Health Sex and sexual health HIV Finding my tribe Words by James Hawkridge Going public with my HIV diagnosis, I expected to lose everyone, but the reality couldn’t have been more different. I decided to come out about my HIV status in the middle of a global pandemic. While the UK was adjusting to a completely new future that nobody had prepared for, so was I. Caught between two viruses, something had to give. I had been battling with my diagnosis for a few months, with just a handful of people sharing parts of my journey; but nobody understood how isolated I felt, and how close I had been so many times to convincing myself that this weight was too heavy to bear. At the time, I was with a partner, who was very supportive and understanding. I remember telling him just two weeks into seeing each other, sat at the end of his bed, nervous and shaking. It was the first time I was seeing someone since becoming HIV-positive, so I felt an intense amount of pressure and didn’t know what to expect. I was undetectable when we met, and we’d slept together that very first day, at an afterparty. At the time I’d thought that confessing my diagnosis pre-sex would have killed the mood. I also didn’t envision seeing him for any more than that first, fateful day. He took it admirably. He knew that he was at no physical risk as long as I stuck to my medication, and he was already on PrEP too, which just tore away that last little shred of anxiety. As a template for how a partner would react and understand my diagnosis, I couldn’t have initially wished for better. My family were a little more shocked,. I had hidden my diagnosis from them for several months, and only confessed when I felt comfortable enough. My Mum cried initially before I explained the modern-day reality of a HIV diagnosis, which is that the physical complications are non-existent if on medication. With my little brother, who’s about to turn 18, we’ve used it as a door to discuss any difficult but necessary topics that centre around coming of age, such as sexual health, mental health, etc. HIV became a gateway for us, an icebreaker that allows for uninhibited communication between us, and that he is now using his knowledge to educate his friends is extraordinary. I know that at his age, I wouldn’t have dreamed of being comfortable enough to talk about such adult things with my friends. I actually came out via a PDF document, which I discreetly uploaded to LinkedIn, and then shared onto my other social pages. I had spent months learning to re-love myself and not let the act of catching HIV deter me from my future. I figured that most of the people on my social media would relate and in honesty, at this point I didn’t care much if they couldn’t. Everybody took it incredibly positively, and far better than I’d anticipated. In a weekend, I went from accepting that I would lose a lot of my close friends, to finding a wealth of new ones. Since coming out as HIV-positive my entire friendship circle has changed. This is partly due to the pandemic, and forming new friendships online, and I’m now humbled to say I have a close and intimate circle of people that I trust more than any I ever have. Members of our community have flocked to me, and I’ve watched as loose acquaintances I knew from nights out have morphed into solid bonds. Sharing a similar understanding of feeling marginalised and encountering daily difficulty regarding something you can’t change, I’ve found my LGBTQI+ friends to be some of the most open, and willing to listen, people I’ve ever met. While the biggest support, dare I say, has come from allies; friends of mine that never even knew I was battling something so tough, but have seen me come out on the other end a little weathered, but armoured. Their questions have been respectful, and earnest, and have given me confidence in myself. An incredible, unforeseen plot twist of this year and publicly revealing my diagnosis, however, has been discovering a new tribe of HIV-positive young people. Since revealing my diagnosis, a slow but steady stream of messages have flooded to my inboxes, from people just like me. People who are living with HIV, today, now, who also felt just as isolated and on their own. With little education around HIV it’s easy to assume we have beaten this pandemic and that the virus is not a risk anymore; this couldn’t be more wrong. As members of the LGBTQI+ community, it’s often our role to teach ourselves and each other vital knowledge that we would otherwise never know or learn when it’s too late. I only vaguely knew of PrEP before I caught HIV. If I knew that taking it daily would almost eradicate any risk of HIV transmission to me, I’d have been on a course. Thankfully, I’ve directed my experience into a journey of character and self-love, while HIV has become a torch I ‘m happy to carry, and light the way to provide comfort for those living with HIV and to educate any who may wish for it.