Now Reading
Today I’m 20 years HIV positive: Still thriving but still fighting stigma

Today I’m 20 years HIV positive: Still thriving but still fighting stigma

Tim'm T. West talks about the 20th anniversary of his HIV diagnosis

A gay man on Instagram has seen one of his posts, about the 20th anniversary of his HIV diagnosis, strike a chord with others.

Tim’m T. West is a writer, educator and multiple discipline performance artist. He’s performed as a spoken word poet and hip hop artist. He is based in Cincinnati, Ohio. His Instagram name is @braveeducator.

HIV diagnosis

His posting, at the end of June, reads as follows.

‘20 years ago today in Oakland, CA I was told I’d contracted HIV from a partner I literally trusted with my life.

‘A few days later a nervously ill-informed doc concluded I had a “supervirus” and that, without medicinal wonderment, the outcome looked pretty grim.

‘In the 20 years I’ve been poz, I’ve been incredibly brave about it. A friend reminded me last week that I was among the first people he looked up to as a brave warrior living in and speaking my truth.

‘And while that exterior of bravery is something I’ve dredged up for others who need my strength, the truth is I grow tired of fighting sometimes, tired of the reminders of good faith violated, tired of guys who keep me dangling on a string, not for lack of interest or concern about contagion but because of fear for what others may think… and because they don’t want to hurt my feelings.

‘And each day for the past 20 years I’ve had to remind myself that I’m worthy of love, of a full life, and perhaps someday the loving partner who’ll be one fortunate individual. Until then, I live past the real fear and anxiety, past the whispers and gossip, believing my sweetest days are ahead.

‘Grateful for those who have been rocks and shoulders for me, who let me be strong when they know I tremble. How about 20 or 40 more?’

View this post on Instagram

20 years ago today in Oakland, CA I was told I’d contracted HIV from a partner I literally trusted with my life. A few days later a nervously ill-informed doc concluded I had a “supervirus” and that, without medicinal wonderment, the outcome looked pretty grim. In the 20 years I’ve been poz, I’ve been incredibly brave about it. A friend reminded me last week that I was among the first people he looked up to as a brave warrior living in and speaking my truth. And while that exterior of bravery is something I’ve dredged up for others who need my strength, the truth is I grow tired of fighting sometimes, tired of the reminders of good faith violated, tired of guys who keep me dangling on a string, not for lack of interest or concern about contagion but because of fear for what others may think… and because they don’t want to hurt my feelings. And each day for the past 20 years I’ve had to remind myself that I’m worthy of love, of a full life, and perhaps someday the loving partner who’ll be one fortunate individual. Until then, I live past the real fear and anxiety, past the whispers and gossip, believing my sweetest days are ahead. Grateful for those who have been rocks and shoulders for me, who let me be strong when they know I tremble. How about 20 or 40 more? #pozlife #pozanniversary #knowyourworth #survivor

A post shared by Tim'm T. West (@braveeducator) on

HIV stigma

West’s post reminds us that although there is effective treatment for people with HIV, stigma around the virus remains.

A recent UK survey found that 50% of gay men and lesbians felt ‘uncomfortable’ with the idea of sex with someone who has had an HIV diagnosis.

This is despite the fact that if someone is on effective treatment, with an undetectable viral load for more than six months, there is zero risk of them passing on the virus.

Stigma can play havoc with the mental health of those on the receiving end of it. West’s post has had hundreds of likes and dozens of comments.

‘This is awe-inspiring and simply beautiful,’ said @todd.the.king.

‘I salute you for staying strong and fighting … I myself have been surviving with HIV for 27 years and also grow tired of fighting. I remember my God is keeping me,’ said another.

Living life openly positive

West told Gay Star News more about his posting.

‘There is still stigma in the gay community around HIV, in spite of PrEP and the awareness that undetectable = untransmittable.

‘It’s less about fear of getting the virus because I believe there’s more information available about how to avoid HIV. It’s more the social stigma of dating someone who is not just positive, but openly positive.

‘I didn’t come out of one closet to go back into another.

‘Transparency around my status is just a way I’ve chosen to live. It has meant people who are open to dating privately or discreetly, but not out in the open. I’m OK with that. Sometimes rejection is a tool of discernment.’

Does this mean men, since his HIV diagnosis, see him as suitable for sex but not as a potential partner?

‘That’s possible, though I’m not available for casual sex encounters, so they’d be out of luck,’ he laughs. ‘At this juncture in my life, I’m dating in pursuit of a life-partner, so I have found that casual encounters undermine that projection.’

Know your status

West says he understands why some people may have fears or reticence about dating someone with HIV, even if those fears are unfounded.

‘Be honest and upfront about fears,’ he says. ‘Stringing people along for the sake of being nice is actually pretty cruel and passive aggressive.

Asked if he’d offer advice to HIV negative people, he says: ‘It’s not the job of someone who is positive to educate the negative person on everything. There is so much information out there about how to protect yourself and support people who are positive. One way to do that is by being mindful about language.

‘Instead of “clean” or “disease free”, a simple, “know your status, get tested” creates more of an invitation to have the conversation.

‘Sometimes negative language – pun intended – beyond being hurtful and triggering, deepens stigma. I’m fortunate to have a supportive network of brothers in Cincinnati, both negative and positive, who I feel pretty comfortable talking to.

‘Still, there’s far too much stigma because many guys who are willing to talk to me privately haven’t told their closest friends or family.

‘One must ask themselves, if there are people living with HIV around me, have I created an environment where they’d tell me? Describing those living with HIV as “sick” or worse simply tells the people around you that you can’t be trusted to be supportive, which is a shame.’

Undetectable = Untransmittable

Although rates of transmission have fallen in recent years in the US, there remains variation across minority groups. This includes trans women and people of color.

In 2017, the Center for Disease Control reported an 18% drop in HIV transmission in the years 2008-2014. However, the figures remained stable for African American gay and bisexual men. Figures published this year showed around 10,000 African American men continue to acquire the virus each year.

West says he believes the U = U message is getting out there, but that more needs to be done. This can include influential voices within African American communities.

‘Until overarching stigma around HIV by institutions like the Black church or the hip hop establishment is addressed, we will continue to see the highest rates of transmission among black gay, bisexual, queer and same-gender loving men.’

See also

https://www.gaystarnews.com/article/hiv-stigma-grindr/

Undetectable HIV+ people pose ‘zero’ not ‘minimal’ risk, says HIV charity

Douching linked to HIV and STI transmission in gay and bi men