I can still vividly recall the nervousness during my first HIV test. It was 15 years ago before I moved to Belgium. I had to undergo a medical test for visa application. I don’t think I have ever felt so dreadful, as if waiting for the final death sentence, even though I didn’t have many sexual contacts at that time. I was scared of something that was considered not only deadly but also an equivalence to “immoral”. I had little knowledge about the virus, except the vague assumption shaped by frightening news, rumors and public opinions.
Ignorance leads to fear. It’s so true. What’s worse is that ignorance leads to stupidity that can has disastrous consequences. Even though we were scared of the virus, strangely we didn’t seem to protect ourselves much from it. It’s very common to have sex without condom, not because we liked bareback, but because it’s not in our mind to use it and to protect ourselves. The virus is like a demon that exists only in legend. We didn’t believe or were not aware that it was also around us.
As I grew up, I started to learn more about it, the statistics, the facts… It’s a gradual and slow process. I was still scared! There was this time when I received a fellation from someone without protection. I became so distressed that my good friend had to calm me down. The 2nd time, I went to the emergency immediately for PEP (post exposure prophylaxis). Even though I felt relieved after the doctor had told me that it’s almost impossible to get the virus via oral sex. The question came into my mind, “how much and how well do I know about HIV?”.
To answer this question, It took more than 15 years. It isn’t that there has been no channels to get information. In Belgium, there have been countless campaigns and articles that promote awareness and flight against stigmatisation. However, maybe because I always have had this feeling that they don’t directly speak to me or they don’t speak in a way that I can accept easily. Therefore they barely have had any impact. I think story stelling is a powerful tool to spread a message or create bonds between people as it uses contents that resonate with the audiences. For me, the best way would be listening to a testimony of or even better a direct communication with a HIV person.
I did get to know and even become friends with some people who are HIV positive. To my greatest regret, HIV remains a topic that we don’t touch, ever. It is not easy to talk about such a thing, but why should it be? The personal privacy, the social stigmatisation, the prejudice? It’s not until I started meeting HIV models through Tale of Men project that I really began to learn a lot about the virus. They opened up about their experiences on how they got the virus, their fears, their path to recover, and struggles of being discriminated. They also shed light on the scientific facts about the virus. Most importantly, they showed me their intact humanity which is something that really matters.
Each one has taught me different things. Hans from Ghent taught me that you don’t have to be a slut to get infected. Many people got infected because they placed their trust on the wrong person or didn’t protect themselves enough. Sammy who himself HIV negative taught me that it’s ok to be in a relationship with a HIV positive person. Patrick from Congo taught me how lucky we are to live in countries like Belgium where treatment of HIV is accessible and afforable. It’s impossible to get infected as long as this person’s HIV status is undetectable. Some models chose not to reveal their HIV status in the stories. They taught me that there is still a long way to go to lift the stigmatisation that they are facing. And some has shown me strength and hope.
The last person I met is Bruno from Portugal. He lives in Rotterdam. We decided that I would pay him a visit and spend the weekend at his place while doing his stories and photos. He was telling me about what undetectable means and how the virus functions in this stage. Besides that, we spent the weekend in a most normal way. We went to ride bicycles in the city center, watched youtube music videos, had a lot of laughters. I can feel that that fear I used to have has finally disappeared, being replaced by awareness and acceptance. So, thanks, to all the people who made it possible.