OPINION: The UK government needs to show it cares about people of colour living with HIV

by Marc Thompson | The Love Tank
Thursday, 6 May 2021 08:39 GMT

FILE PHOTO: The moon rises behind a pod on the London Eye, lit in red for World AIDS Day, in London, Britain, December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

People of colour continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV globally

Marc Thompson is director at health and wellbeing promotion organisation, The Love Tank. A documentary based on his story, “Saved by a Stranger”, will by shown on Thursday on BBC2

The stories of Black gay men are often absent when we talk about people living with HIV. I am telling my story so that people can see a different narrative and so that people who look like me can finally see themselves represented.

When I was first diagnosed with HIV aged 17, I was shocked, surprised and devastated. I had only been out for just over a year and it came completely out of the blue, putting an absolute stop to all my plans, hopes and dreams. At that point in my life, I was in the middle of doing my A levels; I was planning to go to university.

Within the space of an hour, it felt like my life was taken away from me and I was thrown into a pit of despair.

At the time, it felt like a death sentence. The only information we had about the virus was that if you caught it, you would get ill and you would die. One of my first reactions was anger. I was angry because I lived in a world that wasn't sympathetic and didn’t care about my life as a young Black gay man.

But my anger pushed me to make a change because I didn't want anybody else to become infected. And if they did, I didn't want them to have to experience what I had gone through. So I committed myself to not only finding ways to help gay men prevent themselves becoming infected, but also to find a way that young Black gay men in particular living with HIV could be supported and feel empowered.

I want them to have the knowledge to push back and challenge stigma, hate and rejection.

Racism has been a constant factor. As a Black gay man, I experienced racism from society and also from within the LGBT+ community. When I would access HIV services, I was very often one of the only Black faces that I would see when I went into those spaces. It felt very isolating.

Today, whilst HIV has not gone away, the advent of anti-retroviral drugs in the late 1990s changed things enormously.

The fact that my levels of HIV are now undetectable means I cannot transmit the virus, the central plank of the current U=U (undetectable = untransmittable) campaign.

Yet despite these advances, people of colour continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV globally. The first thing to point out is, we're not doing anything differently from other people. We’re not having more sex and we're not having more unprotected sex. But there are issues such as structural racism and the fact that we in the Black community have limited access to HIV prevention programmes and information about the virus that is targeted to our needs.

When I was younger, I didn't have access to condoms or HIV prevention information that spoke to me as a young Black gay man, and I didn't have the tools and the language to negotiate the safer sex that would have protected me.

Fast forward 30 or so years, and young Black gay men in particular are still experiencing the same issues that I did. If we look at the drop in the rates of HIV diagnoses in London in the past few years, they've been incredible, but they haven't impacted in the same way on gay men who aren’t white, born in Britain and have English as a first language.

If we look at the uptake of the daily anti-HIV transmission pill, PrEP, in this country, it's been overwhelmingly white gay men who have taken it up.

How do we change this? We change it through education, and we change it through HIV prevention programmes being established that are culturally appropriate and meet the needs of people of colour.

COVID has shone a spotlight on the health inequalities faced by Black and Brown communities in this country. We need to start looking at the healthcare systems and ask why non-white people have poorer health outcomes and access.

We know that if the HIV epidemic had affected young white straight people in the 1980s, this government would have acted immediately. Today, we see how COVID is disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities.

The government needs to act and show that it cares about Black and Brown lives.

As told to Hugo Greenhalgh, editor of Openly

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