WHEN Christabel Millar found out she was HIV-positive in 2010, she lived in total secrecy for nearly four years.
She hid her status from her family and friends and knew no-one else living with HIV in whom she could confide.
[showads ad=MREC]Struggling for visibility and acceptance, Millar realised women experienced living with HIV quite differently to gay men.
This is what compelled her to become a HIV activist and help bring the voices of HIV-positive women to the table.
“It’s very difficult to be visible as a woman because of the volume of gay men living with HIV who are more liberated in their status,” she said.
“In the gay community it’s often still possible to be quite sexually overt and not have your personal desirability as harshly compromised as it is for women.
“That is why I’ve put myself out there, because I have to create visibility for all women, trans women, and culturally and ethnically diverse women, to change this tragedy of having your desirability called into question because sex is a human right and it’s divine.”
Soon after Millar revealed she was HIV-positive she became heavily involved in the sector, and is currently the Director of the Board at Living Positive Victoria.
In this role she has engaged the HIV-positive community and celebrated womanhood while raising awareness about what it means to be a HIV-positive woman.
The 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne proved to be a significant event for Millar, as it provided an opportunity for her to finally meet a large cohort of HIV-positive people.
“It was there that I fell head over heels in love with Living Positive (Victoria) and then finally met other HIV-positive people… it took me four years to meet another positive woman,” she said.
“When I met Brent Allan (chief executive of Living Positive Victoria), it was the first time I knew there was another HIV-positive person in the room with me… it was intoxicating to be a part of.
“The conference was very overwhelming because it’s a very joyous experience out of something that is still ultimately very painful.
“It’s wonderful to meet your community but it’s also sometimes a shock that that’s your community.”
Millar believes the conference also helped the community to understand the importance of engaging more women, and straight people as well.
“If they’re not addressing women’s issues, how are they addressing even more nuanced issues like those in the trans community,” she asked.
“That’s certainly my role, to keep reminding people of that.”
Recently, Millar was part of the Positive Leadership Development Institute, an initiative which offers people living with HIV the opportunity to develop skills for leadership and resilience. In addition, she and the team at Living Positive Victoria were fortunate to receive a grant for youth leadership programs.
Over an extended period of time, Millar believes these programs will help educate younger HIV-positive people and change the culture around the virus.
“That will hopefully engage negative and positive youth to help break down the stigma at an early age, coaching people on how to lead in these circumstances,” she said.
“For instance, a trans person or a young woman who has been born HIV-positive will be given the tools to be in charge of that.
“We’re also creating exhibitions with some interactive artwork that will begin to turn the tide on what it means to be a woman in the sector.”
When asked what inspires her advocacy and work in the HIV community, Millar hesitated.
“It’s tricky to finesse this answer… for me, it is actually an act of necessity,” she said.
“I am often one of the only women at every event, and at every meeting there’s less than a handful of women.
“This community of women often have to be their own inspiration which is hard and not to be taken lightly.
“Part of what I’m trying to do is liberate women.”
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**This article was first published in the December edition of the Star Observer, which is available now. To obtain a copy, click here to find out where you can grab one in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra and select regional/coastal areas.
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