In my more misguided days, I was a committee member of an organisation at Cambridge which invited UKIP’s tinpot despot Nigel Farage to speak at Queens’ College. I remember it was a drizzly day, as if an LGBT induced downpour was doing its best to drown his bigotry out.
I was new to committee at the time and a regular smoker. As a result, I was put on informal ‘smoking duty’, keeping an eye on the “pound-shop Enoch” as he replaced his hot air with something less toxic. He smokes so much that he actually ran out of cigarettes and had to ask me for one of my Richmond Menthols. I’d just started it, so I took it out of my mouth and gave it to him before sparking up a new one. I wonder if he’d have taken it had he known I was gay and consequently, that there was a 1 in 20 chance that I had HIV?
In the Leaders’ Debate, this bigoted bully instilled a very real fear into many HIV+ people across the UK. He singled out those from overseas who suffer from this terrible disease by branding them “health tourists”. I wonder if Nigel Farage has ever met anyone who is HIV+? I’d say that if he has, he does not understand the challenges they face.
Like others, I was thrilled by the quick response of Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, who told him: “I think you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” As well as the response from the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon; “When somebody is diagnosed with a dreadful illness, my instinct is to view them as a human being, not consider what country they come from.” Many people in the Twittersphere have made their views clear on this issue. The one advantage of Farage’s unacceptable outburst is that it is now beyond reasonable doubt that UKIP is the party of bigotry in Britain. I foresee this having a real impact on their performance in the upcoming election. It is now unacceptable to vote UKIP, with senior party figures such as Tory-turncoat Douggie Carswell refusing to back Farage’s comments.
Since leaving university, I’ve been volunteering for a local sexual health charity that specialises in HIV/AIDS support & prevention. This has brought me into contact with a large number of HIV+ people, many of whom I am proud to call my friends.
There is still a huge amount of misunderstanding and stigma surrounding HIV. Unfortunately many people – gay, straight, black and white – remember the “Don’t Die of Ignorance Campaign”. Yes, the campaign was hard hitting, but it came at a time before the virus was understood, testing was in its infancy and anti-retroviral drugs were nearly a decade off.
In 1996, the majority of people with HIV found that they no longer had a terminal illness and anti-retroviral treatment meant that the new challenge was how to support those living with HIV. Unfortunately, the government at the time didn’t publicise this new development, and the stigma remained. Correcting this stigma, left over from the AIDS crisis, is still a key challenge for many HIV charities.
People are still very badly misinformed, they haven’t learned from the last 20 years of medical advances. Mr Farage has sought to capitalise upon this by singling out this group as a scapegoat for the country’s problems. It builds upon that lingering fear and amplifies prejudices, particularly against the Black African and LGBT+ minorities, which are disproportionately affected by HIV. It is a petty and dangerous politics of division that seeks to create a mentality of “them” and “us”.
Farage’s attempt to be seen as the one who tells ‘tough truths’ has led to a wider backlash against equal marriage by the average UKIPper on the street. But I’m with Gary Linekar on this: “Farage is just a dick.”
The truth of the matter is this – when you meet a HIV+ individual, the only way you’d know is if they told you. The fact that someone is HIV+ is irrelevant to who they are and what they have to offer, just as their race, ethnicity, sexuality or gender is something that should not be used to judge them.
I’m told that the burden carried by many positive people, can never truly be understood by those of use who aren’t HIV+. A positive friend of mine said this – you can sympathise, but you cannot empathise with the reality that a virus is slowly eating away at you. The new battle lies in mental health and the effects of the virus and its stigma in that respect. That any politician is seen making such statements, is directly detrimental to the wellbeing of the HIV+ members of our community. These are people, like you and I. Why does Farage think it is acceptable to single them out? In short, because he is nothing more than an ignorant bully.
Moreover, a climate of fear causes practical problems in fighting the virus. Fear is one of the main things stopping people from getting themself checked, this increases the risk that the virus can be passed on to multiple partners. Unfortunately, this damages people’s ability to have an open and honest dialogue about forward transmission and how to prevent it. The truth is, the sooner a person knows their status, the more likely it is that they can live a full and healthy life.
Notwithstanding, I’m afraid some of the worst discrimination against positive people comes from their own communities. On a day-to-day basis, it is the intolerance of the LBGT+ and Black African communities that causes the most suffering to those who are HIV+. I know far too many positive people who’ve been shunned, dumped and even threatened, after revealing their status to the people who should be the most supportive. This is often despite the fact that their viral load is untraceable, it is people’s misunderstanding of anti-retroviral treatment that leads many to write off a potential friend or lover because of their status. That is outright unfair discrimination.
It may surprise some of you to learn that studies have proven that it is actually safe to have unprotected sex with someone who is HIV+, providing they have had an untraceable viral load for over 6 months. Most people contract HIV from someone who has been infected for less than 6 weeks, when their viral load is highest and they are at their most infectious. The fight against HIV and, equally as important, the stigma surrounding it, doesn’t only have to be won in the political arena, it has to be won in our own communities too.
Jonathan Aleksanders (Comment Contributor)
To get tested whilst at Cambridge simply call 0300 300 3030 and ask for a sexual health screening. Tests can only be booked for the next two days from the call.