In the 80’s, HIV was branded as a ‘gay disease’. This misinformed messaging has created a clear gap in understanding who and how HIV can be contracted. In this blog, Last Taboo founder, Brigette Bard, breaks down this misconception.
Let’s get one thing ‘straight’.
HIV is not discriminatory or biased. HIV can affect everyone regardless of whether they are gay, straight, male, female, black, white, young or old. That’s a fact.
In the UK alone, according to the Public Health England, HIV in the UK 2014 report there are approximately 60,000 heterosexual people living with HIV, compared with 43,500 men who have sex with men (MSM). So I want to put the myth that HIV is just something that affects gay people, firmly back into the closet.
Although there is a significant difference with how HIV is viewed and dealt with across different demographics. Something Joshua Middleton, a straight HIV positive blogger in the US, agrees with. One of his posts shared the following:
‘I have been asked a lot recently whether I believe there is a difference between “gay HIV” and “straight HIV”? In my opinion there definitely is, even though it is the same virus, the journey is very different.’
It’s true that the gay community as a whole, is more familiar with the condition and the spread of the virus. Back in the early 1980s when HIV was first diagnosed, it was given the name GRID (gay related immune deficiency). This was a medical term – but many members of the public believed that HIV and AIDS were the same thing.
Embarrassingly for the early pioneers of HIV treatments, when straight people began to get diagnosed, doctors realised their research was incorrect and that heterosexual people could contract the virus as well. Their opinions and actions changed and the name HIV entered circulation, but the stigma still existed. And more than 30 years on from that initial HIV diagnosis, HIV is still much more associated with the gay community than with straight people.
For example, MSM are forbidden to donate blood in the UK, unless they have ‘abstained’ for one year.
But this ‘gay association’ remains another one of the HIV/AIDS myths that needs to be addressed – and fast. We know now that HIV and AIDS are not the same thing and people with HIV can, with the right treatment, live healthy long lives.
But HIV is still a long term condition that requires treatment and this can only be done if a person knows their HIV status.
According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, in 2013 of the new cases of HIV diagnosed in the UK, 42% of people who found out they were HIV positive were not gay men. And, of the white heterosexual men diagnosed, 61% were diagnosed late, meaning successful treatments for them were more complicated. Terrence Higgins Trust also found that 42% of white heterosexual women with HIV were diagnosed late. The HIV virus can exist in the body for years, before symptoms show and a quarter of people with HIV have no idea they have it – so these people are unknowingly responsible for the onward transmission of the virus. The number of people living with HIV in the UK have more than doubled over the past 10 years… quashing another misconception, 57% of all heterosexuals diagnosed, acquired HIV in the UK rather than contracting it abroad in 2013, up from 32% in 2004.
The association between HIV and the gay community has led the latter to become more aware of the condition, raising awareness about its spread to break outdated stigmas. For instance, a study commissioned last year by The City of New York found 61% of gay men insisted that their partners used a condom to prevent the spread of HIV, while only 23% of straight women were prepared to take the same precautions.
It’s true that pro rata there is still a higher prevalence of HIV diagnoses among gay men than other demographics, but this could be because marketing around HIV awareness has targeted the community and so gay men are more likely to get tested for HIV – remember the only way you can be sure you are HIV positive is to have a test.
Terrence Higgins Trust reveals 42% of the total people with HIV in the UK are MSM, but it also says that of the total diagnoses (approx. 6,000 per year) in the UK, more gay people are still diagnosed (56% MSM compared to 42% heterosexual). So the facts clearly demonstrate that more heterosexual people have HIV but less are diagnosed annually – this is because more gay men test themselves or get tested for HIV.
HIV support networks and charities engage with and support gay organisations and there are several high profile commentators on HIV from the gay community.
The same is not so true of heterosexual groups.
‘One of the main issues facing our community is the lack of awareness and support’, adds Joshua Middleton. ‘There are very few HIV campaigns I have seen that are geared towards the heterosexual community as most are directed towards LGBT or minorities only. This leaves out a large group that is having unprotected sex on a daily basis, often with multiple partners.’
‘Many campaigns still perpetuate the stigma that this is only a gay disease to the point where straight people feel they are in no danger.’
Joshua is right and something needs to change because since heterosexuals are not classified as ‘high risk’ of contracting HIV, doctors do not often refer them for HIV screening unless they specifically ask at STI screenings. More needs to be done to raise awareness of HIV across ALL groups – particularly in the case of straight men who may not want to fit into an HIV stereotype.
This is why, during National HIV Testing Week in November, we will launch a new campaign to raise awareness of HIV across all demographics. HIV doesn’t discriminate, so neither should the messaging around it. Watch this space.
If you want to take an HIV self test that is simple, discrete and accurate, find out more information about BioSure’s HIV self testing kit here
Visit Joshua Middleton’s blog here