AUSTRALIA has seen major strides in the advancement of HIV treatment and prevention, leading to a greater awareness of the virus. But has this awareness led to a fresh perspective on living with HIV?
Ruan was eating breakfast on a rooftop terrace in Spain when an email popped up on his phone telling him he had HIV. He immediately thought he only had one or two years to live.
Sitting with five of his friends, Ruan kept silent. The disbelief, fear, and shame all weighing down on him within a matter of seconds.
“I didn’t tell anyone at all for months.”
Campbell was young and felt invincible before he got the test results that revealed he was HIV positive.
The moment the doctor phoned him to come in for his result, he knew he’d contracted it.
“I hadn’t thought about it at all before then, I was king of the world and nothing could defeat me,” he said.
“My initial thought after I found out was ‘you bloody idiot’, because it’s not something that magically happens, it was something I did.
“People I knew were at funerals every weekend and their friends were dying, but I wasn’t too worried because I was young and healthy at the time.”
Campbell and Ruan knew little about HIV before they were diagnosed with it, but both perceived it as a virus that would significantly shorten one’s life.
The difference? Campbell was diagnosed in 1989, and Ruan in 2014.
Since the early eighties when the first case of AIDS was identified in Australia, society has seen a number of ground-breaking advancements in both the prevention and treatment of HIV.
From the first trials of the drug Retrovir (AZT) to treat HIV-positive people to the introduction of pre and post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent the contraction of HIV, the sector has seen great strides towards the elimination of new infections.
Gay and bisexual men have also been exposed to a proliferation of sexual health campaigns that educate them on safe sex and the reality of living with HIV.
However, irrespective of the decade in which one is diagnosed, the stigma around the virus can still lead to fear – and in some cases, complacency – among members of both the negative and positive communities.
Campbell found out about his diagnosis at the height of the AIDS crisis, when a fictitious Grim Reaper was isolating and shaming gay men and their sex lives in front of the entire country.
“Everybody thought it was a death sentence, but I was lucky to be on the cusp of it being that, right before antiretrovirals came in,” he said.
“People weren’t dropping like flies like they were in the US, but there were sick people around and they were always in the news.”
While so much has changed since Australians first saw the Grim Reaper warn the community people about ‘gays and IV drug users’ in a shocking advertising campaign, Campbell believes the fear and stigma around the virus still persist.
Having done work in the sector, he has encountered many people with reactions to finding out about their HIV diagnosis that mirror those in the eighties, despite all of the advancements.
“I still see the same kind of drama, panic, and self-destructive behaviour that I saw around me back then – just less of the ‘I’m going to die’ stuff,” he said.
“People don’t think it’s ever going to happen to them, so it’s like they don’t have a coping mechanism for it.”
Campbell believes the educational sexual health campaigns disseminated by organisations in the sector like ACON, the Victorian AIDS Council, and Living Positive Victoria can only go so far in removing fear and stigma.
“It’s nothing to do with education, there’s more than enough awareness out there,” he said.
“There’s nobody in Australia that doesn’t know how you get HIV now, unless you’re living under a rock or a complete dickhead.
“We’re not going to change many people’s perceptions until we find a cure for the human propensity for denial.”
Ruan believes many gay and bisexual men are educated on the advancements, and are aware they can go on treatment and live a long life if diagnosed with the virus.
However, he said no one knows the reaction they’ll have until they are diagnosed, and this has led to complacency in the community.
“I think many people that are diagnosed today know they can go on treatment – there’s this sense in the gay scene, that ‘if I get it, so what? I can go on the pill’,” he said.
“No one knows how they will psychologically respond to their diagnosis until it happens.
“It’s not a death sentence anymore but it is a life sentence.”
Campbell has encountered a similar complacency.
“There’s more than enough awareness that it doesn’t kill you anymore, so it goes from denial to ‘it doesn’t matter, it’s not that bad’,” he said.
Despite not knowing much about the virus prior to his diagnosis, Ruin said working in the sector afterwards and meeting incredible activists and members of the community made him want to spread as much awareness as possible.
“I don’t say I became positive, I say I lost my negativity,” he said.