I can honestly say that the 5 years of living with HIV have definitely been some of the best years of my life. Granted, I haven’t actually lived that long yet, I am still in my 20’s, but even then, I feel I have done quite a bit of growing up in this time. Perhaps this is only incidental to my status, but I do feel much wiser now and a lot more confident in my skin too. I know myself better now and I am more aware that shit can happen.
I am fairly open about my positive status, I do not have a problem talking about it, even though most people think they’ll offend me if they ask me about it. I find that when I do talk about it, it helps illuminate some knowledge on the topic. Some people I have met are terrified of it, they would rather never get tested than risk knowing they are positive while others have never even met a person they knew to be HIV positive, and some expect them to be skinny, sickly and dying. On the other hand, it also helps me, I have gotten to meet quite a number of other positive guys and establish a small network of friends. They are ordinary Joes’ like me, with careers, lives and relationships issues just like everyone else. I find that there is a certain appeal in knowing people who you have something in common with, people that can relate to an experience you have had. I have also met people who are very well versed on the topic or who don’t mind the status or don’t consider it to be of much significance. Gladly, these are the majority of guys I meet, most people nowadays understand that HIV is an easily manageable infection and it does not reduce the quality of life. Some of the best friends I have now, I have met while I have been HIV positive and Indeed, every guy I have dated in this time has been negative themselves and has had no issues even though they knew from the beginning that I was poz.
Unfortunately, there does still exist some stigma and a whole lot of fear and misinformation. Kenya has the 4th highest HIV/AIDS positive population on the planet. An estimated 1.5 million Kenyans are people living with the virus. Gay people in particular are disproportionately affected with the risk of contraction being significantly higher for gay people than their heterosexual counterparts. I know quite a sizeable number of HIV positive guys, and I know there must be more out there but unfortunately, you will never know that when you are browsing through your favorite dating app because most guys would rather have their nails pulled out than be known to be positive. A lot more just don’t know their status at all. There is a fear of being stigmatized, to be known as ‘the guy with AIDS’; that means that some people would rather not even admit it to themselves let alone to someone else. I myself have had people pull away on knowing my status, sometimes people I liked, and that can be a bummer. So I do understand the fear, Unfortunately, it also makes breaking the cycle much harder, it means that trusting or naïve guys like I was 5 years ago are always going to fall victim, that there will always be new infections and that is disheartening.
One thing that makes me glad about being HIV positive in Kenya is the quality of care available. I would argue that it is as good as any if not better than most other countries. Not only are the necessary drugs readily available, they are also free for all. The government also considers groups it might not otherwise mind, like the MSM and drug users. I have been to some LGBT friendly comprehensive care centers like LVCT and others which are safe for gay people. Other necessary services attached to HIV care are also subsidized if not free as well. Advocacy groups like ISHTAR and HOYMAS also do a commendable job in spreading information not just on treatment, but also on prevention. One can get condoms, lubricants and even PrEP from these places and I think that’s really good. All in all, it is very possible to have a normal life while living with HIV in Kenya; I mean, I feel I have done so, I have managed to keep my viral load undetectable throughout, a fact I take some pride in.
At this point, I am reminded of and would like to conclude by mentioning, the speech by Conchita Wurst at the 2018 International AIDS conference where she talks about her personal experience living with HIV. I agree with her observation that while there is stigma around the topic, the best way to dissipate it, is to talk about it. Even though I am not an activist, in my small capacity, I try to do that. I am convinced that before long, we shall reach a time with zero new infections, zero stigma and zero HIV related deaths, that’s my hope.