surviving & thriving

Gay men recently diagnosed with HIV speak out about the stigma they face

Dizz of rIVerse
Dizz of rIVerse (Photo: Supplied)

In countries such as the US and UK, HIV transmission rates have fallen greatly in recent years. Some governments are now aiming to end HIV transmission by 2030, thanks to advances in treatment and medication like PrEP.

However, this good news can sometimes belie the fact men continue to acquire HIV.

Queerty spoke to two such guys who recently decided to speak out about their diagnosis and how the news impacted them.

Dizz

Dizz, 36, lives in Toronto, Canada. He is a founding member of the independent pop/R&B music group, rIVerse.

“I received my HIV-positive diagnosis on September 14th, 2020. As we all know, 2020 was a very difficult and challenging year. For me personally, my self-destructive tendencies used to rise to the surface particularly when difficult moments lead to depression.

“Last year, I turned to those tendencies which involved pretty problematic behaviors. As a result of those behaviors, I knew it was necessary for me to get tested,” Dizz tells Queerty.

“While I knew I was at risk because of decisions I had made, the actual reality of receiving a positive diagnosis still came as a shock to me.

Dizz says he has long been “very aware” of the risks around acquiring HIV.

“Due to my mild OCD, I was hyper-aware of the risks, always used protection, and refused to engage in any sexual activity without it. I used to get tested regularly and took great care of my sexual health. I was very responsible when it came to practicing safe sex.

“When I initially received my positive diagnosis, I felt like I had died in that moment, and the person I was prior to my diagnosis no longer existed. I was blank-faced and detached, trying to make sense of the information I received. I was trying to understand what my life would look like moving forward.

“But since coming out, I’ve received so much love and support from my partner, friends, fans and chosen family. It was an emotional journey, but I quickly learned that being diagnosed with HIV was only one aspect of who I was and that I could still thrive and lead an exceptional and fulfilled life.”

Telling others was still difficult.

“After wandering the streets of Toronto for a while and digesting the information, the first person I needed to contact was my partner. I called him and shared the news which was a very difficult process because I was feeling a great deal of shame and embarrassment. I knew I had to overcome those feelings to be honest with him.

“Although I was very aware that I was deeply loved, I was still taken aback by the response that I received from my boyfriend which was one of complete support, encouragement, and understanding. This same response was then echoed by the other important people in my life with whom I shared the news.”

Related: Jonathan Van Ness on HIV stigma: “Rejection sucks”

Dizz says he has little time for negativity from others.

“To be honest, I am not one to pay much attention to the comments and opinions of others, particularly when they are negative ones. However, I released a video on my band’s YouTube platform sharing the news of my HIV status and there was an overwhelming amount of love but also a few comments that would be classified as discriminatory and rooted in stigma.

“I’ve been very privileged to be surrounded by so much love and support, but so many people have reached out to me with their stories of the hate and discrimination they’ve experienced and it’s been absolutely heartbreaking.

“As a society, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to treating each other with love and acceptance and I think the first step comes from educating people about the realities of people living with HIV.”

What does he think can be done to help to tackle the stigma?

“The only thing that can be done to help tackle HIV stigma is living in your truth, sharing your truth, and spreading the facts about what living with HIV is like in this day and age, in hopes that others will be open enough to receive the information.

“We can’t control what others choose to think, but all that we can do as individuals is be truthful and state the facts: I am undetectable and I am in great health, thanks to the incredible HIV medications that are available to me.”

Dizz believes in taking care of both his mental and physical wellbeing.

“Steps I take to care for my mental health include reciting daily affirmations and mantras, taking time alone to ride my bike, and listening to music to clear my mind. Physically, I stay active every day through dance and working out.”

Dizz with his rIVerse bandmates
Dizz with his rIVerse bandmates (Photo: Supplied)

“My advice to gay/queer men reading this is if you are going to engage in sexual activity, please remember that there are many ways to enjoy yourself while still protecting yourself and others through the use of condoms and medications, such as PreP.

“More importantly, loving yourself and respecting yourself should be placed in high regard. Using such things as sex and promiscuity as coping mechanisms is not the healthiest way of dealing with issues.

“If you find yourself making decisions that are not in line with self-love and could potentially put you at risk, then I suggest you reach out to trusted friends, family, or professionals for support. Additionally, I’d like to empower everyone reading this to know your status. HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was. If you’re living with HIV, know that you can live a long, beautiful, happy, healthy life.”

rIVerse recently released their music video for ‘BaeBeeBoo’ from their critically acclaimed sophomore album, Poison IV. The band is currently preparing for a live, full-length virtual concert slated for Saturday May 29th, 2021. If you’d like to support their message of “representing the underrepresented” or donate to their upcoming show, please consider supporting their Go Fund Me

Related: 5 ways to get PrEP delivered to your doorstep

Marlon

Marlon Van Der Mark
Marlon Van der mark (Photo: Supplied)

Marlon Van der mark, 23, lives in Cardiff, Wales. He was diagnosed with HIV three years ago and made his status public earlier this year via a TikTok video.

“Three years ago I was rushed into hospital by ambulance with suspected septicemia. I felt really poorly and lost all feeling in my legs. I was in so much pain; my body was shutting down.

“I was in the hospital for about two and a half weeks. My partner at the time, my ex-partner, was HIV positive.”

Marlon believed they had been safe and says he was also scared to tell the doctors his partner was positive.

“I never really thought to myself that I could have it. I was in denial. Eventually, they tested for it and that’s when they found out.

“I genuinely never expected it. I was so scared and was crying. I just kept saying, ‘This can’t be happening to me!’ I knew nothing about HIV. I didn’t know about medication and stuff, so it was a big shock and I was petrified.”

“My ex-partner was the first person I ever met with HIV. I didn’t even know it still existed. You’re not taught about it in school. If you do hear about it, it’s always the older generation who have it. So, it was kind of like, ‘HIV, oh yeah, that doesn’t exist anymore.’ That is honestly what I thought.”

“He told me he was OK. He thought he was undetectable. He wasn’t on medication because he said he didn’t need medication. I didn’t know anything, so what was I going to say?”

After his diagnosis, Marlon told his ex but no one else.

“It wasn’t until three months ago that I actually told everyone. I denied it for a good two and a half years. It wasn’t until three months ago that I said, ‘Marlon, you’re HIV positive.’

“Obviously, in the gay community, people do bring the word ‘HIV’ up. In a lot of instances, someone says jokingly – and I don’t know what they find funny about it – something like, ‘Oh, don’t go sleeping around – you might catch HIV.’ If I used to hear that, it would really just ruin me completely because then it would make me think of it. I just denied it for so long.

“I was taking medication on and off. If I was with someone, I would be taking it. Because I would never put someone in the position that I was put into. When I was single, I stopped taking my medication because I’d rather the virus defeat me rather than carry on fighting something that was never going to go. That’s when I fell poorly again and realized I had to get back on them.

“It was selfish of me, really, now when I think about it, but I think I was so low and lost in myself that I didn’t see a reason to carry on. It wasn’t until about three months ago that I actually accepted it and said it out loud.

“Now it’s a completely new world for me. I went from someone being ashamed of it to someone who’s … not someone proud of the illness, but proud of living with it, and of being alive and having a normal life.

“I’ve also got to a place where I’m helping others. I watched [TV show] It’s A Sin, and that helped me a lot in a certain respect. It opened my eyes because I never knew how bad people were treated. It made me realize how selfish I was not to take my medication because people back then didn’t have that opportunity.

Related: President Biden vowed to end the HIV epidemic by 2025 – but how realistic is that goal?

Marlon is keen to point out how different HIV is today to the 1980s. It’s become a manageable condition. However, he says the stigma around the virus remains.

“I posted a video on Tik Tok saying my name and that I was HIV positive. At first, it was great. The support was fantastic. And then I posted another video and it blew up. Then it all started. I started getting death threats. I was told I needed to be castrated. I needed to be put in a gas chamber. People were sharing my videos saying, ‘Stay away from this guy, he’s spreading HIV. He’s spreading AIDS.’”

@marlon.xoxIt starts with me and my story 💔 #hivpositive #worldaidsday #hiv #itsasin #itsasinchannel4 #foryou #knowyourstatus #foryoupage #lgbt🏳️‍🌈 #gay #gays♬ Night Trouble – Petit Biscuit


Besides vile messages online, he says he’s experienced discrimination in real life.

“I’ve had people clubs go around to tell other people, ‘Don’t talk to him, don’t go near him, he’s got HIV.’ People cutting me down. I think people thought it gave them something to hold over me.”

Despite this, Marlon says talking about his status has proved unexpectedly rewarding. He now does work with the UK’s biggest sexual health non-profit: The Terrence Higgins Trust.

“I’m so glad I’m speaking out about this now because I’ve met some amazing people who have been literally on death’s door because they just can’t take it anymore. They’ve said that I’ve helped them and they know they’re not alone anymore. Because I’m also young, like them, they listen more. They know they’re not alone.”

Marlon now wants to see HIV talked about in school sex education classes, and for the media to talk about the reality of living with HIV today. He gets a full health check-up every six months and is now undetectable.

“As long as you take your medication, and go to the hospital and keep your appointments, you’re going to be OK.”

Marlon is now engaged. His new boyfriend is HIV negative. All he’d like now is for people not to be so quick to judge and to educate themselves about the virus.

“Don’t judge someone on something that you don’t know about. People assume that it’s because someone has slept around. Honestly, most times it’s not. And also, know that if HIV crosses your path, whether you get diagnosed or someone you know does, just remember that it’s not like it used to be. Things have changed. And you’re going to be OK either way. Don’t listen to the stigma. Don’t listen to anyone that has anything negative to say. Don’t let that bring you down.”

Related: Morris Singletary is using his own seroconversion story to help black gay men deal with HIV