I was a stereotypically awkward teenager, shy and quiet in public and at school, obstinate and communicating in grunts with my family at home. As I grew older I grappled with introducing my queerness to my identity, when I came out I made every effort to look and act like the typecast LGBTQ representations I’d grown up with in the 1990s media.
I used to walk across Lancaster University campus with pink shag-bands covering both wrists, long black baggy jeans and my (awful) dark blue denim jacket left open to ensure the other students would see the “I’m cute? No shit?” slogan on my oversized shapeless t-shirt.
Sexually naïve and with zero experience of relationships I grew attachment to men within minutes of talking to them online, no matter how much attention to me they reciprocated. Living away from home I soon started to explore sex and would seek any kind of physical interaction with other men to help boost my self-approval and acceptance.
By the time I first visited a sexual health clinic the bracelets and cliché sweatshirts were consigned to suitcases under my bed and I was less of a life-sized living, breathing gay doll. I was now 21 and living in Manchester, and whilst I had finally realised I could dress and act how I wanted to, rather than how I felt I should do, I still had an unhealthy relationship with sex. I had tried to date guys but nothing had ever lasted more than a couple of months.
The instant gratification of hook-ups and one night stands became the norm. I felt sexy and wanted, even if they were only in my bed for half an hour, or I was on the ‘walk of shame’ home before they had woken up the next morning. By the time I was 24 I was regularly attending the clinic every three-six months and hadn’t had any problems other than a case of scabies which a pharmacist had misdiagnosed as an allergy to washing detergent. This was my first experience of sexualised prejudice when I’d given it to a handful of sexual partners, one of which worked in the nightclub Essential, I never again got served at their top bar after I accidently passed on that itching curse!
I was young and foolish and soon began to believe I was invincible. I’d always used condoms during sex but as men started to ask if I’d be OK “with bareback” I found myself saying yes. But not to everyone, that would be stupid. I only said yes to the nice men, the ones who I perceived to be more educated, those men who told me they’d been tested recently or “were OK”.
I began to feel unwell whilst in the south of France during a holiday in 2009. On the last day I spent too long in the sun, and by the time I was at the airport I had a horrible headache and felt really sick. I managed to get into the clinic shortly after getting back to the UK and found out I’d got chlamydia and gonorrhoea, I had an HIV test and this came back negative. Upon my return to the UK I felt much worse. I was now experiencing flu-like symptoms, off work on sick leave and confined to my bed. I have never felt so ill, but eventually recovered and was back to my usual routine.
Weeks and months passed and I felt fine, but friends began to notice that a cough in the back of my throat hadn’t budged for some time. I visited my GP a number of times without receiving anything to fix the issue. It was only during the final visit when the doctor used the phrase “persistent virus” that I started to think about testing for HIV again. I went back to the sexual health clinic and had the test.
A week went by and my phone started to vibrate in my pocket whilst I sat at my desk, I made excuses and went to the toilet to listen to the voicemail and make a call back. It was the clinic and I was advised to make an appointment for the next morning.
Following the worst night’s sleep I’ve had I met an ex-boyfriend and took the bus to the clinic. Once called into the room the nurse was quick with the news. I had HIV. My mind drifted in and out of my head, it was like a tornado was spiralling around inside me, I agreed to further tests and made an appointment to return to the clinic in a weeks’ time.
Whilst the biggest shock of my life the fact I knew I had HIV meant I could start fighting it. My immune system was already compromised so I started treatment soon after my diagnosis, I was lucky enough to be diagnosed in a country that provides free effective HIV treatment. I’ve had an undetectable viral load since the spring of 2010 which means I can live well and healthy, and I can’t pass HIV on to my sexual partners.
My first decade with HIV has allowed me to grow in confidence, and it’s assured me that I have a fantastic group of friends and an amazingly supportive family.