Together we can stop the spread of HIV
Matthew Hodson, Head of Programmes, GMFA
Campaigns highlighting the risks of unprotected sex and HIV have been around since the mid-80s. Yet, despite knowing that condoms can prevent the spread of the virus, gay men in the UK continue to become infected with HIV. Almost 25 years after our lives were rocked by images of tombstones and icebergs, the gay community continues to bear the brunt of new infections in this country.
HIV infection is not inevitable. By working together as a community, and by taking personal responsibility for our role in preventing the transmission of HIV, we can have a real impact on the numbers of gay men who become infected.
Knowledge about HIV, and the role that condoms play in preventing transmission, is vital. To ensure men are able to look after themselves and their partners, and gay men who are new to the scene are aware of HIV, we need to continue to provide accessible and up-to-date information.
However, knowledge itself is not enough. We must also address the reasons that men continue to become infected, and break down the barriers to effective and consistent condom use.
Starting this World AIDS Day, GMFA’s ‘Count Me In’ campaign is encouraging everyone who can impact on the epidemic – from media to venue owners, opinion makers to individual gay men across the UK – to play their part in stopping the spread of the virus. As part of the campaign, we’re asking gay men to commit to this five-point action plan:
I will know my HIV status
I will not assume I know someone else’s HIV status
I will take personal responsibility for using condoms
I will value myself and my health
I will stay informed about HIV and how it’s spread
If every gay man commits to these, we can significantly reduce the spread of HIV. It won’t always be easy. It can be tough to value yourself when so much of society doesn’t value you. It can be challenging to conquer the fears some men have around testing. It’s all too easy to kid yourself that preventing HIV is down to someone else or that we can not take control of our lives. We all know this. However, if we raise these issues, discuss them with our friends, and personally honour these commitments, we can make a real difference.
We must also address those issues that continue to drive HIV transmission among gay men in the UK:
1) The stereotyping of gay men with HIV and the taking of risks based on those stereotypes
The stereotypes that some HIV-negative men have about HIV-positive men can lead to risky behaviour. For some negative men, the perception of someone with HIV is that of a man with facial wasting or other visible symptoms of infection. Others might assume that someone with HIV behaves in a certain way or goes to certain venues – for example, they are more promiscuous, or older, or into harder sex. And it’s not just negative men who stereotype HIV-positive men, positive men do it too. When men believe such stereotypes, they may take risks, believing that their partners have the same HIV status as them. The reality is it simply isn’t possible to tell someone’s HIV status by how they look or behave. Believing false stereotypes won’t prevent the transmission of HIV. Using condoms will.
2) Men not knowing their own HIV status because of a lack of regular testing
Many gay men remain uncertain of their HIV status. It is encouraging that the number of men who have tested for HIV has increased, however, almost one in three gay men has never tested, let alone tested recently enough to be certain of their status. About one in four HIV-positive gay men in the UK have not been diagnosed and the majority of them believe they are HIV-negative. Getting tested isn’t a fun day out but, like going to the dentist, it needs to become part of our usual routines. By being certain of our HIV status, we are better equipped to make informed decisions to protect our own health and the health of our partners.
3) The influence of poor mental and emotional wellbeing on choices relating to sexual behaviour
This is perhaps the most complex of the three issues. Poor mental and emotional wellbeing can prevent many gay men from sticking to safer sex. Some men become infected not because they think HIV isn’t serious but because of other difficulties in their life. Research shows that gay men are more likely to suffer from depression, more likely to abuse alcohol and other recreational drugs and more likely to engage in self harm than our heterosexual brothers. In some ways this is not surprising. We are all raised in a society where heterosexuality is the norm and where we are still criticised by some for our sexuality. If we do not value ourselves, and if we are told by society that we are not valuable, then how are we expected to value our long term health?
While these drivers of HIV infection may be simple to describe, the way that they pervade gay men’s lives and thinking is involved and complex. If we as a community are serious about stopping the spread of HIV among gay men, we must be serious about tackling these complex and difficult issues.
Ultimately, GMFA’s goal for the ‘Count Me In’ campaign is to move towards a point where we all, as gay men, are confident and empowered to take responsibility for our own health, where we are supportive of each other and can openly discuss HIV status and safer sex without fear or stigma, and where the barriers to effective condom use are overcome. By working together to achieve this, we can prevent new infections and make a real difference to the health and wellbeing of our community. We hope that you will join us.
To find out more about the campaign and how you can join in, visit www.facebook.com/gmfa.uk.