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Sunday, June 16, 2024

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Nathaniel J Hall: Behind the Rainbow

Writer and actor Nathaniel J Hall reflects on the inspiration behind his new play, Toxic, a tale of a once-loving relationship turned abusive.

The curtain has just come down on the premiere of my second play Toxic in Manchester.

It’s been a sell-out smash (thanks to my incredible team) and I’m feeling extremely grateful because, well, because tricky second album-itus has been blighting me for the past year during its development.

My first show First Time documented my journey from HIV shame (fifteen years in the closet, not even my family knew) to full-blown HIV activist. The show was a hilarious and heart-breaking rollercoaster ride full of noughties nostalgia, big belly laughs, and sucker punch ugly cry moments – a proper standing OV affair.

And it catapulted me into HIV stardom – 100 performances, 2 awards, rave reviews, interviews with Charlie and Naga on the BBC Breakfast couch, and even into a role in hit C4 drama It’s A Sin.

This show did well because it sold a rags-to-riches fairy tale, a queer, overcoming-adversity, morality story, a fantasy that everything will turn out roses in the end. But the reality is much more complicated.

Whilst my professional life was climbing faster than the upward curve
of coronavirus at the start of the pandemic, my personal life was in free fall. I was stuck at the end of an incredibly toxic, co-dependent, at times abusive relationship. Years of unprocessed gay shame and HIV trauma had sent me and my ex-partner into a dark (and at times intoxicating) downward spiral of co- dependency, drugs, sex, arguments, and emotional and physical abuse.

A recent Stonewall report found that 1 in 4 gay men and 1 in 3 bisexual men will experience some form of domestic abuse in their lifetimes. I felt like I’d sold the world a lie with First Time, so I knew I wanted to dive deeper into the reality of gay shame and HIV stigma with my second show.

We all know the story of Little Mo in Eastenders, with the archetypal coercive partner controlling every aspect of their lovers’ lives. But my experience was much different. For years I denied abuse was even taking place, partly because I was so ashamed that I’d somehow allowed it to happen or welcomed it in, partly because my sense of self-worth was so low, I thought I deserved it, and also because over time I began to behave in ways that fell short of what I would expect of myself.

Making Toxic has been a painful journey, one that has not only helped me come to terms with the abusive things done to me by people in the past, but also one that has made me confront my own toxic traits and behaviours.

I think LGBTQ+ people are magic, I really do. But life as a queer person has its extra challenges, and all of us are affected by the stigma and shame of HIV, whether we live with the virus or not.

We’re not bad people – but sometimes the cumulative effects of years of minority stress rear their ugly heads in our community and our relationships.

PrEP (drugs you can take before sex to protect you from HIV, available for free on the NHS) and U=U (undetectable equals untransmittable, meaning people with HIV on effective medication cannot pass on the virus to their sexual partners) have revolutionised the sexual landscape for queer people.

But a pill or a public health campaign won’t magically erase all the years of shame and shit and slurs and death our community has faced over the past forty years. Any psychotherapist worth their salt will tell you that trauma is generational – it gets passed down through families and communities.

With the focus so often on the glitter and rainbows and positivity of the Pride movement, I think sometimes we forget to make space to grieve, to reflect, to have difficult conversations about the real-world impact of gay shame and HIV stigma.

I created Toxic as a love letter to my past self and to my all my exes, but hearing people say it has helped them gain closure on a challenging part of their own lives has been the most gratifying part of the experience.

And as Britney releases her memoirs this month and strengthens her status as a queer icon who has shown incredible resilience, I’m reminded, that no matter how many times the world knocks us down, each time we get back up stronger than yesterday.

Toxic will tour London and the UK in Spring 2024.

Keep up to date at nathanieljhall.co.uk or @nathanieljhall

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