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A letter to … the HIV that is in my bloodstream

Respect my HIV Protest in London

What is it really like living with HIV?

The reality is, people with HIV can be in relationships, have sex, and live normal lives by taking a few precautions. Although there's no cure for HIV, there are medicines that help people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. As long as they follow their treatment plans, most people with HIV can enjoy full social and professional lives. In fact, those who receive an early diagnosis and effective treatment can expect to live nearly as long as individuals who have not contracted the virus.

Living with HIV is a far more subtle and complex thing than the bald statement above might suggest. The testimony given below by Jacob Boehme beautifully illustrates the complex, human, relationship that people have with this disease.

Reproduced from Al Jazeera, with kind permission:

‘In many ways, you have radically changed me. But in many others, you have not.’

I’ve been living with you since 1998 – that’s 24 years now. In many ways, you have radically changed me. But funnily enough, in many other ways you have not.

These days, you are only one aspect of my identity, of which there are many parts:

I’m a fair-skinned, Aboriginal gay man who hails from Nganarunga and Kaurna country in south Australia with Scottish and Finnish heritage.

I’m a ‘westie’ – I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne.

I’m a dancer, a theatre maker, a husband, a festival director, an uncle.

A good part of me is also very queer.

I remember the day I found out about you. It was the 28th of October.

Most of us have the date when we were diagnosed imprinted in our minds.

It’s like there is life pre-you and then life living with you.

I remember walking down to the doctor’s, and as I walked, with each footstep was a “no”. It was just “No, no, no. No.”

But I already knew the answer even before I heard the doctor’s results.

I’d had a cold for some weeks that just wouldn’t go away. One of my dance teachers told me I should get it checked. But two of the traditional Aboriginal teachers sat me down and began to sing over me, like in the traditional healing way.

They sang over me, and when they finished, one of them, Aunty Peggy, turned around and said: “We can’t help you, you need Western medicine, everything is red.” That’s when I went to the doctor.

When I got to the doctor, it was really strange. He was going through a list of other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), saying that I did not have them. Eventually I said: “Just tell me.”

That’s when he broke down, and got all teary. “I’ve never had to do this before,” he said. I had to put him out of his misery, so I said, “It came back positive, didn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said.

I started laughing. That was my first reaction. All I could think was: “Really? Really? Now this? Are you kidding me?”

After leaving the doctor’s I went straight to the pub. I had a vodka shot with a beer chaser.

‘I’m going to die’

At first, being diagnosed with you was all-consuming. Initially, all I thought was “Oh my God, I am going to die.”

As a teenager, I associated being gay with getting AIDS. That was the media conversation at the time – homosexuals and AIDS. So I just equated my early youth and awakening queer sexuality with “at some point I’m going to get AIDS and die.”

I grew up with that thought at the back of my mind. So when I was diagnosed in my 20s, it was almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The other thought that haunted me was: “No one will ever love me, I will never find love, I’m no longer loveable, I’m dirty, I’m going to die alone.”

When I was first diagnosed, it would take all my courage to tell somebody I was starting a relationship with, that I was living with you.