“I’M a little nervous, but I think it’s important advocacy work,” Dean Beck said.
“I knew that there would be a time and a place when it was right for me to step forward, and I think this is it.”
Growing out of that conversation was a video series (scroll down to watch) featuring Beck and a number of other high-profile HIV-positive people calling on governments, drug companies and health bodies to make PrEP available.
“I’m a great believer that it should be another tool in the box for people to protect themselves, and had it been available in Australia the same time it was in the US, I certainly would have been on it, and I would not have been diagnosed positive,” Beck said.
“Having gone through the mental anguish of a diagnosis, to have the empowerment that perhaps PrEP would give some people as far as control over what it is and how they do it, it’s so, so valuable.”
Perhaps best known as the presenter of a number of shows on LGBTI community radio station JOY 94.9, covering sexual health, community news and current affairs, Beck is a prominent figure in Melbourne’s gay community. He’s been a force for change on local and national issues, and has argued passionately that the community needs to talk more openly about sex, sexual health and HIV.
Despite years talking publicly about HIV, Beck said nothing could have prepared him for his recent positive diagnosis.
“I couldn’t have been better aware of HIV and also aware of my failings,” he said.
“The point is that it doesn’t matter how good you are at getting the knowledge and how good you are at trying to do the right thing all the time, people make mistakes, and I make mistakes, just like everybody else, and those mistakes have consequences.”
Beck said it is vital to understand that confronting stigma and becoming aware of how stigma is perpetuated does not free gay men from its impacts. He has been particularly worried about the community reaction, that his diagnosis would be branded a cruel irony given his reputation as a HIV-prevention advocate.
“Of course. Of course I do. I’m just as exposed — perhaps even more so — to stigma as anyone else, and the timeframe from my diagnosis to my publicly speaking out about it, that time has been spent dealing with all sorts of internalised stigma around the issue,” he explained.
“There will be people that draw their own conclusions around my failings, that’s fine, they’re entitled to do that, but I would counsel anyone who is critical of people with HIV to be very, very careful, because you never know when it might just be you.”
While younger people in the community have more out public figures than ever before to look up to, there are few high-profile, HIV-positive people speaking about their experiences. The work of programs like Living Positive Victoria’s Positive Speakers Bureau is invaluable in helping people understand what it’s like to live with HIV, but Beck said the dearth of HIV-positive role models made it harder for people to come out. He cited Olympic medallist Ji Wallace and advocate Nic Holas as some of the only examples we have.
“We know that there are lots of people in the public domain that are HIV-positive, whether they are in the corporate sector, or whether they are in the arts or whatever, that are fearful of coming out, and fearful of the stigma that they would become a target of,” Beck said.
“I think it’s incumbent on our community as a whole to provide and facilitate safety for those people to step forward. Hopefully they will feel that and be able to step forward and put more voices to a very, very lonely place for those living with HIV.”
Momentum has continued to build around PrEP for the past couple of years in Australia, but Beck argued the gay community should be doing more to support and scrutinise the country’s AIDS councils. Access to PrEP in Australia is years behind the US, where, while it is expensive, PrEP has been widely available for three years.
“We’re a very complacent mob, I mean gay men in this country, because we have tremendous organisations that we rely on to be our voice in this space, and we allow them to do the work for us, so we just sit back and take it all in,” he said.
“We don’t police them and make sure what they’re doing is the right thing and the best by us, and secondly, they’re the same voice banging on about the same thing that they’ve been banging on about for 30 years. Where is the support from us to back them up and help them get some of these things across the line?”
Beck compared the PrEP situation to the long wait Australia has had for widespread rapid HIV testing.
“I was fucking furious with all HIV agencies for not screaming blue murder that rapid testing wasn’t approved quicker than what it was. Part of that was the sector itself, who for half of that period said, ‘we don’t want it in this country’,” he said.
“We were our own worst enemy in that space, because we relied on the agencies to be right, and they were wrong. This time (regarding PrEP) they’ve got it right, so we need to all get behind them and make it happen.”
Beck hopes adding his voice to the ranks of out HIV-positive men shouting for change will make a difference, and said HIV-negative people have an important role to play.
“If you’re negative, do your very best to stay negative, and use every tool available to do that, and help get PrEP available for you, or if not for you, then for somebody else who thinks they might need it,” he said.
“And if you’re critical of people living with HIV, be very, very careful, because unless you’re perfect, it just might be you one day. But hopefully with PrEP it won’t be. And if you know someone on PrEP, congratulate them for taking responsibility for their own sexual health and wellbeing, and that of others.”