THE GAY HEALTH AND LIFE MAG ISSUE #156 OCT/NOV 2016
THE COMING OUT ISSUE WHY IS COMING OUT STILL A BIG PROBLEM IN 2016? ALSO
MEET THE GAY MEN WHO ARE NOT ‘OUT’ TRUE LIFE: MY COMING OUT STORY ADVICE: DEAR STRAIGHT PEOPLE HOW HIV STIGMA STOPS YOU FROM GETTING A DATE...
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The FS team for issue 156 was: • Liam Murphy - Editor • Nicholas Baker • Louis Cryer • Wayne Dhesi • Hadley • Stuart Haggas • Ian Howley • Mario • Ruaidhri O’Baoill • Gavin Smith,
Appearance in FS is not an indication of an individual’s sexual orientation or HIV status. The views of our writers are not necessarily the views of FS, of the organisations mentioned, HERO or of the editor. Volunteers contribute to the planning, writing, editing and production of FS.
Welcome to the new look FS. Hello. Liam Murphy here. I’ll be your new editor for the foreseeable future (unless this goes horribly wrong and you hate it – but I need the job, so be kind). FS is delighted to announce that previous editor, Ian Howley, has moved on up to become the CEO of The Health Equality and Rights Organisation, so he has imbued me with the responsibility of steering FS in its brand new direction. Although there has been a bit of a style refresh, you will still find the same informative, educational, funny, and sometimes titillating, content. However, we will also focus more closely on issues around mental health, sexuality and general gay and bisexual men’s health. We want FS to support gay and bisexual men in all aspects of their lives – which still includes sex, don’t worry – so that’s why with this issue we are focusing on ‘coming out’. Coming out as gay or bisexual can still be a big deal, even in 2016. In our main feature we look at why coming out still remains a big issue, despite evolved attitudes towards gay people. We also have RUComingOut’s Wayne Dhesi dispensing some advice to friends and family members on the right way to react when someone close to them comes out, as well as a touching true life coming out story, and we have Hadley looking at how TV characters can help shape society’s reaction to LGBT people. FS #156 is the beginning of our new look, so we hope you like where we are going with the magazine. We welcome any feedback you have, as well as any topics you think we should cover in future issues. Enjoy! Liam Murphy, Editor, FS @liamwaterloo www.fsmag.org.uk
GAY MEN AND THE ONGOING BATTLE WITH COMING OUT Words by Stuart Haggas | Photos: Shutterstock
One of the greatest challenges that gay men face can be summed up in two little words: coming out. No matter at what age we come to terms with our sexuality, whether it’s at adolescence or much later in life, it can be a heavy burden to bear – and confiding in a friend or close family member isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Gay men have forever battled with coming out. It’s obvious why we were afraid to come out in the past: homosexuality was a criminal offence in England and Wales until 1967 (that’s less than 50 years ago); it remained illegal in Scotland until 1980, in Northern Ireland until 1982 and as recently as 1993 in the Republic of Ireland. Once it became legal, things still weren’t equal. There wasn’t an equal age of consent, many out gay men and women faced discrimination and homophobia, and same-sex marriage was unimaginable until recently. But our society has evolved and attitudes towards gay people have improved. So why does coming out remain a big issue in UK and Ireland today?
THE AGE OF OUT Coming out is often one of the first big steps gay men take in the world. For this issue of FS, we spoke to young men in their teens and early twenties about their recent coming out experiences. And one stark revelation is that fear remains a genuine foe for young gay men who are still in the closet. “My two biggest worries were: Will my parents accept me for who I really am? Will I still have a roof over my head this time tomorrow?” says Cailean, 20 from Clydebank. “I worried about being disowned by my family, losing my mum for good, being homeless and disowned from the town I have been brought up in,” says Jayjay, 24 from Hemel Hempstead. “I worried that I would be kicked out of my home, made homeless, cut off financially, lose friends,” says Tom, 21 from Manchester. “I worried that people from high school would find out, and that I therefore might get beaten up,” says Joe, 23 from Morecambe. “And that people might think about me differently.” “I worried that I wouldn’t be accepted, that people at school would physically and emotionally intimidate me,” adds Aaron, 18 from London, “and that I’d become a leper, pariah or laughing stock at school.”
NO WALK IN THE PARK “While it’s great to acknowledge the leaps we’ve made in terms of LGBT equality and to highlight the growing array of visible LGBT role models in the public eye, it’s important that we don’t forget that coming out is a very individual experience,” says Wayne Dhesi, who founded RUComingOut in 2012 to offer young people support and advice on coming out. “No matter how many famous gay and bi men there are in the world, the process of sitting your parents down and telling them you’re not straight will rarely feel like a walk in the park.”
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Photo by Chris Jepson © www.chrisjepson.com
OUT TIME If coming out remains so daunting, why do it? “It’s too stressful to keep it hidden,” admits Aaron. “My two years in the closet was soul-destroying and unhealthy.” Tom agrees, adding: “You can’t spend your whole life lying about who you are. Being gay is part of a person’s identity.” “I didn’t want to live a lie,” says Rob, 23 from Belfast. “Every question about dating or interest in girls had to be answered with a lie. Also, I was already teased about being/acting ‘gay’. My parents made homophobic remarks too, which was upsetting.” “It was starting to have a negative impact on multiple things in my life,” says Tom, 21 from Birmingham, “and I had enough of feeling shit about myself and not feeling able to tell anyone.”
PUSHED OUT For others however, the decision to come out wasn’t an entirely independent choice. “After being discovered to be in a same-sex relationship when I was 14, I was forced to come out to my school,” explains Alexander, 18 from Nottingham. “Although the reaction from both teachers and students was negative, luckily I was never a recipient of physical attacks though there were many verbal ones. I was called names such as ‘fag’. However, I feel a stronger person now and I have no regrets, nor am I ashamed.” “When I was around 17 I started having feelings for this guy,” says Adam, 22 from Newcastle. “He always wanted to come round my house and my parents thought we were just best friends. We experimented for months together, but then it got a little out of hand. I called it off after four months, just before I left for a family holiday to America. “Then, as I was boarding my flight to America with my family, I received a text from this guy which said ‘you have until you return to tell your parents what we did or I’ll tell them for you, so I started to panic and felt sick. I didn’t know how my parents would react but I was now given a timescale to tell my parents something so big, something I wasn’t prepared for. Three hours into the flight I couldn’t settle, and felt so scared I knew I just had to tell them. I first told mum, who then sat in silence for the next three hours and refused to talk to me. My dad also reacted the same way. Both my parents told me it was just a phase and I would snap out of it. That was five years ago. Today they both support me and love me for who I am.”
SIGH OF RELIEF Although many acknowledged a fear of coming out, most of the young men we spoke to actually had a positive coming out experience. “Coming out was genuinely the most terrifying thing I have ever done,” says Sam. “However once it had been done, the sense of relief was incredible.” “It was like a big sigh of relief,” agrees Hadley, 23 from Bedford. “Afterwards, I became much more cheerful and confident.” “A huge burden was lifted off my shoulders and I could actually be me,” adds David, 18 from Glasgow. “It was like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” says Asa, 19 from Hastings. “All the years of www.fsmag.org.uk
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Photo © Lee Sterling www.lessterling.com Photo by© DanAlessandro Hall © GMFA Cala www.alessandrocalza.com Photos
hiding my sexuality and the negative emotions towards it slowly got better the more I came out to friends and family.” “It was liberating but terrifying,” says Jack, 19 from Cambridge. “My secondary school didn’t really talk about LGBT issues – apart from a 30-minute lesson in year nine about Stonewall. YouTube helped massively but they always focused on the build-up to coming out. Once I’d done it, I felt scared because I didn’t know what would come next.”
NO REGRETS “In the four years since setting up RUComingOut, I’ve yet to speak to a single person who regrets coming out,” says Wayne. “I’m not saying that coming out is always easy. Lots of people will lose family members or friends and will not have a great experience. However, for the majority of people who I have spoken to who have come out, the fear they had before opening up was never realised. Even in cases where friends don’t take it well or family relationships are never quite the same, the positives that come from being able to live your own life authentically massively outweigh the negatives.” “While ‘coming out’ is not the answer to all of life’s challenges, it has, for many young gay men, proved to be a hugely relieving and positive experience,” adds Andre Smith of Positive East, “leaving many of the clients I have worked with surprised by the sheer amount of time and energy they gave over to worrying about rejection and judgements that never actually manifested. “Unfortunately that is not the case for every young gay man. Every one of us has different life situations, some of which need to be carefully weighed and considered before making our decision. Coming out can trigger any number of reactions in the people we choose to tell, and the consequences can be as far reaching as being asked to leave the family home.”
WORST FEARS For some of the young men that FS spoke to, the impact of their coming out did mirror their worst fears. “It was very liberating when I told some of my friends,” Rob says. But when Rob came out to his mum and dad a year later, it wasn’t as well received. “It was very traumatic when I told my parents. Honestly, it was a horrible conversation. I remember I cried a lot, and I don’t often do that. “My parents grounded me. I suddenly wasn’t allowed to go to the gym alone, although I was a sportsman and I hadn’t changed. Also, my mother was very upset by it. She behaved like it was a choice I’d made. It took her a good five years to accept it, and even then grudgingly. “I was surprised with how OK my dad was,” Rob adds. “We’ve become a little closer since. He believes very much in having a good soul, no matter what you do with your body. I think my mother realised that day she is much more traditional than she had thought. She’s still ashamed by it and doesn’t tell people unless she can’t help it.” Jayjay’s coming out was also challenging. “The Muslim community who found out, the teenagers and younger people, sent threatening messages to me, letters through my door, bricks with messages. They came into my work and threatened me, and there was lots of hate via prank calls. My coming out took five years to be accepted.” Jayjay sometimes regrets coming out. “I advise anyone who comes from a Pakistani Muslim background to try and avoid meeting families, as my boyfriend came and my mum wouldn’t turn up, so I lost my boyfriend, my life, all for my mum’s decision on what she thought of my relationship with another man.” “My dad wasn’t too sure how to deal with it,” says Tom from Birmingham, “and although he says that it wasn’t the word he was wanting to use, he said that he was ‘disappointed’ that I had come out.”
Photo ÂŠ Lee Sterling www.lessterling.com
“I first told my mother when we were alone in the car,” says Tom from Manchester. “She asked me many invasive questions about why I was not attracted to girls, and still occasionally makes hurtful comments, like asking what I expect to do about children, and accusing me of being sexually promiscuous, and telling me to be scared of HIV. I know that she is supportive in her own way, she just comes from a different time and I don’t think she realises that these comments are hurtful and stereotyping. I left it up to her to tell my father. I don’t know whether she has or not, but we are not the kind of family that would talk openly about these kind of things. I feel that it is best if she tells him. My father always showed extreme disgust at homosexuals, for example if a gay man was ever on a television show, he would often make comments. I think most likely he does know, and like my mother has slowly come to accept me for who I am.”
NEGATIVITY “For those who have a negative experience of coming out, I’d say always remember that you have done nothing wrong,” says Wayne from RUComingOut. “You simply chose to be honest with yourself and with those around you. Any negativity that comes your way after, whether that’s at school or at work, can be dealt with and you have the law to protect you.” “The people you tell might be shocked, worried, or find it difficult to accept at first,” adds Andre from Positive East, “but do remember, their first reaction isn’t necessarily how they’ll feel forever – they might just need a bit of time to process what you’ve told them. The thing that the majority of parents, family members and close friends want for you is that you are happy.”
TOXIC ENVIRONMENT The stress associated with coming out can lead to various mental health issues. “I had experienced a lot of homophobic bullying back in school, when I didn’t even know what ‘gay’ was, and when I hadn’t the slightest interest in dating girls or boys,” says Hadley. “All I knew back then was ‘gay’ got you punched, ‘gay’ got you hurt, and therefore it was wrong. When I realised what it all meant and what I was, it threw me into a bit of a mess, and I had moments in which I would start to cry uncontrollably.” “Being in the closet is a form of slow suicide, especially in a toxic environment,” says Aaron. “The stress of lying your way through conversations about girls, feeling like you have to conform to a homophobic group consensus, and sitting in silence while you hear ignorant, untrue and/or threatening comments about gay people will drag you down. It’s even worse if you are in love with somebody, like I was at the time. At one point I felt depressed. I contemplated suicide several times (though never with any real seriousness, admittedly). The stress is overwhelming, so endless introspection and a lot of crying became the norm. At one point I became so anxious and upset that I induced some psychogenic pain (emotional pain that manifests physically).” “Because I hated myself for years before I accepted my sexuality, I suffered from bulimia and depression,” Asa admits. “I had depression growing up because everyone at high school bullied me and told me it was bad to be gay,” says Joe. “So I was very confused and hated myself every time I thought about guys. Self-harm happened a lot as well as numerous beatings in high school. I was suicidal at one point too. When I started thinking about coming out, I got anxiety from the fear that people from high school would find out. I considered spending my whole life in the closet.” Now that Joe is out, he believes his sexuality no longer impacts his mental health today.
OPEN UP “It doesn’t take a genius to work out that spending years trying to hide your sexuality from friends, family and colleagues can seriously affect your mental health and wellbeing,” Wayne from RUComingOut acknowledges. “In fact, nearly a quarter of young LGBT people have tried to take their own life at some point, compared with around 8% in the general population of young people. The important thing to remember is that you do not have to come out to be able to access support or advice. There are many books www.fsmag.org.uk
and journals online about managing anxiety as well as services that are accessible on the phone – very often these are free of charge. If you do feel ready to open up to someone who isn’t close to you, your GP may be a good call. Remember, they have to keep what you tell them confidential and may be able to put you in touch with local LGBT counselling or advice services.” “As a therapist, I’ve worked with a considerable number of men who were not yet out but who felt anxious, scared, and even sheer terror at the prospect of coming out,” adds Andre of Positive East. “Being able to talk over those concerns, and with a counsellor who is not a family member, colleague or friend, can go a very long way in alleviating the feelings of stress, guilt and pressure that can, if left unchecked, boil over into thoughts of self-harm and even suicide.”
ONGOING ISSUES Although some of the guys we spoke to say the act of coming out brought an end to their depression and anxiety, for others these mental health issues have remained. “I’ve long suffered from anxiety and depression,” says Tom. “I doubt that this is solely due to my sexuality, but being gay added to the pressure on my mental health most definitely.” Tom believes his sexuality still has an impact on his mental health. “I worry a lot about relationships. It seems so few gay people are ever able to establish a stable and loving relationship. This causes me a lot of anxiety, as I would some day like a family and just don’t feel like it’s possible. A great deal of my anxiety stems from my fears that as a gay man I would become lonely as I grow older. Worries about this, and a fear of dying alone with no lasting impact on the world because I cannot have children or a family, gives me a great deal of anxiety and fear for the future.” “I still have incredible guilt around sex itself,” admits Rob. “I find it hard to reconcile sex with love and relationships. In terms of sexuality, I have anxiety and some measure of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from being beaten up and chased in the past because of how I looked or acted. I still struggle to be open about my sexuality because I was taught for so long that it was wrong. I’m still overly cautious because of my past experiences. It also can be very lonely to live in a world that so often isn’t made for people like you and actively excludes you. We will never be the majority, or so it feels. It’s harder to do all the things straight people take for granted like get a job and a partner and a house and kids.” “Coming out isn’t a guarantee that you’ll never experience another problem in your life, and this goes for mental health issues too,” says RUComingOut’s Wayne Dhesi. “Sometimes people carry childhood trauma with them into their adult life. Growing up feeling different and that you don’t belong can have a devastating effect on how we see ourselves, even once we have come out. I’d encourage people to continue to talk about their experiences of being in the closet long after they come out. It’s healthy to understand and it’s always good to talk. Matthew Todd’s seminal book ‘Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay And Happy’ is a must read for any gay or bi man.”
EXPERT ADVICE So how should you approach the issue of coming out? “There are many different ways to come out, and there is no right or wrong way to do it,” says Andre Smith of Positive East. “Consider who you want to tell? It’s unlikely that you will be able to gather everyone you know in one room and come out to them all at once – which is pretty daunting anyway! Therefore you’ll need to do it in stages. Think about who you want to tell first. Perhaps someone you feel will be supportive like a trusted friend or family member. They will then be able to support you when you tell other people.” “Very often it’s the words themselves that make the process of coming out really difficult,” says Wayne. “A great way of starting the conversation is to just explain to the person that you want to share with them how you’re feeling about some things. Be honest about your feelings and don’t worry too much about the end www.fsmag.org.uk
goal of any chat. It isn’t a work presentation or a job interview – it’s a chat with a friend who loves and cares about you so don’t worry.” “Think about when is the right time to say something. Be mindful that coming out might be a bit of a surprise to some people in your life,” explains Andre. “Although you may have had a long time to get used to it, the person or people you’re telling will be hearing it for the first time. Consider telling them at a time when you will be able to talk things through properly. Blurting it out to your parents from a mobile phone with 3% battery power remaining is not the ideal time!” “Although I’d never suggest getting hammered before coming out, if you know that a social setting and a couple of drinks will put you at ease then go for it,” adds Wayne. “Writing a letter or sending a text isn’t bottling it. You don’t have to sit down with someone face to face, just do whatever makes you feel most comfortable. You make the rules.” “Some people may choose to send a letter or email, as this will give the person time to process what you’re telling them before they respond. Others have used social media to come out,” acknowledges Andre. “Although this method of coming out means you’ll probably only need to do it once, it does take away the opportunity to have those personal conversations with people who are immediately closer to you. The most obvious way is to sit down in person and talk. The benefits of coming out this way are that you’ll be able to answer any questions they may have and also get some comfort and reassurance if you need it. It may feel a bit scary, but once you’ve told one person it really does start to feel easier.” 14 |
READER ADVICE After navigating the treacherous task of coming out, what tips can FS readers share with other young gay men? “Be aware of your situation and environment,” says Jack, 20 from Essex. “If you have accepting parents there isn’t any reason not to. If coming out may put you in danger, then wait till you move out and leave your parents home.” “Take your time, learn about yourself,” says Hadley. “Know that while you can’t control another person’s reactions, you can control how you go about it. Understanding yourself first and then others is key. Know that you are perfectly normal, that everything will make sense afterwards, but some people may take their own time to adjust.” “In most cases your parents, especially your mum, will already know and be glad that you feel you can talk to them about this kind of thing,” says Tom. “Also, try and do it in a relaxed way rather than making it into a big deal, as it can put some control on their reaction. However, you also need to remember that it can take some time for people to get used to it, so although they may not react the way you want, they will process it and then be fine/normal with you.” “Being gay is not and should not be a big deal, so perhaps don’t approach coming out as an event,” suggests Aaron. “If you don’t make a song and dance, neither will anybody who isn’t outright prejudiced. Once out, self-deprecation goes a long way. A thick skin and a sense of humour can change perceptions in ways that activism and advocacy just can’t.” “Just wait until you’re ready,” says Joe. “There is no rush to tell anyone and there’s certainly no rush in figuring yourself out either. If it’s not safe for you to come out or if coming out might bring violence your way, you are doing nothing wrong in staying closeted for your own safety. But when you are ready to come out, I want you to know that there’s a whole world out there ready to support you and once it’s done, I promise you you’ll feel a lot better. I always felt it was easier to tell one person at a time and start with something like ‘can I tell you something in confidence’, then I’d just take a deep breath and throw it out there by just saying it. That first second is terrifying, not gonna lie, but as soon as they say literally anything positive, it’s the biggest relief in the world. Never forget you are strong and beautiful to have got this far and trust me, it really does get better.” Cailean agrees: “From a terrified, closeted teenager who was scared stiff of being outed to a confident, outgoing young adult who wears his sexuality on his wrist (in the form of Gay Pride wristbands), I’ve come a long way in just three years. Hopefully, with this article, I can help others gain that little bit of confidence to do the same.”
MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE We asked Ian Howley, CEO of GMFA, to share his thoughts: “Coming out shouldn’t be a big deal in this day and age but from the experiences of the young gay men we’ve talked to, you can see that the coming out process is still a massive deal for many. For us to be in an era where ‘coming out’ is a non-issue in social and family life we need to continue our work to tackle homophobia in our schools, universities, work-places, on TV, in movies and in our day-to-day lives. Yes, we are in a much better place today than we were 20 years ago. But there is still a long way to go.” SUPPORT: For more information about sexualuty and coming out visit www.rucomingout.com TALK: To talk to someone one-to-one call the LGBT Switchboard on 0300 330 0630 “I NEED HELP NOW!” If you are in crisis and need support or someone to talk to right now, Samaritans is there for you. It provides confidential, non-judgemental support, 24 hours a day for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair, including those which could lead to suicide. Call: 08457 90 90 90, or email: jo@samaritans. orglocal switchboards and organisations that offer face-to-face counselling at www.turingnetwork.org.uk. www.fsmag.org.uk
Meet the gay men who are not out By Ian Howley
Sometimes we in our little gay bubble forget that not all gay men come out. In our coming out survey, about 10% of those who responded told us they were not ‘out’. So we decided to talk to these men to see who they are, where they are from and their thoughts on their sexuality and coming out. It’s time to meet the gay and bisexual men who are not ‘out’.
WHO ARE NOT OUT? Young and in the closet Jake is 17 years old and lives in Birmingham. He told us that he’s not out and he’s pretty sure no-one knows that he is gay. He said: “I’ve known that I am gay from about the age of 12. But I don’t feel the time is right for me to tell anyone.” Kris, 19 from Glasgow echoes the same feelings: “I’ve known from a very young age, but I just don’t feel like I’m in a place yet in my life to tell others.” Rex, 19 from Letterkenny in Ireland told us: “I’ve been comfortable with being gay for the last few years but I come from a small town in Ireland and I’m not sure how my family would take the news. I’ve just started college. To me this might be my chance to come out in a more accepting environment.” Married men Peter is 42 and comes from Middlesbrough. He’s been married to a woman for 26 years. He told us in our survey that he’s known all his life that he’s gay: “I grew up in a different time when being gay was frowned upon. I got married to my wife, who I love, we have kids and I’ve had a nice life. I sometimes wish this was not my life but it was the right decision for me at that time in my life. I know some people would say I’m living a lie, and I am a little, but I chose this and have to live with it.” Peter wasn’t the only man married to a woman who responded to our survey. Paul is 36 and has been married for just over two years. “I live in a little village in north Yorkshire. I grew up with men who are men’s men. Think rugby and football type lads. I suppose you can say I am one too. I made the decision at a young age not to act on my feelings for other men. It’s not to say I haven’t been with a man, I have, but I forced myself to be in relationships with women. I thought this would be the best option for me and my family.” Religious men Mohamed is 23 and lives in South West London. He says he’ll never come out due to his religion. “As a Muslim man the idea of ‘coming out’ is just not possible. My family would shun me and my community would ignore me. Religion is a big part of our way of life and being gay simply does not fit in with that life.” Jason is 52 and lives in North London. He told us that being a devout Catholic has helped him not act on his feelings. He said: “I pray to God every day to help me not act on my feelings. Sodomy is a sin and if I act on my feelings towards men I will go straight to hell. I have led a celibate life and I’m thankful that God has given me the strength not to act on my feelings.” www.fsmag.org.uk
Men from ethnic backgrounds Some of the men who responded to our survey said their race pays a big part as to why they are not out. Josh, 24 from Brixton told us: “In the black community the word gay is a major sin. I know if I told my mother that I am gay she would not be able to cope and I’d bring shame on our family. My dad is a typical Jamaican man who shouts the words faggot and batty boy frequently. Telling them is just not an option. I’ve decided not to come out till I’m at least older or if I move away.” Son, 29 from China told us that he had to move to London to be himself. He only arrived in London a couple of months ago on a student visa but hopes to stay in London so he can be himself. “I grew up in a village in China. To be gay in China is unacceptable. You bring great shame on your family. I’ve heard of families killing their children because they are gay. I knew that if I wanted to be myself that I needed to move away. So I applied to university in London and moved over in August. I haven’t told anyone yet but having the freedom to visit a gay bar is amazing.”
HOW DO YOU MEET MEN? As part of our survey, we asked everyone who is not ‘out’ how they meet men for sex. Jake, 17 from Birmingham told us: “I’m still a virgin. Though I have used apps like Grindr to talk to men, I’m just not ready to meet face to face yet”. Kris, 19 from Glasgow said: “I meet men on Grindr. I don’t show my face on the app till I know I’m going to meet up. I have also gone to cruising grounds and been to a sauna twice.” Rex, 19 from Letterkenny told us: “There are no gay bars where I am, so I have to rely on Grindr. The nearest city is 20 miles away and I’ve talked to a couple of guys there. We talk about meeting up but I’m nervous about that. I guess it will happen some day soon.” Peter, who is married to a woman, said: “It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a man. I try to suppress that urge but the last time I had sex with a man was back in 2013. We met through Grindr. He was not out either. We only did oral.” Mohamed, 23 from South West London told us: “I’ve been to cruise bars and saunas. I don’t use apps as I’m afraid of someone finding them on my phone. It’s not often I get to meet men.” Josh, 24 from Brixton said: “I use apps. I don’t share my face pics.” Son told us: “I haven’t met anyone yet. I’ve talked to a few men on Grindr. It’s all new to me but I’m nervous and excited at the same time.”
MENTAL HEALTH We asked all those who were surveyed whether they thought being in the closet has affected their mental health and self-esteem. Rex told us that he suffered with mental health issues which he believes are linked to being in the closet. He said: “I have gone though long periods where I wouldn’t get out of bed, I stopped hanging around with my friends and withdrew myself from family events. I was so scared that people could tell I am gay because of the way I talked or moved my hand. Yes, I have thought about killing myself in the past. I’ve never acted on it but it crossed my mind.” Mohamed said: “It would be a lie to say that committing suicide hasn’t crossed my mind. I think it would be the lesser of two shaming experiences that my family would have to deal with. I honestly think they’d rather have to deal with my death than my sexuality.” Paul told us that he’d tried to take his life several times before he got married. “I thought it would be better for everyone involved if I just ended it.”
DO YOU WANT TO COME OUT? We asked everyone if they wanted to ‘come out’. All said yes but felt that it was probably not going to happen any time soon. Jake told us: “I think I will come out eventually but I can’t see it happening till I’m in my mid twenties.” Kris said: “Of course I want to, but I’m just not ready.” Rex told us: “I think once I get done with college and move to a big city like Dublin or London I will, but as long as I stay here it won’t happen.” Peter said: “I think that time for me has passed. It would destroy too many lives to come out now.” Paul agreed with Peter: “It just won’t happen for me. I’ll always have to lead a double life.” Jason said: “As long as God gives me strength to stop these urges, I won’t be acting on it.” Mohamed told us: “I would like to not be living a lie, but my family comes first”. And Josh said: “I can see myself coming out. But not just yet.” Finally, we asked: Are you happy? Jake told us he struggles day to day. “I am some days; I hate myself other days. It’s a battle.” Kris said: “I am happy in general but when I get put into situations where relationships come up I feel awkward and feel I need to lie. Afterwards I tend to crash and feel bad about myself. I’ve had a lot of crying myself to sleep at night.” Peter told us: “I am happy. I have a lovely family. I know I’m not 100% honest with who I am, but I get on with life. In another world I would be out but it’s not reality. I deal with the cards life dealt me.” Mohamed said: “I pray a lot that Allah will guide me through the tough days. I try and come across as though I am happy. Most days I am. But it’s not truthful.” And Josh told us: “I have a good circle of friends and my family respects me. I would like to be out and proud and be happy. Until that day I will battle through and do what I have to do.”
WE MUST NOT FORGET In an era where equal marriage is now the law, we must not forget that there is a large portion of gay and bisexual men still struggling with their sexuality. In fact, gay and bisexual men are five times more likely to suffer from mental health issues and even attempt suicide. This is not acceptable any more. It’s clear that we still have a long way to go in the battle for acceptence and to combat homophobia. If we have learned one thing from these men, it is that their health and happiness is just as important as the gay men who are open and proud. We are one community and we must battle for the health and happiness of all, whether out or not.
The impact of ‘coming out’ on your mental health The majority of gay and bisexual men generally maintain good mental health, even though research has shown that they are at greater risk of mental health problems. However, ongoing homophobia, stigma and discrimination can have negative effects on your health. Research also shows that, compared with other men, gay and bisexual men have higher chances of having: • • • 20|
Major despression Bipolar disorder General anxiety disorder
Gay and bisexual men may also face other health threats that usually happen along with mental health problems. These include more frequent use of illegal drugs and a greater risk of suicide. Gay and bisexual men are more likely than other men to have tried to commit suicide as well as to have succeeded at suicide. HIV is another issue that has had a huge impact on the mental health of gay and bisexual men. It affects men who are living with HIV; and also those who are at high risk, but HIV-negative. Revealing sexual orientation Keeping your sexual orientation hidden from others and fear of having your sexual orientation disclosed can add to the stress of being gay or bisexual. In general, research has shown that gay and bisexual men who are open about their sexual orientation with others have better health outcomes than gay and bisexual men who do not. However, being â€˜outâ€™ in some settings and to people who react negatively can add to the stress experienced by gay and bisexual men, and can lead to poorer mental health and discrimination. Keys to maintaining good mental health Having a supportive group of friends and family members is often key to successfully dealing with the stress of day-to-day life and maintaining good mental health. If you are unable to get social support from your friends and families, you can try finding support by becoming involved in community, social, athletic and other groups. Mental health counselling and support groups that are sensitive to the needs of gay and bisexual men can be especially useful if you are coming to terms with your sexual orientation or are experiencing depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems. While many gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men may not seek care from a mental health provider because of a fear of discrimination or homophobia, it is important to keep this as an option and to find a provider that is trustworthy and compatible. For more information and support, visit www.rucomingout.com. For further help and support contact LGBT Switchboard, on 0300 330 0630.
ADVICE Dear straight people: What should you say when someone comes out to you? By Wayne Dhesi, Founder RUComingOut
There’s no getting around the fact that coming out as gay or bi can be really scary. You spend what seems like an eternity plucking up the courage to tell someone something so personal about yourself, which is why the reactions you get from your friends, family and colleagues are so important. Obviously everyone’s coming out experience is different, but from reading the hundreds of stories on rucomingout.com I’ve come up with some simple dos and don’ts for when someone comes out to you.
WHAT TO SAY WHEN SOMEONE COMES OUT TO YOU: “How do you feel now?” If you’re the first person that someone comes out to, chances are they’ll be nervous, scared or at least apprehensive. Check that they’re OK, and reassure them that they’ve done the right thing. “Do you need me to do anything?” Sometimes people need moral support when coming out to certain people in their lives, such as their parents. Offering support, if you feel comfortable doing so, could mean the world to them. Check in with them every now and then and make sure they’re doing OK. “I’m proud of you/I love you.” This one depends on how emotionally open you are with the person who has come out to you, but a hug, a smile and some encouraging words can go a long way.
WHAT NOT TO SAY WHEN SOMEONE COMES OUT TO YOU: “I knew it! I said to Matt! I’ve always known!” Firstly, there are no prizes here because it’s not a competition, so please don’t make it about you. It’s possible you may have had your suspicions but you didn’t ‘know’ because you’ve only just found out. It can also be pretty upsetting to know that your friends have been gossiping about your sexuality. “I’m upset that you didn’t tell me sooner.” Again, this is not about you I’m afraid. The fact that someone may have taken their time to come out to you is not a sign of how much or little they trust you, it’s about how bloody difficult coming out can be. Calm down, and remember who’s just come out and focus on them. www.fsmag.org.uk
“So what? What’s the big deal?” OK, so you want to make them realise that you’re cool with the gay thing, that’s fine, but don’t dismiss their coming out as something of no significance. They may have been waiting years to tell someone, torturing themselves every day about how to do this, so give it the acknowledgment it deserves without sounding like you’re freaking out. “This is so cool! There’s a guy at work who’s gay, I’ll set you up.” Do I really have to explain this one? It’s ridiculous, it can come across as kind of offensive and it suggests that people can’t function effectively if they’re not in a couple. Just no. Save your matchmaking for later. Coming out will always be a big deal, at least for the person doing it. The most important thing that anyone going through the process needs to know is that they won’t lose people close to them and that they’ll still be accepted. Your role in, and your reaction to, someone’s coming out can be crucial. To read how more than 300 people came out, visit rucomingout.com. For further help and support contact LGBT Switchboard, on 0300 330 0630.
How I came out to my family and friends By Louis Cryer
I grew up in a small town in Wales with my mum and my younger brother. My mum did a pretty incredible job of bringing us both up on her own, and to be perfectly honest we had a pretty idyllic childhood. Weekends would be spent out in the fields, building dens, riding our bikes to the river, breaking into farmer’s barns and generally getting into trouble… that kind of thing. At school I had a bit of a reputation for being a ladies’ man, dating my way through the majority of girls in my year with numerous predictable consequences. However, I always harboured an inner inquisitiveness for guys. At that age, I was too young to know what that was, and confined myself to daydreaming a bit too much about guys on TV. As the years went by in school I grew closer to my girl mates, and predictably endured the stereotypical bullying. The fact that increasingly I wasn’t one of the ‘lads’ out on the rugby pitch every day gave the guys something to talk about. Unsurprising in a little Welsh town I guess. At 15 I went all the way with a girl, in a tent in my back garden - I know right! Instead of it being the groundbreaking moment of my life I expected it to be, it left me feeling more confused than ever before. But then it was as if someone had switched a light bulb on in my head. I understood what I was feeling; I was gay. Despite reaching this realisation, coming out never entered my mind. I knew that I would need to deal with it and accept it in due course but I never resented it and in all honesty there was a part of me that was just relieved that I finally understood what these feelings meant. Like a lot of us, I’d always cast a sideways glance at that copy of Gay Times or Attitude on the top shelf of my local newsagents, and remember the all consuming wave of nausea and panic that overcame me the first time I bought one. It had taken me 20 minutes to build up the courage just to pick it up from the shelf and when I finally got it to the counter the old lady serving me turned to her friend and asked her whether there was an age restriction associated with these ‘foul’ magazines - her words not mine. It was hardly the empowering moment I’d expected and I walked out of the shop feeling ashamed and ‘outed’. I thought about how I’d never be able to show my face in there again and yet flicking through the pages of that magazine in the safety of my bedroom I saw a whole world of possibilities, and a whole world I knew nothing about. By now I’d reached the grand age of 16 and my inquisitiveness was growing. I started chatting to a guy online and after a few months eventually made the (in hindsight, atrocious) decision to travel to London to go and meet him. I told my mum I was staying round my friends house and got on the train with £24 in my back pocket. The only person who knew what I was doing was a friend of mine, and obviously I’d told them that I was going to meet a girl. To cut a long story short, I sat at the platform of the station where we’d arranged to meet for three hours. Whoever he was, he a no show (thank God), and so I decided to make my way back to Wales.
TRUE LIFE I’d missed the last train home so ended up having to sleep rough on a bench at some godforsaken Welsh village in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the train the following day. Needless to say it was a sleepless night, which gave me ample thinking time, and I vowed never to put myself in such a ridiculous position again. Two weeks after the London catastrophe, my mum (in her innocence while cleaning my room) found another type of top shelf magazine in my room. This one wasn’t quite as innocent as Gay Times. She marched into the kitchen where I was completely unaware and cooking some beans on toast. She asked me whether the magazine belonged to me and in my blind panic I grabbed it off her and stuffed it in the bin. No doubt I’d turned the colour of the beans I was cooking. My secret was out, and I was only 16. I wasn’t sure I was ready for this, and yet the more I thought about it lying awake in bed over those subsequent days (I ran straight out of the kitchen and avoided my mum for a week after that confrontation) I began to realise that actually there was no reason why I wasn’t ready for it. I knew in my mind that there was no doubt, I wasn’t bi and it certainly wasn’t a phase, and so when my mum eventually cornered me on a car journey I told her. As a kid I vividly remember being in the car with my mum and brother one day, and mum turning to the two of us and telling us that whether we ended up loving boys or girls she would always love us and be there (and true to her word she has been), but during that car journey when I told her she cried her eyes out, which was pretty unexpected I have to say. She was sad because she thought that I would face the struggles that she would hear about on the news about gay people. She was also petrified I’d catch a disease and die, but her fundamental worry was that it would make my life a struggle. Yet for me, all I could do was reiterate to her how much easier this was going to make my life. I didn’t have to hide anything, there were no more secrets, and whatever life had mapped out for me then at least I would be being honest to myself throughout it. Things moved pretty quickly after that. I told my closest group of friends who shrugged it off pretty nonchalantly, I have to admit - where was the drama?!? Coming from a small town, word naturally spread. I felt confident with it, and even though I have struggled at times with telling new friends (finding that ‘right’ time can be pretty hard) I’ve never looked back since. Throughout it all my brother was the one person I found was the hardest to tell. My brother is four years younger than me, but in many ways he was a lot more grown up about the whole situation. We were always so close I worried that this would change our relationship and I worried that he would think differently of me. I suppose deep down there was a part of me at the time that felt ashamed. Eventually I sat him down and told him and (wait for it) nothing changed. We’re now closer than ever and I even took him out to a gay bar recently which, needless to say, was quite entertaining. I feel so lucky to have him in my life and for the way he handled my coming out. Fast forward 13 years and I have zero regrets about anything. Granted, the way it happened wouldn’t be my number one choice in a ‘How to come out to your family’ handbook, but I’m glad it happened. All of my family have been 100% behind me. I have a great job and a brilliant group of friends, all with similar experiences and equally funny stories to tell. There have naturally been ups and downs, but I am always aware how lucky I am to live in a society where being gay is increasingly something which is accepted and celebrated. When my mum confronted me in the kitchen I thought my life was crashing down around me, but in actual fact, in hindsight, it was the complete opposite.
To read how more than 300 people came out, visit rucomingout.com. For further help and support contact LGBT Switchboard, on 0300 330 0630.
GMFA 11 Ebenezer Street, London N1 7NP Charity No: 1076854
OPINION Do gay characters on TV help people come out? By Hadley
“How do I come out?” It’s a question that I’ve been asked before and, interestingly, I always seem to start talking about TV storylines. Whether it be a same-sex couple getting married on one of our favourite soaps, a gay character on a TV drama, or even one of the main characters of a US show coming out, these stories seem to influence conversations and attitudes about being gay. I’m not for one minute suggesting we all begin to religiously watch all the soaps at our disposal, in the hope of a gay character being introduced into the narrative. Although I would recommend to anybody moving to London from the North to watch a few episodes of EastEnders. Personally I found it an excellent training ground for trying to understand directions when I first moved down. Nor do I think fictional gay characters are the embodiment of every single gay man to walk the planet. They do allow somebody who is thinking about coming out to begin to open up discussion around that three letter word. We often talk about ‘testing the waters’ with friends and family members, when it comes to coming out. Yet, how exactly do we do that? In some households or friendship groups, discussing LGBT people or coming out may not be a conversation starter. And if these topics have never been discussed by the people we share our lives with, how are we supposed to know how they feel about it? Unless you’re telepathic, there’s really no right way of trying to suss it out. The power of television means that you don’t have to start the conversation; the characters of your favourite soap, for example, have acted out a path for you. So when the post-episode conversation ensues, you’re able to pick up on how the other person feels about the two men kissing on the TV, or the marriage between two characters of the same sex. Most importantly, television infiltrates the homes of its viewers, a place where they feel the most secure, and almost challenges them to see the world from a different point of view. When I was thinking about coming out, Gareth Thomas had come out a few months earlier. Nobody in my family watches rugby, therefore, using Gareth to open up a conversation about gay men would be meaningless to the people I was trying to come out to. However, we were watching the American TV series, Brothers and Sisters, which featured a gay main character. Discussing Kevin’s character did allow me to open up a dialogue about being gay, ultimately allowing me to feel comfortable about the reaction I was likely to receive when I eventually came out. For people growing up in homes where being gay is a taboo subject, the characters on our TV screens and their stories are helping to amplify some of those silenced conversations. It’s not a guarantee; just because your parents or friends think a gay character is wonderful, doesn’t mean they’ll think you being gay is equally wonderful. However, it’s a place to start those sometimes awkward conversations and a positive response may give you the confidence to come out. Gay characters are not real people, yet the themes that run through their onscreen stories – coming out, getting married, or being the victim of hate crime – are themes that run through the lives of many gay men today. The importance of these characters may be challenged, but I believe it’s about time we started telling the stories of our wider society on national television, assisting those thinking about coming out with their reallife story. For more information on coming out, visit www.stonewall.org.uk. www.fsmag.org.uk
OPINION How stigma stops you getting a date By Nick Baker
Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I’d been chatting to a guy from a dating app on and off for a couple of days and the subject of work comes up – now I usually don’t say exactly what I do for a living straight away, because I’m not spending my Sunday afternoon giving personal advice to everyone on Tinder, Grindr, Hornet, Scruff or Twitter (if you don’t think Twitter is a dating app then you’re just not doing it properly) – anyway in this instance I do tell him and we open a can of worms… He asks about PrEP, and says he feels confident in using condoms all the time but wants an extra level of protection. We discuss how PrEP could be used by people for different reasons and at different times of their lives. For him though, having previously been cheated on he wants to always be on PrEP and continue to use condoms. A great strategy to protect against HIV and STIs. When asked if he would still do this in a relationship where both had been tested before they stopped using condoms he says no, because he is afraid of STIs and admits to being paranoid about it. We pause and discuss meeting for coffee. Remember, at this point he’s cute and at least seems informed so I’m just going with it. It’s now Sunday afternoon and we’re comparing hangover stories from the weekend. He tells me last night he was out with a friend who convinced him to go and look in a darkroom. As you might expect this doesn’t exactly sound like fun for someone who has already said they are paranoid about the risks involved from sex.
I sent him some links to the current Living with HIV campaign videos by GMFA to try and show him that someone with HIV is still a normal healthy person. They shouldn’t be ashamed and with effective treatment shouldn’t be feared.
Photo © www.flickr.com/johnhopephotography
I talked to him about how just by being in the same room as (even a lot of) people having sex is zero risk to him, unless he was going to have sex himself. I ask how he was even sure these guys were HIV-positive? He assumed they were and for all the wrong reasons.
I ask if someone living with HIV deserves to be treated this way? The same as you can’t see if someone has HIV, you can’t see how someone became infected without talking to them. We need to move past slut shaming and the idea of HIV as a punishment. This is not about good gays vs bad gays.
HIV stigma doesn’t only affect those people who have been diagnosed, it also prevents others from testing for HIV out of fear. Fear that they will then have to suffer from these views from other people. This means there are more people living with undiagnosed and untreated HIV, who are unknowingly able to pass the virus to others.
Photo © www.flickr.com/johnhopephotography
Around this point after an hour I did try to check out of the conversation. I wasn’t exactly emotionally invested in him. I was angry, and we all know a pretty face is only going to get you so far in life, but what about if he was my friend, brother, uncle or dad? There are still plenty of people we care about who are contributing to stigma around sex and sexually transmitted infections, and we should take the time to educate them.
He himself admitted he had a problem with how he feels and said, “If I could get counselling for it. I would.” That’s where working for a gay men’s health charity comes in useful and I was able to link him to an LGBT counselling service.
For this guy in particular his fear and paranoia around catching a STI was reinforced by everything he read or learned. Rather than using the information to be aware of risks and take control for himself, he’s continuing the cycle of fear and stigma. One conversation isn’t likely to change someone’s views immediately, but if fear is the path to the darkside then education and patience are the best ways to turn things around. If you need help and support around these issues, get in touch with London Friend, www.londonfriend.org.uk. For more information about STIs and HIV, you can visit our Sex and Sexual Health pages, www.gmfa.org.uk/sex.
www.gmfa.org.uk/pep PEP is a course of HIV medication which you can take if you have been at risk of HIV infection. The course of medication lasts 28 days and, if you start taking it within 72 hours of putting yourself at risk, it may be able to prevent you from becoming infected with HIV. PEP can be accessed through your local GUM clinic or A&E department. To find your nearest GUM clinic, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/clinics. GMFA . 11 Ebenezer Street, London N1 7NP. Charity No: 1076854.
LIFE HIV+ME: What I’ve learnt from living with HIV By Ruaidhri O’Baoill
As I get that bit older, I tend to find that more things are becoming less important and my sense of taking each day as it comes is becoming far more accessible. I have also been able to wrangle myself into a great network of gay friends which has proved far more valuable and necessary than I first imagined. Along with this maturing, so has my view of HIV also changed and more importantly my view of my own diagnosis. Looking back to the beginning, I must admit I actually didn’t feel the despair or impending doom when I was first told I was HIV-positive; that happened six months later when the everyday normality of living with HIV sunk in. My struggle back then was that pretty much everything I did or every second thought I had would be in some way connected to HIV or how I felt about myself. Although I never once for a moment wanted to, as one guy recently told me, to ‘drop the whole HIV thing’ I did however want to focus on other parts of my life. As soon as I invested my energy into this, things began to change. I became a lot more comfortable within my own skin and I have started to turn into a person that I am pretty happy to wake up as every morning. I suppose in some way I have to accept that living with HIV has played a considerable part in that. Living with HIV has grounded me while also refocusing what I want from life. It has also created an opportunity to be part of something which I never thought I would be involved with. Through my experience so far I have been able to put my story out there in FS Magazine in the hope that it would be of some help and support to other HIV-positive guys. I also wanted to raise awareness with those not living with HIV so they could possibly understand what it feels like and how they can help end stigma within the community. Now this hasn’t been the easiest. I have come up against rejection and fear which I have not always taken well. On occasions I have allowed their stigma to get the better of me and honestly it has gotten me nowhere. I have had to train myself to understand the difference between honest ignorance or fear and outright stigma and stupidity. This has been a great learning curve for me as I now know when I should invest in educating someone and when to simply ignore it and walk away. As a result of this I seem to have found a sort of inner peace now with people’s reaction when I tell them I have HIV. There will be people in the future that will definitely test my patience, however I am pretty proud of what I have achieved over the past two years and am very much looking forward to what is around the corner! For more information on living with HIV, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/livingwithhiv. For more infortmation about disclosing your HIV status, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/Pages/Category/disclosing-yourhiv-status. For more infortmation on looking after yourself when living with HIV, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/Pages/Category/ looking-after-yourself.
OPINION PrEP, discrimination and HIV stigma By Mario
Every day in the UK, about 10 gay/bisexual men are diagnosed with HIV. About 11% of the HIVpositive gay men are on meds but not undetectable. You would think that these figures alone would help the NHS gods see the light and work towards an end to the PrEP saga. Unless you’ve been living in isolation for the past year, by now you will know that there is a pill out there which, if taken daily, within seven days can prevent you from catching HIV if you were to have unprotected sex with an individual who is HIV-positive and has a detectable viral load. I am all for PrEP. Besides being cost-effective, PrEP is an outstanding preventive tool and should be freely available to anyone needing it. However, we should be careful not to turn PrEP into a way for us not to take responsibility for our actions, because there are many other STIs out there. Having said that, the smear campaign by some of the British press is not only despicable but also highlights how we still have a long way to go. As a nation, when it comes to equality, gay rights and HIV, and in certain circles is still reminiscent of the horror stories of the past. PrEP would take up to 0.2% of the NHS budget, a drop in the ocean. HIV in the UK affects mostly gay men, transgender people and ethnic minorities. Financing PrEP probably wouldn’t be an issue if it were our heterosexual counterparts needing it the most. Thanks to the many improvements and discoveries in HIV prevention, these days we only have two categories of people who can transmit the virus. We have those who haven’t tested in a while and believe they are HIVnegative when in fact they are not, and we also have HIV-positive people who are not taking or not responding to their medication and whose viral load is detectable. Take the time to read the paragraph above carefully and if you are still unconvinced, do some research of your own. Knowledge won’t harm you. Knowledge will help you make an informed choice about the kind of sexual activities you wish to indulge in, while being safer. This is also the responsible thing to do. HIV-positive individuals shouldn’t be looking after the rest of the world. HIV-negative people should be mature enough to take care of themselves, or at least to do their homework. Knowledge would probably help part of the HIV-negative community to drop the passive/aggressive discriminatory attitude projected on to HIVpositive people since the early days of the epidemic. When it comes to HIV, stigmatisation and discrimination are rife in gay-land, now more than ever. Sharing an HIV-negative status on a hook-up profile as a scarecrow for the ‘less fortunate’ is rather uncool. With knowledge, we should realise that if we wish to remain negative and casual, bareback sex is all we truly want, then our only safe option is to be with a man who has disclosed h=is HIV-positive status, is on medication and has an undetectable viral load, while taking PrEP ourselves. But let’s be real here. No one in his right mind would choose to take medication for the rest of his life, unless it was strictly necessary, as any HIV-positive person will confirm. When the PrEP fiasco imploded in the hands of NHS England, I didn’t truly buy into the outrage coming from certain areas of the gay community, or how suddenly people who have never been involved or cared before, jumped on the ‘let’s fight HIV bandwagon’. It simply didn’t add up. PrEP is not just about eradicating HIV/AIDS from the world, or ending stigma and discrimination, at least not for your average gay man. If this were the case, we’d have thousands of people chaining themselves to the railings outside Downing Street demanding better medication for all in Africa. All we want is to have good sex. www.fsmag.org.uk
Most tellingly, HIV-negative men are simply scared of catching HIV. HIV is “DIRTY”; HIV will turn HIV-negative men into “whores” overnight, because this is what we associate with HIV: the shame, the forbidden, and the sleaze. It’s amazing what fear of being marginalised does to someone’s senses and ability to process information without freaking out. I have lost count of the number of men who have told me that they had no problem with my positive status and yet disappeared from my life in a rather unceremonious fashion within 48 hours of my disclosure. This is the main reason why many men with HIV, who are healthy and in a stable condition, won’t disclose their status unless they are asked, or feel there may be a future with the person they’ve had casual sex with. They simply wish to avoid unnecessary dramas and the psychological turmoil that a rejection due to their HIVpositive status would generate. I came out as a gay man. Then I came out publicly as HIV-positive more than once over the years, simply because I wanted to raise awareness, and because I felt that in order to fight stigma and discrimination I had to put my face and name out there, unashamed of my status, as I have always been. These days I only discuss my status in private with people who I feel I have a connection with and I want to know better. My casual encounters don’t need to know because they can’t catch HIV from me. I have HIV antibodies in my blood. This is the only difference between a negative person and me. Those antibodies won’t do anything to anyone, or me for that matter. Knowing that I cannot harm my sexual partners means everything to me, and it means the world to the majority of HIV-positive people out there. For a large circle of negative gay men, PrEP is about sexual liberation. It’s as simple as that, and I wish we’d drop the hypocrisy from the equation. PrEP equates to a perpetual morning-after pill. As crude as it sounds, chunks of the gay community simply don’t want an ‘unwanted child’ (and rightly so…) after being “DIRTY WHORES”, because in their private lives, that’s what quite a few people feel they are. I don’t see this as a problem in the straight world, so why are we judging our own? There is nothing wrong with being sexually active. What’s wrong are the hang-ups that we still have about certain sexual activities, a consequence of over 30 years of bad press surrounding HIV and the activities we associate with it. Your average Joe won’t admit he likes bareback sex because this would lower him to his HIVpositive brother’s level, because ‘this is how you get HIV’. Not only that. It would associate him with them and their “DIRTY LIFESTYLE”. People might even assume our average Joe is positive when he is not: the shock! The horror! I have learned the hard way that these days discrimination comes nicely packaged in words and phrases, such as “CLEAN” and “DISEASE FREE”. You see, I don’t normally use capital letters. In this instance though, the CAPS function has helped me highlight how some HIV-negative men have addressed me over the past nine years, when safely hidden behind a screen, of course. This kind of behaviour is vilifying, is cowardly and wrong, and it simply has to stop. With or without PrEP, our community will remain divided, unless we change our attitude and learn how to accept and respect each other regardless of our HIV status. This, I am happy to fight for.
WHAT IS PREP? PrEP stands for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis. An HIV-negative person takes pills (developed to treat people with HIV) regularly to reduce their risk of HIV infection. Several studies show that PrEP works. PrEP is currently only available in the UK by private prescription, online and from some sexual health clinics and GPs.
WHY DO WE NEED PREP? Due to the high rate of HIV infections, there is a particular need for the NHS to make PrEP available to gay men. However it should be available to all people who are at high risk of acquiring HIV. For more information about PrEP, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/prep. For more infortmation on where to buy and how to take PrEP, visit www.iwantprepnow.co.uk. For information on HIV testing, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/hiv-testing.
Photo © Lee Sterling www.lessterling.com
How to stop HIV
In 2015, over 3,320 gay men were diagnosed HIV-positive in the UK. About 85% of new HIV infections come from having sex with men who don’t know they have HIV. About 15% of gay men who are HIV-positive don’t know they have it.
Condoms Using condoms while having sex is still one of the best ways to avoid picking up any STIs, becoming HIV-positive or passing on HIV. Make sure you use plenty of water-based lube too. Stay away from Vaseline, baby oil and spit – they will make the condom rip. For more information about condoms and lube, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/ condoms-and-lube.
Testing All sexually active gay men should test for STIs at least once a year. If you are having sex with new partners then you should test more frequently. Test for HIV too when you’re there. It takes about two weeks for most STIs and four weeks for HIV to show up in a test. To find your nearest GUM clinic, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/clinics.
Treatment If you are diagnosed with HIV you will be put on treatment that will contain the virus in the body. Within a few short months the virus should become undetectable, meaning that it’s very
unlikely that the virus will be passed on to sexual partners. However using condoms will further reduce the risk of passing on HIV and STIs.
HIV-positive if started within 72 hours after sex (the sooner you start taking it the better). If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, contact your local GUM clinic or go to an A&E.
For more information on HIV, being diagnosed and support services for men living with HIV, visit www.gmfa.org. uk/living-with-hiv.
For more info on PEP, visit www.gmfa. org.uk/pep.
PrEP PrEP means Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, and it’s the use of anti-HIV medication to keep HIV-negative people from becoming infected. PrEP has been shown to be safe and effective. A single pill taken once daily, it is highly effective against HIV. The medication interferes with HIV’s ability to copy itself in your body after you’ve been exposed. This prevents it from establishing an infection and stops you becoming HIV-positive. PrEP is currently not available on the NHS to everyone, but you can find information about where to buy generic PrEP by visiting www.iwantprepnow. co.uk.
PEP PEP is a month-long course of HIV medication that can stop you becoming
Education Knowing how HIV and STIs are transmitted is important. One way to stop HIV and STIs is to keep up to date with the latest news and information about HIV, STIs and safer sex. For more information, visit www.gmfa. org.uk/sex.
Mental health No matter what advice we give you about how to stop HIV and STIs, if your emotional health is not good you may find it harder to care about protecting your sexual health. So if you are feeling down, experiencing low self-esteem or have symptoms of depression then it’s best to talk to a professional who can help you get back on track. For more information on how to look after your mental health, or to find support services, visit www.nhs.uk/mentalhealth.
HIV POSITIVE NEGATIVE MEN
PROTECT THEIR PARTNERS
Your sexual partners may not always insist on using condoms. Stopping transmission of HIV is your responsibility. For more information, visit www.gmfa.org.uk. GMFA - the gay men’s health charity 11 Ebenezer Street, London N1 7NP. Charity No: 1076854 GMFA projects are developed by positive and negative volunteers. To support GMFA’s work visit: www.gmfa.org.uk/donate.