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Opinion: 'People with HIV in Ireland are dehumanised - we're seen as a virus'

But activist Robbie Lawlor sets out how people like him are breaking away from stigma and living full lives – and says people need to be more open and honest.

Robbie Lawlor

I HAVE HUNDREDS of friends who feel trapped within the same secret. This secret typically affects no one but themselves.

But everyone’s secret is both intensely personal and united by the same shared legacy. A legacy of death, fear and ignorance…

A fear that is no longer founded.

These hundreds of friends of mine are living with HIV and they often confide in me that they feel trapped within their secrecy. Their secrecy is borne of an epidemic that we haven’t yet grieved, an epidemic we have found easier to forget than to contend with…

As of 2017, an estimated 7,205 people are living with HIV in Ireland. Thousands of us live here, yet I can count on my two hands the number of people who are willing to be open about their status. All of these people are white gay men.

Why do we shame people?

This fact remains despite statistics showing that a quarter of new HIV diagnoses are in fact women. It’s 2019 and female representation within our community still seems an impossible ask. HIV rates have never been higher and we have one new HIV diagnosis every 18 hours in Ireland. So, what’s not computing?

We must ask ourselves, what sort of society do we live in that shames people living with a medical condition? Why in 2019 is this still the case?

I know from experience that people living with HIV can live rich and fulfilling lives. When we are on effective medicine, our immune systems can work as normal, we can live as long as everybody else – and it can even become impossible for us to transmit the disease.

I’m living with HIV since 2012, having been diagnosed with HIV at the age of 21.

I always thought I would be considered a ‘risk’ or ‘danger’ to any future sexual partner, with or without a condom. But thankfully, we have arrived in a time where the science is clear.

Having an undetectable viral load means the risk of transmission is zero. I’m in a relationship with my HIV negative partner for the past five years and we don’t need to use condoms at all.

Paradoxically, I am the safest person he can sleep with in terms of the risk of contracting HIV.

Undetectable means Untransmittable – but our lack of voice means this message has been evading the mainstream.

Not keeping a secret

In a trait that I developed from my mother, I found I couldn’t keep a secret so huge, so not telling everyone about the condition wasn’t an option for me.

The feeling of being open, not having to hide something that is a part of me is the most freeing experience. Why should anyone have to hide their pill boxes, or lie that they are going to see their HIV consultant?

But for a lot of people, it’s not that clean cut. The reason being, society dehumanises us.
To society, we are seen as a virus or a vector. Despite the fact that our condition is more manageable than ever.

HIV positive people can have children without any issues or risks, we can be sexual partners without any issues or risks, we can be a chef or hairdresser without any issues or risks. The real issue, and the real risk is inherent in Ireland’s total lack of provision of a sex education curriculum that is inclusive and comprehensive.

Our pervasive and collective shame around sex; in particular, on the subject of both gay sex and women enjoying healthy sex lives fuels this toxic dynamic of shame and silence even further.

Not to mention our government’s continued neglect of this country’s sexual health needs.

We need to change how we see people living with HIV. Imagine a world where we get everyone living with HIV to know their status. Imagine a world where people felt free to be open about their status and that they felt mentally ready to take their medication every day.

Imagine a world where we got everyone living with HIV to have an undetectable viral load. We would have zero new HIV infections and zero AIDS related deaths. We will only achieve this when we start to see people living with HIV as human beings and as a solution to Ireland’s rising HIV epidemic.

Rapids

As part of my ongoing activism and amplification of this politic, I have developed a theatre project that looks to amplify the voice of the HIV community in Ireland.

Rapids by Shaun Dunne and Talking Shop Ensemble is a powerful piece of documentary theatre that masterfully highlights the polemic I have so far addressed here.

It unpacks the lives of men and women living with HIV in Ireland – for the first time.

This contemporary work lifts the veil somewhat and allows audiences to hear and share in some of the experiences we hold in our secrecy. It takes hundreds of my friends out of the viral closet and into the spotlight. It’s helping their voices resonate where they still feel they cannot speak themselves.

My only hope as Rapids embarks on a national tour of Ireland is that its audiences, the readers of this article and wider society can keep on carrying that torch of truth and visibility.

After all, a torch is a more positive tool than a trap. I know which one I would rather.

Robbie Lawlor has been active within the HIV community since his diagnosis in 2012. He found his adjustment to living with HIV difficult due to the side effects of medication, and the fear of being ‘outed’. He was determined to turn his HIV story around and make a better life for himself and others living with the condition. He set up Ireland’s first one-on-one peer support network with the social work department in St James Hospital. 

Rapids is on tour nationwide through February and March, with dates at Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray (15 February), The Everyman, Cork (20 and 21 February), Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda (28 February), Axis Ballymun (1 March), Town Hall Theatre, Galway (6 March) and the Belltable, Limerick (7 March).

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Robbie Lawlor

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