Gay men are good at spotting inequality. Over the last three decades, extraordinary individuals have fought for, and won, major advances to improve the lives of gay men and women across the UK. Yet for all the changes the last thirty years have brought, one big inequality has remained, and it’s one that some aren’t so keen to talk about.
When a few months ago the Government announced it was replacing the ban on gay men donating blood with a twelve-month deferral, a surprising number of those who challenged the decision seemed either unaware or unwilling to face the fact that we – as a group – are far more likely to contract a blood-borne virus than almost any other group in the UK.
The fact is, for every ten people who acquired HIV through sex in 2010, seven of those people were gay or bisexual men.
When you consider that we are supposed to make up anywhere between 3% and 4% of the general population, it becomes clear just how skewed the epidemic is.
Among gay men, the majority of HIV is being passed on by those who don’t know they have it; that’s thousands of men all over the country who may have put themselves at risk one year ago, or five, or even ten, usually with someone who didn’t know they had it either.
And so long as they’re not getting tested for HIV, they’re damaging their bodies, and sometimes they’re passing it on.
So why is there still this blind spot when it comes to HIV? Why are we so unwilling to accept that there is now more of it present on the gay scene than at any time in the epidemic’s history? And why aren’t more gay men coming forward for testing?
In a sense, HIV is a victim of its own capitals. Since the early ‘80s, when the headline-writers of Middle England flew into a tabloid frenzy over the arrival of the ‘Gay Plague’, living with the virus has been seen as something that is dirty, shameful and self-inflicted.
It isn’t any of those things but, because the hardest hit have always been those groups on the edges of society (gay men, ethnic minorities, sex workers, injecting drug users), HIV has been set against a moral backdrop unmatched by any other medical condition.
Those who have diabetes worry about having diabetes. Those who have HIV worry their family will find out.
Given the widespread stigma that still surrounds the condition, it’s unsurprising that some within the community would want to distance themselves from it. We are, after all, a new generation, with hard-won rights and a Government-approved place in society.
It would certainly be convenient to believe that HIV was something that happened years ago, or in another part of the world; that it died with Freddie Mercury. But it didn’t.
It is often said that the first step towards any recovery is admitting a problem exists. This is just as true for the HIV epidemic. If we want to stop the spread of HIV among gay men, then we as gay men need to accept we are still at a heightened risk of infection.
We need to protect ourselves by continuing to use condoms, we need to get ourselves along to our local sexual health clinic once every six months, and – if we have HIV – we need to make sure we’re on treatment. This doesn’t say anything about who we are as people; it’s just the way the cards have fallen.
At Terrence Higgins Trust, we’ve been working to reduce the spread of HIV for thirty years, and we couldn’t have come as far as we have without the support of the gay community.
But the truth is we still have a way to go, and that means we still need your help. So do something for us today; visit our website and find out more about HIV, talk to your friends about condoms, challenge stigma when you see it, and make a commitment to put HIV back on the agenda.
If we can take the drive and energy that’s been used to campaign for gay rights, and channel just some of it into the struggle against HIV, then we might stand a fighting chance.
Will Harris is Press Officer for Terrence Higgins Trust, which was one of the first charities to be set up in response to the HIV epidemic and has been at the forefront of the fight against HIV, and improving the nation’s sexual health, ever since.