By Matthew Hodson | @Matthew_Hodson

By many accounts, we gay men are a pretty unhealthy bunch. We are much more likely to smoke than our heterosexual brothers, tend to drink more (and more often) and are many times more likely to take drugs. Pretty much the only measure where we tend to be healthier than straight men is that we’re less likely to be obese, but then we negate that by having such a poor body image that we’ve redefined anyone who doesn’t have perfect washboard abs as being ‘gay fat’. And then there’s the whole sex thing. 

Your average gay man will have more sexual partners than our heterosexual brothers. It’s not all that uncommon for a gay man to have more sexual partners in a year than a straight man does in a lifetime. Some of us may even hit that target in a long weekend. And with this higher number of sexual partners comes a greater likelihood of picking up an STI. The perception of gay men as irresponsible, sex-obsessed party boys is never far below the surface of any Daily Mail coverage of HIV in the UK. It’s a lifestyle choice. 

And that’s what it’s down to, isn’t it? I’m conscious that every day I make choices that have a health impact. Sometimes I make unhealthy choices (biscuits or a week’s worth of alcohol units in one night with mates). Increasingly, as I get older, I make healthier choices. It’s the choices that we all make, whether that’s to exercise, consider what we eat, or to drink and take drugs, that will impact on our health and our longevity. 

If you want to live a long time, here’s what you need to do: don’t take recreational drugs; eat fewer fatty foods; have no more than 6gms of salt and eat at least five, probably seven, portions of fruit or veg per day; drink alcohol only in moderation and not on consecutive days; never smoke; exercise regularly and floss your teeth. And pray that you don’t fall under a bus – as none of this advice will help you if that happens.  

But no matter how much I heed the good advice, there’s one aspect of my health that I can no longer change. I’m HIV-positive. I never intended to become HIV-positive but it happened and I have no one to blame for that but myself. If you have remained free of HIV infection, you still have the power to maintain your negative status. But once you have been infected, that’s it. The moment when you can choose is behind you. You’ve got it for life. 

Maybe your life with HIV won’t be too bad. Treatment is effective for most people, and the side-effects aren’t as bad as they once were. But if all things were even I would prefer to be HIV-negative. I’ve stressed about whether, how and when to disclose my status to others. I’ve been rejected by people who I’ve disclosed my status to. I’ve been gossiped about. I’ve had moments where it’s felt like my life is crashing down around me. In balancing up my life, being HIV-positive remains a major deficit, however much I may work to offset it. 

And here’s the surprising thing: when I meet men who have just been diagnosed with HIV, they never think it’s a small thing. I’ve yet to meet someone who got diagnosed, shrugged and just carried on. With all the talk of bug chasers or of gay men now being blasé about HIV, the impact of a diagnosis remains pretty devastating. However much we know that HIV is no longer a death sentence (although it’s still a life-sentence), being told that you have HIV, that all the things that people say about people with HIV, they are now saying about you, is akin to being punched in the guts, repeatedly. I’m sure there are exceptions; I just haven’t encountered one yet. 

Of course I would urge everyone to make healthy choices in life; it’s my job to do that. It doesn’t mean that I’m blind to how difficult it is to see beyond the next ten or fifteen years of your life. I’m all too aware that when you’re twenty you think that nothing can harm you, that when you’re thirty you probably think that forty is as old as you want to get. Believe me, I’ve been there. It’s a tough lesson to learn but the choices that you make now will have an impact on how long you live – and on your quality of life.

Matthew Hodson is the Executive Director of NAM