This is the first interview from South Africa, exploring themes of being HIV positive and coloured in South Africa, and how more work needs to be done by younger LGBT individuals.
- Why did you agree to be interviewed on sexuality and HIV/AIDS?HIV/AIDS is an area that I’m quite passionate about. I was infected at a relatively young age (22). It has been a life-altering experience for me and I am keen to share my story with others who might benefit from it.
- What was the first moment you realized HIV/AIDS was part of how you understand your sexuality? For a long time before I was diagnosed as HIV positive, I was afraid of getting infected with the virus. Thus, for me, it was part of how I understood my sexuality long before I was actually infected with it. The prevailing stigma and HIV/AIDS being characterised as a ‘gay plague’ had seeped into public consciousness and affected the way I viewed my sexuality. Also, interactions with other gay men were marked by discussions around HIV/AIDS (‘Are you POZ or NEG?’) and the gay world appeared to be split into HIV negative and HIV positive men. Once I was infected, my identity as a gay man changed from an HIV negative gay man to an HIV positive man, which affected much more than just my health status.
- What is your current relationship status? Single
- How often do you get tested for HIV or other STIs?
I get tested for STIs twice a year.
- Do you have a doctor who you feel comfortable talking to about sexual health issues?
Yes, I met this doctor soon after my infection and started anti-retroviral treatment with him. We have been able to openly discuss risks, treatment, side-effects and other aspects concerning sexual health.
- Do you have any strategies you use to talk about HIV and sexual health with your partner(s)?This remains a challenge. If it’s a purely sexual encounter, I disclose if asked about my status. There are times when I do not disclose. One strategy is bringing up the idea of bareback sex and seeing how the other guy reacts. If we are dating, I tend to wait until after a few dates before I mention that I am HIV positive so that I give my partner a chance to get to know me as a person.
- In your experience, how has race and socioeconomic status affected the way you talk about sexuality, HIV/AIDS, or understand your overall sense of identity?In the South African context, both race and socioeconomic status have had a significant impact on the formation of identity. South Africa remains a racially divided landscape; this division is often along colour lines. We have come very far in the last two decades. However, significant challenges remain in this regard. As a person of colour, I feel that my race has impacted the way I view my sexuality and other aspects of my identity. HIV definitely does not discriminate along racial lines. However, access to treatment is very much dependent on socio-economic status and this if often linked to race. I’ve been lucky enough to always be able to access the treatment I require. Despite this, I can identify with sectors of the population who have a combination of stigma based on race/socio-economic status and HIV status.
- Have fear or stigma shaped your behaviors or conversations with sexual partners? Why or why not? Stigma has certainly made me more unsure about being open and honest about my HIV status. This has at times led to downright lying about my HIV status or sidestepping the question. HIV infection and transmission, the meaning of ‘undetectable’ or ‘pre-exposure prophylaxis’ are still so poorly understood in this context that I have often been instantly discriminated against when a sexual partner has learned that I am HIV positive.
- What tangible strategies might combat fear or stigma on conversations related to sex? A strategy that I think is of crucial importance is to target men who are already HIV positive. Many prevention campaigns and messages in the media after the initial HIV scare were directed towards uninfected individuals. The message was essentially to avoid infection at all costs. This made perfect sense. However, it has not always worked well. The downside of these types of campaigns was that if you were already infected, you were seen as a ‘lost case’. This was and continues to be very unfortunate. The fact of the matter is that an HIV positive individual needs to infect an HIV negative individual with the virus. If that HIV positive individual is more aware of risk, takes good care of themselves (including adhering to medication routines, maintaining an undetectable viral load, keeping in good general health and testing for other STIs), then there is a much reduced chance of infecting others. They can also be instrumental in terms of opening up the conversation and being a ‘positive’ role-model. Many negative individuals tend to be incredibly fearful of HIV infection and are not fully educated. Thus, we require HIV positive individuals who can say: ‘I have HIV, I’m healthy and I’m living my life to the fullest.’
- Particularly among men under 30, HIV infection rates remain high and treatment rates remain low. Do you have any ideas as to why this might be the case? I believe this links to my previous answer. The blanket of shame has never been fully removed. The same factors that led to an explosion of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s are still operating today. Seeking treatment after infection also remains a sensitive and stigma-drenched issue. A slightly more recent reason for this nowadays (that I’ve frequently encountered) is the thinking that says you’re stupid to have caught HIV after all the prevention messages over the last three decades. Some people believe that we should not be concerned about it as a health crisis anymore. Even though it may be true that it has become a chronic and manageable illness as opposed to a fatal one, it is not viewed the way other chronic illnesses are viewed and this affects how it is managed. Unfortunately, whereas having diabetes does not say anything about you as a person, HIV/AIDS apparently still seems to say that you’re a slut, stupid or you somehow deserved a punishment from God.
- Have you been involved with programs related to HIV/AIDS advocacy?
- If yes, which programs? No.
- If none, why haven’t you gotten involved with these advocacy programs? I would like to be more involved. However, many programmes I have come across still tend to in some way blame the HIV positive person (even if it’s very subtly).
- Are there any programs you think are particularly successful? Any that may target HIV positive people in an empowering way.
- Do you feel there are better programs that could be put in place? Absolutely. See above answers.
- Describe your work [depends upon age] with older and or younger generations in terms of sexuality and HIV/AIDS advocacy? Not applicable.
- If no intergenerational work, why are there divides between generations of queer men?
- How can generational gaps be bridged? I believe that older men with HIV/AIDS have had a very different experience of the virus. Sharing their stories with younger men is of great importance. Some younger men tend to have an invincibility fallacy and do not believe that they can be infected. There has been little discussion amongst younger generations. They may have some awareness but do not grapple with the deeper issues around HIV/AIDS.
- Do you have any favorite artists who have created work that talks about sexuality or HIV/AIDS? And/or have you created any artwork that expresses your beliefs about or experiences around sexuality or HIV/AIDS?”
- Who are they? // What kind of work? Adam Levine (South African writer) wrote a book called Aidsafari. It was a memoir relating his HIV/AIDS journey. It was incredibly honest and candid. This gave a very real view of HIV/AIDS on an individual level.
- Why does their work resonate? // Are there any plans to create more work? It resonated because it was a real-life experience told very honestly. I could relate to parts of it.
- What advice about sexuality or HIV would you give to younger men who are having sex for the first time? They need to make conscious choices and act wisely based upon the facts. I would tell them not to fear HIV infection to the point where anxiety clouds their judgement but rather to be aware of the risks and how the risks can be managed. HIV infection remains a possibility but life does not end if it does happen. These days, medical facts alone are enough to go a long way in preventing infection (in addition to condom use, pre-exposure prophylaxis or managing risk with bareback encounters, such as having bareback sex with an undetectable individual, can minimise chances of infection). I would also tell them to learn how to have more conversations around sex, HIV/AIDS and other STIs. If a new generation of HIV negative young men have conscious sexual encounters with HIV positive men, most of the battle will be won.