
That’s the wonderful thing about this film: there are new stories as well as old. We see Hildebrand’s archival footage from St Vincent’s Hospital in the 80s, and hear from young men who are no longer with us. We also meet a young positive woman changing the face of HIV in Cambodia, and watch as Sebastian commences his journey.
I didn’t physically met Sebastian until the night of Transmission’s premiere in July, during the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne. By then, I’d chatted with him on an app, interacted with him on social media, and seen him on the big screen in the film. It was nice to finally give him a hug.
A week later Sebastian and I sat together on the final day of AIDS 2014, hung over and exhausted. The closing plenary had already begun, but we sat there and talked passionately about what had to be done next. That day, despite our fatigue, we knew there was an energy building and we were part of it. New activists were stepping up, ones who aren’t afraid to live openly with their status. That’s what categorises the film, and it’s what drives us to keep going despite apathy and opposition. As my friend puts it: “Fear has everything to do with what we don’t know, and nothing to do with what we do. We know a lot about HIV, we know a lot about love, we know a lot about sex, and as gay men we should not be afraid.”
Please check out a trailer of Transmission: A Journey from AIDS to HIV here.