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Health

The support for Gareth Thomas is amazing, but demystifying HIV is just as important

The world is unified against the newspaper that tried to out Gareth Thomas as HIV positive. But the way we talk about HIV needs to change if we want the press to stop trying to 'smoke out' those who are diagnosed

Sport is a terrifying place to be out: a recent press build-up to a Premier League footballer coming out as gay fell to pieces at the last minute, either due to the player’s fear or maybe because it was all fake in the first place.

Equally, there are very few places where one can feel completely comfortable with being HIV positive with stigma as rife as it is. I’ve heard reports from our country’s dwindling reserves of HIV charities that people in cut-off parts of the country are unable to even go to group therapy sessions for fear they might be spotted by someone they know and lose their job or their friends.

This is, in part, due to toxic media tropes surrounding both communities: it's long been treated as expected that closeted people must be outed, suggesting that queer people allowed to exist in private is against the public’s interests, which by turns also indicates that a clandestine homosexual is in some way a danger to others – one of the oldest homophobic tropes in the book. Hit pieces have been made by outlets on the right and left both in the UK and US: in 2016, the Daily Beast outed several Olympic athletes, including ones who came from countries with dangerous anti-homosexuality laws. For some reason, all normal definitions of importance go out the window when a journalist – and they are usually straight journalists – think they’ve caught a sodomite.

The same goes for people with HIV, although the stigma surrounding positive people is far more powerful than the stigma around homosexuality. But the same applies: a person living in peace is seen as a ticking time bomb that can only be defused with shame. It should also be noted here that LGBTQ+ people are far from the only demographic dealing with HIV, but it seems the fervour for the latter is upped by the former. Such is the case with Gareth Thomas, a man who the media seems to have concluded is simply not allowed to have privacy.

Having come out as gay in 2009, Gareth Thomas has now been hounded by reporters to the point that he was forced to reveal that he was previously diagnosed with HIV. “Now you have that information it makes me extremely vulnerable, but it does not make me weak,” he said in a video statement published over the weekend. It has been received with great support for him and great derision of the people who smoked him out: he’s even now teaming up with Prince Harry to end stigma around the condition. “We should all be appalled by the way you were forced to speak your truth,” said Prince Harry in a statement on Instagram, “it is yours and yours alone to share on your terms.” But an outpouring of support doesn’t mean we can consider this a case of all’s well that ends well.

Even if most news outlets might have the modicum of decency to not expose people for having been diagnosed with HIV, we’ve seen plenty of times recently that news outlets have no idea how to navigate issues traditionally seen as the preserve of the LGBTQ+ community. When Sam Smith recently came out as nonbinary, even the Associated Press couldn’t seem to realise how to use the word "they". News outlets are frequently castigated for writing pieces hitting out at the trans community without ever speaking to a trans voice, and inviting debates on the very existence of a vulnerable community at a particularly dangerous time. The same goes for discussing HIV: without a good grip of the subject, which charities will happily provide, we end up reinforcing old ideas and tropes that people with this diagnosis are in some way dangerous to be around.

The facts of the matter are these: HIV is no longer a death sentence, and with appropriate treatment a person’s viral load can become so low as to become "undetectable", meaning their risk of passing it on to another partner is as good as zero. The main thing preventing more people becoming undetectable, and the biggest obstacle to a further lowering of rates of HIV contraction in the United Kingdom, would arguably be the NHS’s refusal to make PrEP widely available: a drug that, in 99 per cent of cases, is successful in preventing transmission of HIV between sexual partners even without other contraception if taken once a day. Scotland and Wales have already rolled it out, but in England it’s still being tested for efficacy. This, of course, is probably completely unconnected from the TV debates and news articles – written and chaired entirely by heterosexual people with little experience of knowing and loving people with HIV – who treat PrEP as a "lifestyle drug".

The more we villainise and exoticise people with HIV, and those who identify as queer in some way, the harder we make it for people to be open about their diagnosis or their sexuality. Who benefits from knowing that a sportsman who has never been homophobic is gay? Who benefits from knowing a sportsman who has never wished for funding to be cut from medical and charitable services for people with HIV is poz?

The answer is: people who want ammunition to be abusive to people who are different to them, and people who want further evidence that there is something sneaky and dishonest about these groups. We need to be careful about how we report on these issues, and even more careful how we talk about these subjects once they’re out in the open. Changing the way we talk about things we have ingrained language to discuss is never easy, but it is vitally important. This isn’t just about compassion alone – it’s about learning, and teaching, and mythbusting even when it's uncomfortable to do so. That’s a lesson for everyone, but it’s a lesson, in particular, for other journalists: do better. Stop punching down.

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