I don’t have HIV, but it has shaped my life

I had just come out. I was 17 and I was away on a holiday with my dad and my sister. My Dad was trying his hardest to connect. I was a petulant teenager shying away from the awkwardness of intimacy. The conversation jammed. We were left without words and the conversation diluted down to “be careful of HIV. It’s out there”. Growing up the heroin hey-day of Campbelltown in the 70s and 80s, my Dad knew this better than a lot of dads but to me it was just another piece of the messaging I had been receiving for a long as I can remember. Urgent but unreal.

I would be in a pub at a jukebox searching for a Kate Bush song when someone would first tell me that of an old lover of mine that had just been diagnosed. Once again, it seemed urgent but unreal. At that early point the conversation seemed scripted. Like I couldn’t talk about HIV without the imbuing the moment with a cinematic quality. HIV happened on TV and in the movies. It didn’t happen to that guy who whispered his journey from country town to Sydney in his beige apartment at dawn. We weren’t in contact at that point. I wasn’t brave enough to extend my hand.

Later on, as I immersed myself in the queer scenes of Sydney I would come to appreciate the ways in which the tireless response to HIV from the community built so many of the things I took for granted. How much of the community, the activism, the theory that I was so enamoured with was built, stone by stone, from people responding to, living with, dying with, organising around, fucking with (literally and figuratively) HIV. Despite this, I still struggle to comprehend the loss. Maybe I will never be able to.

I tried to raise up your arms to bury my face in your pits when you asked me to stop with a friendly but embarrassed look on your face. Later on you would tell me of the multitude of battles you had had with your body since being diagnosed. The lived details so often lost in the grand narratives of prevention and public health discourse. I was caught off guard by the little voice in my head telling me to recoil, to retreat to the supposed safety of the usual. These little confrontations with your inner-self are a reminder that prejudice grows from thinking you’re right, that you have nothing left to learn, that you’re done.

I remember being out at bar in Kuala Lumpur, and I had met this guy. We were dancing, getting drunk, enjoying the night. “Rainbow Rojek”. Then suddenly he was snatched away by a few friends, and then after that he didn’t talk to me for the rest of the night. It was unsettling but these things happen, I kept dancing. Later, he told me that his friends had told him I “had AIDS” and warned him against making out with me. It gutted me. Not the assumption, but just the first taste of the bullshit that my friends and former lovers must endure daily. Seems for every person who knows a term like “undetectable” there is another that asks, “can you get it from kissing?”. Or even worse, who doesn’t ask. People whose safer sex policy is just to cut people with HIV from their life.

So, this World Aids Day my thoughts are with my friends and lovers who are living with HIV. Living with the fear still embedded in our communities. Living with our collective ignorance and stigma. Living with our projected guilt.

I love you and thank you for letting me into your lives.

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Beau Newham

Beau Newham is a writer, development worker and queer activist based in Melbourne on Kulin Nation lands.