The battle against HIV stigma won’t just be won on protests – everyday conversations are just as vital, says actor and writer Nathaniel Hall
On Saturday 18th March, a cohort of activists and organisations stopped traffic across Westminster Bridge during a march demanding an end to HIV stigma. With placards, whistles, and a drumming band banging out beats as we passed Parliament and Downing Street, the message was loud, proud, and joyfully clear. The march moved onwards to Trafalgar Square where we held a vigil for those we’ve lost, and where activists spoke passionately about their own experiences, punctuated with songs performed by the London Gay Men’s Chorus.
As someone who has lived with HIV for over 20 years (more years with than without!) and who knows the devastating effects of self-stigma, I was honored to host the rally. And after being among all the amazing HIV organisations and activists, and hearing cheers of support from passers-by on the sidelines, I came away feeling full of love and hope. Events like this march galvanise our community and remind us we don’t fight alone. But you know, activism isn’t only about placard-waving and megaphone-shouting. It can, and does, happen everywhere, every single day.
Let me tell you a story. I was diagnosed aged 16 after my first sexual experience, just a child thrust into a very adult world. And it was the stigma and the shame, not the virus, that nearly led me to breaking point. Fifteen years of secrecy and shame almost destroyed me – alcohol, drugs, sex, partying. But in 2017, I decided enough was enough and I stood on stage and told the world my story.
Let me take you back to that moment in 2018, just after the premiere of my show First Time. I’d just testified on stage and my story had reached millions: Buzzfeed News, BBC Breakfast, BBC News – even across the world on the Spanish-speaking network BBC Mundo. The reviews were incredible, the buzz was palpable. And the week after the premiere as I came down off the high of it all, I went to the barbershop to get my haircut. And as the barber began to cut, he asked me: ‘So mate, what do you do?’ I froze as all the fear and shame came rushing back up inside me. And at that moment, I realised that for all the showboating and media whirlwind of the past few weeks, this was the test of whether I had fully rid myself of my self-stigma.
You see there’s safety in the spotlight. But the real work, that takes place out in the real world. So, with a deep breath, I began and before I knew it, the entire shop was engaged in a conversation about testing and PrEP and U=U. You know, plays and award-winning TV shows and live interviews with Lorraine Kelly are all well and good, but the barbershop chair is actually the coalface of HIV activism. The staffroom water cooler is the coalface of HIV activism. The family dinner table is the coalface of HIV activism. The taxi ride home is the coalface of HIV activism. The chat over a brew with your neighbour is the coalface of HIV activism. Your kid’s parents’ evening is the coalface of HIV activism.
I want you all to promise me one thing. Commit to having the conversation. When somebody asks you: ‘What do you do?’ ‘Well, I’m a teacher, I’m also an HIV activist.’ ‘Me? I work in the Tesco down the road. I’m also an HIV activist.’ ‘I’m a nurse actually. I’m also an HIV activist.’ You have the power in your hands to change hearts and minds. To win
allies. To end HIV stigma. For good. So, what are you waiting for?