Words by Matthew Hodson

How was your COVID lockdown? I managed to reach the end of mine without baking bread, shaving my hair or posting a nude. Go me!

I did take and tweet a lot of selfies though. In my defence, I spent a lot more time in my own company; I didn’t get to see many old friends or meet new people, travel to new places or see new sights beyond sunrises and sunsets. It wasn’t like I had a whole lot of other subjects to take pictures of.

And partly as a result of these efforts, after more than two decades of working in sexual health, I now find myself referred to in work meetings as ‘that gym-selfie guy’ or ‘the one with the muscles’. To be honest, I don’t hate it.

For decades gay men were told that if we wanted to succeed professionally we had to hide our sexuality, either completely or, as attitudes and laws liberalised, at least partially so that our straight colleagues wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. This prissiness about sex and sexuality doesn’t help gays be accepted, it just straightwashes us so that any prejudices remain unquestioned and unconfronted. It feels that it would be self-defeating to work in sexual health without celebrating sex, sexuality and sexual pleasure, my own included.

Gay culture tells us that we lose value as we age. My social timelines are full of 29 year-olds bemoaning the dying days of their sexual currency. I’m also living with HIV – and I’ve experienced the blanket rejection that still too often comes with that. So, as a middle-aged man living with HIV, I’m well aware of the voices that tell me that I am, too old and too diseased to be considered desirable.

But as I’ve got older, I find I have less patience to try to mold into a version of myself that will be acceptable to all. The more I commit to showing up as myself, gay, HIV-positive and owning every one of my years, the more powerful I feel. I’ve learned that confidence is a habit, not a trait, and I’ve worked hard to cultivate it in myself.

So here I am at 53, merrily posting pictures of my scantily clad self. The truth is, I still feel strong, fit and even (whisper it) sexual. My physical confidence is higher now than it was when I was cute young twink. I know that not everyone with HIV feels that same strength or confidence, and I’m not trying to create an unattainable goal for anyone – but this is how it is for me.

When people talk about HIV, the images that come to mind still are often the outdated ones of sickness and dying. The fear-based campaigns of the eighties cast a long shadow, they still persist even among those who were not around at that time. The association of HIV with AIDS and death prevails despite the fact we have been able to treat and control and prevent this virus from being passed on with medication for almost quarter of a century.

HIV remains one of the most stigmatised of all medical conditions. The ignorance and fear that clings to this virus means that for many people living with HIV, it is the stigma we face that now provides the greatest challenge. Attitudes towards people living with HIV have not progressed as rapidly or as positively as the medical treatment has.

For some people living with HIV is a source of huge personal shame. Many people with HIV haven’t told their families, their work colleagues and some, still, find themselves unable to be open with the people they have sex with. I don’t feel like I’m suffering with HIV, I’m just living with it and, to be honest, living a pretty good life with it. By being open, shameless, brazen even about HIV, we can tackle much of the ignorance and fear that leads to stigma. People with HIV aren’t frightening or different when you hang out with us.

I don’t believe that any body type has more value than others. Of course, not everyone with HIV is going to enjoy working out like I do, or want to share pictures of them doing it. People with HIV come in all shapes and varieties - just like people who don’t have HIV. Ideally our diversity would be recognised but, if it is not, countering outdated images of sickness and death is a powerful weapon against the ignorance and fear we still face. We can be strong, we can be sexual, we can be powerful. I feel that I am – and that’s the image of HIV that I want to share with the world.

Matthew Hodson is the Executive Director of NAM/aidsmap - www.aidsmap.com. His gym selfies can be found on IG at matthewhodsonlondon.