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Staying positive: Hunter Charlton an early diagnosis has meant that his condition can be monitored.
When Hunter Charlton was diagnosed with the virus aged 20, he was overcome with grief, believing he would be dead within 10 years. As he learnt more, the anguish turned to anger – at the ignorance that still causes fear and stigma for so many like him.
In a single moment, my life was irreversibly altered. The doctor’s reassurances washed over me in a haze: it was as if he was trying to communicate with me in a language I could not speak. There can be no single correct way to break this sort of news; in retrospect, I think his light-touch approach was misjudged.
At the time, I believed that I would be dead within a decade. Looking back, what I needed was information, a support line, and someone to dispel the grief that was drowning me. At the very least, an info leaflet to tell me that I was not at death’s door. The student-health clinic offered none of these. I left the consultation room consumed by denial but also confounded by a set of newly discovered contradictions.
The acute sensation of feeling absolutely alive and well, despite hearing news of having an incurable, life-threatening illness, was hard to swallow. In this darkened mood, I sobbed in the spring sunshine of a nearby park for what felt like hours. A friend texted to ask how the appointment had gone. I replied that the news was bad; I think he presumed the rest. We went to get coffee and talk. At first, I felt completely disconnected from the issue, as if we were talking about another person. This sense of detachment wore off as the day went on. Facing up to the reality, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have to leave university, how my family would accept me, and whether I’d ever be able to pursue a relationship again.
I was diagnosed HIV-positive two years ago, aged 20, in my first year at university. I remember deciding to have a sexual-health screening in part to break the humdrum of exam revision and partly out of curiosity, having never had one before. When I went to the university health clinic, the nurse was surprised when I said that I wanted to be tested for HIV as well as the typical STIs treated in a college drop-in clinic, and asked me why. Giving the answer I thought she wanted to hear, I replied that it was because I am gay – an unnecessary justification considering that more than half of those diagnosed as being HIV positive in the UK last year were straight.
Three days later, I spent the morning swimming in a local pool. When I returned to the changing room, my phone showed that I had four missed calls. It rang again and I was called back to the student-health clinic. I was fast-tracked through the waiting room and the doctor broke the news.
Perhaps, above all, I felt cheated. I had recently turned 20, had never been promiscuous and had used condoms on all but one occasion. The cliché “how could this happen to me?” echoed for days in my mind. Thinking back, I realised that I must have caught HIV in Sydney during my gap year. I doubt that the transmitter knew he carried the virus, and I accept equal blame for letting it happen. It’s a fallacy that HIV is only spread through wild sexual behaviour. In my instance, it was a one-time, one-night stand in which neither of us happened to be carrying a condom.
Like many people who catch HIV, I had a symptomless “zero-conversion”. Zero-conversion is when the body’s immune system is first exposed to the virus and initially overwhelmed. I never developed flu or the cold sores that are often early symptoms, but I did experience intermittent night sweats that are often typical. Waking up at 4am covered in ice-cold sweat and having to towel the bed dry should have been an indication that something wasn’t right. But I had only just arrived in halls of residence and I think that the binge drinking and drugs somehow persuaded me that this was normal.
Over time, my feelings matured into anger. Not at the man from whom I’d contracted the virus, but at my school, and at the education it had – or in this case, hadn’t – provided me with. My experiences of sex education, in a state secondary school, involved a teacher putting a cricket bat between her legs and strapping a condom over the handle to the sounds of raucous laughter from the classroom. There was no advice for students who might have been gay, or curious about their sexuality, and certainly no mention of HIV.
Simply, the facts are that 6 per cent of gay and bisexual men now live with HIV in the UK. In London, this figure rises to 13 per cent – almost one in seven. I believe that knowing these statistics might have prevented not just my contraction of the virus but also its contration by countless others. What is the purpose of school if not to prepare its students for the problems raised by the outside world?
What about parents? Lessons about safe sex are probably best learnt from within the domestic sphere, However, this approach isn’t one that we should be depending on, especially in terms of homosexual and HIV education. Parents often simply don’t have the facts, or the wherewithal to seek them out, either.
In my case, I was outed to my family by my HIV diagnosis. Considering their ignorance of the condition – which was even greater than mine – I doubt the abilities of most families to be able to inform their children properly about the risks surrounding HIV. My parents’ generation lived through the public-health campaigns of the 1980s, which put tombstones on television screens and leaflets proclaiming “Don’t die of ignorance” through the nation’s letterboxes.
To them, HIV still meant a death sentence. The day after I was diagnosed, I came home to spend time with my family. I had broken the news over the phone the night before and was met with shock and confusion. My mum had answered and was unable to cope with hearing that her son was HIV-positive.
Taking the train journey home up North was the first and only time I broke down and cried. My parents met me off the platform, concerned, angry and panic stricken; over the next few days ,we spoke little. Perhaps, they sensed I didn’t want to talk about it; silence was at first how we dealt with it as a family.
I was fundamentally unaware of the risks involved in having unsafe sex and my ignorance of HIV led me to believe that my prognosis was far graver than I now know to be the case. In the first few days, I was afraid to learn more for fear of what I might find. Slowly, I read more and with each article my knowledge and self-esteem grew. Currently, my white blood cell (CD4) count is around 750. I will be monitored and once this is down to 350, I will need to take anti-retroviral drugs every day for the rest of my life. I could have perhaps 10 drug-free years before that happens – or my CD4 count might plummet tomorrow.
Not knowing whether this will happen causes me anxiety: I want to be able to travel and see the world without the monotonous routine of medication. It would also be nice to not have to worry about laws in certain countries that prohibit entrance for HIV-positive people.
I have been shocked to see how these prejudices still resurface within our own country. “Quality people”, claimed Nigel Farage a few weeks ago, are “people who don’t have HIV, to be frank”. To suggest that HIV-positive people are poor quality is an insult to NHS workers, hairdressers, lawyers, waiters, students, and the many others living with this condition.
For me, taking up running has become my day-to-day way of coping with my situation and has been a huge part of my recovery. Three months after my diagnosis, I decided to run the London marathon for the Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s biggest HIV charity, and made my reasons for participation clear. At the time, only my immediate family and a very small circle of friends knew of my diagnosis. Not even all of my housemates knew. Increasingly, I felt that silence was tantamount to denial. Even today,
I find it extremely difficult to tell people face to face that I’m HIV-positive; the marathon opened up an essential channel of communication, because it is fundamentally a celebration of health and vitality. My biggest fear had always been that I’d be seen as ill, weak, or pitiable in some way. Running was a means of exorcising personal demons, while also dispelling the myth that HIV is inherently disabling.
The response in going public, however, was tremendous; rejection had petrified me but I was met only by acceptance and validation from family and friends. Running the marathon in 3hr 15min meant I was the charity’s youngest and fastest entrant. I was also its top fundraiser, raising more than £7,500. Next spring marks the second anniversary of my diagnosis; I am running the Brighton marathon again for the Terrence Higgins Trust with the aim of completing the 26 miles in less than three hours. My fundamental goal is to promote this condition in a public and positive light, and encourage others who live with it to embrace a more public stance. “You can sit on a park bench and talk for two hours with someone about your diabetes,” said Luke Alexander, a young and outspoken HIV-positive activist, recently. “But you can’t do that with HIV because you’ll often get a look of fear and shock.”
For a while now, I have publicly disclosed my status on gay social media, and, to my knowledge, am one of only a few dozen men in the country willing to do so. Despite the tens of thousands of gay men carrying the virus, staggeringly few embrace a completely public position when it comes to dating. The fear of rejection and stigma undoubtedly drives such reserve. That’s certainly understandable. Since disclosing my status, the response has been a mixture of intrigue, sympathy and, on rare occasions, aversion. In some cases, it has provided a way of reaching out to others who have also been recently diagnosed. Last week, I met someone who, like me, had just started university when he was diagnosed. The response to discovering that you are HIV-positive still, overwhelmingly, seems to be to shut down and brood in secrecy away from family and friends.
I have never wished to be defined by HIV, but I feel that writing about my experience of it is necessary in creating an atmosphere of greater transparency. The best place to start would be in creating an open dialogue in our schools, within the gay community itself. We live in a society that still finds HIV shameful. Unfortunately – and I say this from personal experience – this stigma lingers in the gay community, with some people either too scared to be tested, or wary that they will be rejected by the HIV-negative community.
The most important thing is to know your own status, which is why National HIV Testing Week is so important. World Aids Day allows us to commemorate the 36 million people across the world who have died because of this virus; it also highlights the urgent work that still needs to be done. Only through leading by example can we improve the lives of those living with HIV.
The truth about HIV:
- There are nearly 110,000 people living with HIV in the UK.
- Approximately 26,000 people living with HIV in the UK have not yet been diagnosed.
- More than one million HIV tests were performed in sexual health clinics in 2013.
- In 2013, 6,000 people were newly diagnosed with HIV in the UK.
- In 2013, 42 per cent of adults newly diagnosed HIV were diagnosed late, after they should have started treatment.
- In 2013 less than 1 per cent of people with HIV died.
- Around 1 in 17 men who have sex with men (MSM) living in the UK has HIV.
- Black African people make up 1.8 per cent of the UK population but 36% of all people living with HIV.
- In 2013 there were 2,449 black Caribbean people in the UK living with a diagnosed HIV and accessing HIV care.
More information from National Aids Trust nat.org.uk
Andrew Nasonov, right, and Igor Bazilevsky, left, getting married in Meridian Hill Park in Washington in October. Photo: Michael Knaapen / AP
The Associated Press.
NEW YORK — Had he stayed in Russia, Andrew Mironov would be settling into a stable job with an oil company, likely with a newly awarded doctoral degree in electrical engineering. Instead, he faces an uncertain future in New York City as one of scores of Russian gays seeking asylum in the United States because of hostility and harassment in their homeland.
Yet the sacrifices have been worth it, the 25-year-old said, given the fears that lingered after he was severely beaten by several assailants in the lobby of a gay bar in his home city of Samara.
“Which is more important: happiness or success?” he asked. “I would say happiness. I feel no fear here.”
There are no firm statistics on the number of gay Russian asylum seekers. U.S. government agencies that handle applications do not report such details. However, the Department of Homeland Security’s latest figures show that overall applications for asylum by Russians totaled 969 in the 2014 fiscal year, up 34 percent from 2012.
The increase is due in part to the worsening anti-gay climate in Russia, according to Immigration Equality, a New York-based organization that provides legal services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrants.
The organization says the number of inquiries it received from gay Russians seeking U.S. asylum has risen from 68 in 2012 to 127 in 2013 and 161 through Oct. 30 of this year. During that period, gay-rights gatherings in Russia were frequently targeted by assailants, and the parliament passed a law targeting “gay propaganda” that was widely viewed as a means of deterring gay activism.
To get an application approved, an asylum seeker must present a convincing case that he or she has a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home country.
Aaron Morris, Immigration Equality’s legal director, said most of the recent asylum inquiries came from gay men in their 20s and 30s who had been targeted by anti-gay attacks.
In several U.S. cities, programs have been launched to assist gay asylum seekers from Russia and elsewhere as they await processing of their applications, which can take six months or more. For the first five months, the asylum seekers are barred from taking paying jobs, so they often struggle to support themselves.
In Washington, D.C., housing is among the major challenges, according to Matthew Corso, who has helped the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community create a program to assist people who are seeking asylum.
Another group aiding gay Russian asylum-seekers in the Washington area is the Spectrum Human Rights Alliance, founded in 2011 by Russian immigrant Larry Poltavtsev.
Poltavtsev is frustrated by the rules that bar asylum-seekers from working. “It makes no sense because most of our arrivals have advanced degrees and speak good English,” he said.
Soon to join the queue of applicants are Andrew Nasonov and Igor Bazilevsky, longtime partners from the city of Voronezh who wearied of threats, harassment and beatings and came to the United States in July. They’re now assembling the paperwork for their case.
Nasonov, 25, was a journalist and human rights activist in Russia; Bazilevsky, 32, was a graphic designer. They’ve been provided with lodging by a gay couple in a Washington suburb and took a step in October that would have been impossible in Russia — they got married.
“We were finally able to say that we are a real family — there are not enough words to describe how wonderful these feelings are,” Nasonov wrote in an e-mail.
In New York City, many asylum seekers have received advice and support from Masha Gessen, a Moscow-born journalist and activist whose family moved to the U.S. in 1981.
She said her family, as Soviet Jews, had group refugee status, allowing for an immigration process far easier than that faced by today’s asylum seekers who must prove their individual case.
“There’s no worse way to immigrate to the U.S. than the way these people are doing it,” Gessen said. “You have nothing, and you have no right to work or public assistance. We’ve seen people end up on the streets.”
She and her allies have lobbied the State Department to extend refugee status to LGBT people from Russia, but to no avail.
The United States is among several countries favored as havens by LGBT Russians. Canada, Finland and Israel are among the others. Morris, the Immigration Equality lawyer, said his legal team had been able to win approval for most of the Russian asylum cases that it has handled.
Morris commended the Department of Homeland Security for asking Immigration Equality to train its asylum officers on distinctive aspects of LGBT asylum cases. “They understand our community is a little different,” Morris said.
Kyiv’s historic Zhovten cinema after suspected act of anti-LGBT motivated arson on Oct. 29. © Ilya Timchenko.
In response to a series of attacks in Kyiv over the past month, the party of President Petro Poroshenko said they support introducing criminal liability for discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.
“We support safety guarantees for the LGBT community and criminal liability for discrimination based on sexuality,” the party said in a recent letter addressed to the National LGBT Portal of Ukraine.
On Oct. 29 Kyiv’s historic Zhovten cinema was devastated by fire in what authorities believe to be an act or arson. At the time an LGBT themed film was being show as part of the Molodost film festival. On Oct. 31 a group of men in camouflage attempted to force their way into a screening of another LGBT film being shown as part of the festival but were stopped by police.
The film festival’s organizers later said on Facebook that the men were wearing far-right Pravy Sektor insignia though the group itself denied being involved in the attacks.
The state-own Zhovten cinema has been at the center of real-estate development disputes making it unclear whether LGBT issues were the real focus or whether the attacks were a cover for an attempted land grab.
Following the incidents critics said that politicians had failed to keep promises made during the EuroMaidan protests to meet European human rights norms.
“It seems that not everyone understands human rights. Not everyone understand that LGBT rights are human rights and we are not talking about something special for one community,” said the Director of Amnesty International’s Ukraine branch Tetyana Mazur.
The National LGBT Portal of Ukraine received the letter from the Petro Poroshenko Bloc signed by the head of the party secretariat Maksym Savrasov after sending out appeals ahead of the Oct. 26 parliamentary election to all major Ukrainian political parties. In these appeals, they asked whether the parties would support legislation introducing criminal liability for LGBT discrimination.
The Petro Poroshenko Bloc was the only political party to respond to the inquiry, according to the LGBT rights group.
The letter the party sent emphasized that the path to EU membership was also a “tool” for change that allowed implementing “European standards of life” in both economic and social spheres. It did not mention any time frame or specific plans for introducing a bill supporting criminalizing LGBT discrimination in the new Rada, which is expected to convene in December.
A previous attempt to pass a similar law in 2013 failed.
LGBT rights groups experienced a setback in July when Kyiv police asked them not to hold an equality march saying they couldn’t ensure their safety. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko who recently ran as number one on the party list for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc compared the event at the time to a “carnival” and said it was not a time for celebrating.
An LGBT march had taken place the previous year when now ousted President Viktor Yanukovych was still in power.
Cairo court hands down jail sentence amid uproar from defendants’ families.
Eight Egyptian men were convicted following their appearance in a video of an alleged gay wedding party. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP
Chris Johnston and agencies.
A court in Egypt has sentenced eight men to three years in prison for appearing in a video that purported to show a gay wedding.
The video, which became an online hit after it was posted on YouTube in September, shows two men kissing, exchanging rings and embracing among cheering friends. It was filmed at a birthday party held on a boat on the Nile.
The sentences, which can be appealed, were met with uproar from the families of the defendants, who demonstrated outside the court in central Cairo and were dispersed by police. The defendants, who had denied the charges, stood silent in the courtroom cage as the verdict was read, one of them holding up a copy of the Qur’an.
The eight were arrested in September when Egypt’s chief prosecutor decided that the video was “shameful to God” and “offensive to public morals”.
At the last hearing, on 11 October, a spokesman for the justice ministry’s forensics department insisted the men were innocent.
“The entire case is made up and lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video does not prove anything,” Hesham Abdel Hamed said.
“The medical test showed that the eight defendants have not practised homosexuality recently or in the past.”
He was referring to anal examinations, a long-standing practice in Egypt that Human Rights Watch has condemned. The New-York-based lobby group had called for the men be released.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but it is a social taboo, and allegedly gay men have often been arrested on charges of immorality.
In the most notorious example, 52 men were arrested in 2001 for their perceived sexuality, in what became known as the Queen Boat case.
In April, four men were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for “debauchery” after allegedly holding gay sex parties where women’s clothing and makeup were found.
Human Rights Watch said in September that Egyptian authorities had repeatedly arrested and tortured men suspected of having gay sex.
Saturday’s sentences are the latest in a crackdown by authorities against gay people and atheists. The campaign also targets liberal and pro-democracy activists and anyone who breaks a draconian law on street protests.