When former professional rugby player Gareth Thomas announced he was HIV positive, there was a massive amount of social media support and media coverage. Ian Green, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, was the first person openly living with HIV that Gareth had met. Ian tells more of the story and about the significant endorsement Gareth received from Prince Harry.
As a gay man, Gareth Thomas had already broken the mould in terms of LGBT representation in sport, this year he did the same with HIV. These past few months I have seen first hand Gareth’s bravery, his determination to dispel myths about HIV and his commitment to supporting others living with HIV.
As part of the research into his documentary, Gareth Thomas: HIV and Me, Gareth reached out to Terrence Higgins Trust. It turns out I was the first person openly living with HIV that Gareth had met and since then our friendship has blossomed.
I’ve been living with HIV since 1996 and the decision to disclose your status is a deeply personal one. No one has the right to take that away from you. We’ve seen outing stories with Conchita Wurst and Charlie Sheen and the damage this can cause is inexcusable.
Gareth wanted to tell the world on his terms and I wanted to support him every step of the way.
On Sunday 15 September the world woke up to the news that Gareth is living with HIV. He was determined to show he wasn’t just living with HIV, he wanted to smash misconceptions by showing he was thriving with HIV. And he did it. He became an IronMan.
That day the public saw what HIV looks like in 2019 and the dial undoubtedly shifted.
Traffic on Terrence Higgins Trust website shot up, orders for HIV self-test kits peaked and calls to our free phone service THT Direct increased. The impact of Gareth’s announcement was changing lives.
The Duke of Sussex described Gareth as a “legend” on social media, adding “you are saving lives and shattering stigma by showing you can be strong and resilient while living with HIV”.
Bringing these two together at an event to promote HIV testing was a real moment of pride for me.
The pair filmed a powerful video to kick-start National HIV Testing Week. During the moving conversation Gareth told The Duke how fearful he was about having an HIV test and why everyone needs to know their status.
Gareth’s words speak true to so many people who remain scared about HIV because of the stigma associated with it. The fact that around one in fourteen people living with the virus remain undiagnosed shows there still so much to do to normalise testing.
And his work isn’t over, not by a long shot. Gareth has been appointed as a Commissioner on the world’s first HIV Commission that we have set up along with the National AIDS Trust. The task of the Commission is to identify how we can reach zero new HIV transmissions in England by 2030.
Following his appointment, Gareth said: “I spoke out about living with HIV not for me, but for all those people who are struggling and don’t have a platform. For them I want to do everything I can to challenge stigma and outdated views about HIV.”
“That’s why I’m thrilled to be joining the HIV Commission because I want to be a part of a positive change and play a role in driving us towards our goal where no-one else contracts HIV.”
These past few months have been an incredible time in educating people about the realities of HIV in 2019. Gareth has taken HIV from health pages to the back pages of the newspapers.
Because it’s changing attitudes and removing that fear that will get us to zero new transmissions.
Misinformation about HIV continues to be rife. Terrence Higgins Trust found that nearly half of Brits would feel uncomfortable kissing someone living with HIV – despite there being zero risk of transmission.
This is a sobering reminder of the size of the challenge we face.
But when I see people like Gareth who are breaking the mould, I am certain this is a challenge we can conquer.
It means ending the embarrassment of having an HIV test. It means ending the shame associated with being diagnosed with HIV. And it means removing the stigma far too many people living with HIV continue to experience.
When Gareth posted on social media about his status, he said “I’ve got HIV and it’s okay”. This simple yet incredibly powerful message is something everyone needs to know as we mark World AIDS Day.
It’s not science that will hold us back, it’s stigma. And it’s why each and everyone of us has a role to play in ending this epidemic once and for all.