Such events are also deeply personal to me, because next year I will be marking an anniversary of my own —10 years since I became HIV-positive. It has been a long journey from the fear of acceptance to today and, hopefully, advocacy, knowing that my treatment keeps me healthy and protects any partner that I may have.
When you are first diagnosed, you get that call from the clinic and they just say, “You need to come in.” They do not tell you the details, and you know immediately that something is wrong. All the different worst-case scenarios flash through your mind, and of course, being a sexually active young man, HIV is one of them. Going in, you kind of know that something is wrong and it might well be serious, but at the same time you are working out all the ways that this is just some joke, some technical error, some tiny thing they are going to tell you that you will be laughing about later. You try to imagine the ways you are going to get out of this, and then in that NHS room, with those cream carpets and the plastic seating we all know, they tell you, and it hits you like a wall. Although you have prepared yourself for it in your mind, nothing quite prepares you for when they say those words. I remember looking up at that ceiling—those false ceilings you get—and wishing that one of the tiles would rip away and it would suck me up, and that I would wake up and it would all be a dream and all be over.
But, of course, the reality is that that is not what happens. Instead, you walk out of that room and, even with all the greatest support and advice that they offer, you feel totally numb. You have a million things running through your mind and, at the same time, a sense of absolute nothingness.
I have decided to make this announcement and speech today, because earlier this year I was at an awards ceremony in Brighton. I had nominated Gary Pargeter, who for a number of years has been running a local club for people living with HIV called Lunch Positive. He had won the award and people were coming up to talk about how important the project was and how brave he had been to talk about his HIV status, and I felt like, “I am watching someone who has done inspiring work, and I am proud to have nominated him, but I have not told anyone else in this room that I am HIV positive, too.” Just like so many who attend Lunch Positive, I am lucky because the medication means I will not get sick and I cannot transmit HIV. I felt that if Gary and so many others can talk openly about it, then so should I.
The second reason I wanted to have this debate today is because we are genuinely on the cusp of eradicating new HIV transmissions in this country. Figures today show that we are already, in parts of this country, halting the rates of HIV diagnosis, but we are at a fork in the road and I worry that we might be starting to head in the wrong direction, with £700 million of cuts to public health having been made between 2014 and 2017. We are not investing in the universal roll-out of PrEP—Pre-exposure prophylaxis—the pill that prevents HIV. So it is important for me politically to speak out.
Finally, I wanted to be able to stand here in this place and say to those who are living with HIV that their status does not define them and we can be whoever we want to be, and to say to those who have not been tested, perhaps out of fear, that it is better to live in knowledge than to die in fear. HIV in this country is no longer the death sentence it once was. A recent study led by the University of Bristol found that due to the advances in HIV treatment, people living with HIV can expect to live a near normal life. The improvement in survival rates for people with HIV is one of the greatest success stories of recent times. What was once considered a terminal disease is now seen as a manageable condition. Yet this information has not changed the narrative, which is still, sadly, framed in those scare campaigns of the tombstones of the 1980s. So much of LGBT culture also is marked by this spectre of HIV, which has led to an incredible sense of fear about the disease.
In that hospital room, and in the days and weeks that followed, I had to come to terms with that fear myself. I am a HIV-positive man, but because I have been taking the right medication for several years I am what the NHS calls “HIV-positive undetectable”. That means not only can HIV not be detected in my system and so I do not get sick, but I cannot transmit HIV to someone else. As the virus lie undetectable and dormant in my body, my medication ensures that the virus does not reactivate, does not progress and cannot be passed on. That is why the NHS says “undetectable equals untransmittable”. UNAIDS highlights three large studies conducted between 2007 and 2016 of HIV transmissions among thousands of couples where one partner was positive and the other was negative. In those studies there was not a single case of sexual transmission of HIV from a positive undetectable person to a HIV-negative partner. It is safer to have sex with someone who is HIV-positive undetectable than with someone who does not know their status, because undetectable equals untransmittable.
Understanding that I was unable to transmit HIV sexually has been life-changing, too. I went from thinking that I would never have a HIV-negative partner, or that if I had sex with someone, I could pass this on, to knowing that I can live a normal life and that any partner I have is totally protected. I cannot transmit HIV to my sexual partner, I have a perfectly healthy life, so my announcement here today should go totally unnoticed—