Tom uses he/him pronouns and is currently living on Gadigal land (Sydney, Australia)
Growing up in the suburbs of Queensland in the late 00’s wasn’t exactly a walk in the park for a boy who stood out from the crowd. I knew from an early age that I was different, though without any LGBT representation in my life it took me a long time to realise what it was that made me stand out. Like it can be for many, my coming out journey was a process. I struggled through some pretty dark years before coming to terms with my identity. What helped me through that period was opening up to some very supportive friends and family. It’s amazing what a difference it made. Once I realised I was accepted by the ones I loved the most, I was able to start the journey of self-love. I think that in many ways, the negative experiences growing up in Queensland played a big part in me not feeling at home. I first visited Sydney on a school trip when I was 12. I knew from that first visit that I would live there one day. Eight years later at the age of 20, I quit my job and packed my life into a suitcase and made the journey to the big city. I’ll never forget the first time I walked up Oxford Street after arriving. I was mesmerised. Entire gay neighbourhoods with rainbow flags in windows, openly queer people holding hands in public, drag queens welcoming people into restaurants and bars… You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. When were you diagnosed and how did you process that? I was on a flight home from Europe when I finally acknowledged the feelings in my head. At that point it was clear something was wrong. I could not ignore the signs any longer. I had spent what felt like half the trip delirious in hotel rooms. Could what I had been reading online for the last few months be happening to me? It was 2015 and I had just turned 23. I was sitting in front of my best friend’s doctor for all of 30 minutes when he delivered the news. Initially I was in shock, which was followed by a wave of fear. How could I have let this happen? It was the fear that held me back from speaking to someone sooner. I was ignorant on the subject and had no idea what it meant to live with HIV. I now know I had been unwell for close to a year as my immune system was eaten away by the virus.
Immediately after my diagnosis I struggled through a period of self-loathing and shame. In many ways my HIV diagnosis mirrored my coming out journey. I know it certainly helped me process the experience much quicker though. The day I found out I was undetectable was when the weight on my shoulders finally lifted. The most difficult part for me was telling my mum. She has always been my biggest advocate but in small way I felt like I had let her down. I imagine that for many parents of gay men, finding out their sons have contracted HIV is one of their biggest fears. You learn very quickly how to and how not to tell people. “Mum can you come inside and sit down, I need to talk to you”, turns out wasn’t exactly the best approach! What it did do though was bring us even closer together. Who were your biggest supports during that period of your life? That same doctor and my incredibly supportive friends and family got me through the early days. My first priority was getting healthy again. I started antiretroviral therapy immediately. Thanks to the pill I take every day, the virus in my blood is kept at an undetectable level, which means I will not only live a near-normal lifespan, but that it’s also impossible for me to transmit the virus to anyone else. What do you think needs to change to reduce the stigma around HIV? Some of the biggest challenges I have faced over the past 7 years has been the lack of knowledge about the virus, as well as the stigma/discrimination that people living with HIV still experience. This is what still keeps many from sharing their own diagnosis with friends, family, and employers, but also what pushed me to share my own story. I am fortunate enough to live in Australia where I have access to universal healthcare, and in a community with excellent sexual health campaigns. Despite this, I have faced many instances of ignorance and discrimination. Dating apps can be a challenging place for people living with HIV. I personally choose to display my status publicly - including in those places. I have found negative messages have become less frequent over the years as the communities understanding of U=U and PrEP have improved. It is important to remember that over 36 million people have been lost globally since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Over 1.5 million people acquired HIV in 2020 alone. Many of whom were children. Thankfully though, things are improving. Rates of transmission are down 30% as treatments become more readily available worldwide. What’s been the greatest silver linings of your diagnosis? Despite my own personal challenges that I have faced over the past few years I wouldn’t change my story. This journey has allowed me to become a more compassionate and less judgmental person who no longer takes life for granted. Some advice I would leave you with is to get tested regularly, and if something doesn’t feel right, listen to your body & speak to your doctor.
If you'd like more information on HIV head to National Association of People Living With HIV in Australia
Or if you'd like more information on PrEP (Pre-exposure prophylaxis) to help prevent HIV head to PrEP Access Now