My EQView feature this week was published on World AIDS Day - 1 December. It was an interview with Ant Babajee, a Terrence Higgins Trust volunteer and trustee, who discussed living with HIV and his work with the Terrence Higgins Trust.
My EQView World AIDS Day Interview with Ant Babajee is here:
Cut and pasted from the EQView website:
WORLD AIDS DAY INTERVIEW - ANT BABAJEE “UNASHAMEDLY POSITIVE”
For World AIDS Day I interviewed Ant Babajee, a Terrence Higgins Trust volunteer and trustee. Ant is a gay man, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2007. I wanted to hear about his HIV diagnosis, about what it’s like to live with the virus, and to learn about his involvement and work with the Terrence Higgins Trust.
EQView: Tell us about yourself.
I am 37 years old, gay, and of mixed heritage – my dad is from Mauritius. I grew up in Somerset but I have been living and working in London for more than eight years now. I used to be a BBC journalist, but I now work in marketing for a university. I love the arts, and theatre in particular. Like many gay men, it would seem, I have a real passion for the Eurovision Song Contest!
When were you diagnosed with HIV and what was your immediate reaction to your HIV-positive diagnosis?
I was diagnosed with HIV on 2 January 2007. I had tested negative in August 2006, but I had a risky encounter that October, a few weeks after which I started to experience flu-like symptoms and I began to feel low – both physically and emotionally. I knew something was not quite right.
I now know I was going through something called seroconversion – when your body first starts to mount an immune response against the virus. For some people their seroconversion symptoms are so mild or non-specific that they don’t spot them, and that is why some people can have the virus for a number of years without knowing. The only way to be sure of your HIV status is to go and get a test.
I eventually managed to get time off work to go for a test at my local sexual-health clinic in Somerset just before Christmas. I got a call early on 2 January from a health advisor saying there was something “unusual” with my test result. “Happy New Year, Ant!” I booked an appointment for the next day when I was given the news in person and had a blood test to confirm the diagnosis.
This may sound strange but my immediate reaction was relief. I knew something was wrong, and now I knew what it was. I had a HIV-positive diagnosis but I knew that HIV was treatable – you can live with HIV; it is not a terminal illness in the UK if you find out soon enough. I had tested early, and got an early diagnosis, so I knew this was a health condition I could live with, not something that was going to kill me. Medically I knew I’d be OK, but the emotional burden of HIV took much longer to overcome.
Who was the first person you told about your HIV-positive diagnosis and how did they react?
I told my parents on the same day I got the phone call about the HIV test. They are both nurses and they were both very understanding, sympathetic and supportive (I had come out as gay to them some 10 years earlier during my first year at university). Disclosing my diagnosis and my status to my parents brought me much closer to them.
However, despite being healthcare professionals, they still had some misunderstandings about HIV. They thought HIV was something that could be treated once and would disappear, or that there was a “cure”. Neither of their assumptions was true. HIV is a lifelong condition and, once diagnosed, you will be living with HIV for the rest of your life.
I told my sisters a few years later. They asked me why I did not tell them earlier, and the main reason is that when you tell people about your status, especially those closest to you, you often need to provide them with the emotional support to help them through the process. That takes energy and so you need to be in a place yourself where you can provide this.
Following your HIV-positive diagnosis, how did your life change?
I attended a newly diagnosed support group for gay and bi men living with HIV and I found this very helpful, as we could talk openly and share experiences about what living with HIV was like. Without the newly diagnosed support group, even with a very supportive family, I would have felt isolated and alone after receiving my HIV diagnosis.
Six months after being diagnosed, I moved from Somerset to London. I wanted to move to somewhere where I would no longer be the only gay in the village, but part of a gay scene where I could be part of a much wider and more diverse gay community.
London is a thriving metropolis – bright lights, big city – and it took me a while to build and develop a network of friends. Volunteering for the Terrence Higgins Trust connected me with many other gay men, some of whom were also living with HIV, and I found lots of amazing people who have become good friends.
Being HIV positive changed my outlook on life – it made me reassess what was important to me. It brought me much closer to my family, especially my parents. And it made me much stronger and more resilient as a person.
Looking back, what advice would you give to a newly diagnosed HIV-positive gay man?
I would tell them they don’t have to get through it alone. There is plenty of support out there, and there are networks they can tap into to access advice, support and help.
In terms of disclosing your status, it is your choice who to tell and who not to tell. If and when you do tell your family and friends, remember you may need to support them through that process, and this will take time and energy.
Have you told your friends and family you are HIV positive? Any particularly positive or negative reactions you would like to share with us?
One of the ways I used to “come out” to my circle of friends was in 2012 when I went to the private view of a photo exhibition of people living with HIV in which I was featured. By that time, I had been living with HIV for about five years. I posted a picture of my exhibition photograph on to my Facebook profile, and explained I was featured in the exhibition because I was living with HIV. I sat back and watched the comments come in. I was overwhelmed by the very positive reaction to my post. Sharing my news in that way was very empowering because I was able to raise awareness of HIV amongst my circle of friends.
Surprisingly one of the most negative reactions I can think of was from a seemingly well-meaning healthcare professional involved with my treatment and care. When I was diagnosed with HIV, I was still fairly well known in Taunton from having worked there as a presenter and a reporter on a local TV station a few years before.
The healthcare professional said he was surprised about my diagnosis because I was “not the sort of person who would get HIV”. I was shocked by his statement at the time and, with hindsight, I know I should have challenged it. It was upsetting to hear this from a healthcare professional involved in my care – he so should have known better. Sadly, I know from having spoken to other positive people that some health and social-care workers can have very outdated and stigmatizing attitudes towards HIV.
Are you now “out” about your HIV positive status in all aspects of your life?
The last place for me to “come out” about my HIV-positive status was at work. There has been an exhibition of photos of celebrities put together by the art faculty at the university. The photos are being auctioned tonight (World AIDS Day 2015) with the proceeds going to Terrence Higgins Trust. At the private view of the exhibition last month, I spoke about my volunteer and trustee work with the Terrence Higgins Trust, and why I am so passionate about the work of the charity. This was the first time some of my work colleagues had learnt about my HIV status. I got a very positive reaction, and a few people came up to me afterwards to say how proud they were to see me being open about my HIV status and speaking out on such an important issue.
What is daily life like for you living with HIV?
Living with HIV means I am on antiretroviral medication which I have to take every day. I take the medication to stay healthy and to keep the virus in check. The meds help to keep my viral load undetectable. In other words, the amount of virus in my blood is so low that it cannot be counted, and it means it is pretty much impossible for me to pass the virus on. Some people do not like taking the daily pills as it reminds them they are HIV positive but, for me, it has just become part of my daily routine. I have never had any side effects to speak of from my HIV treatment.
Becoming a HIV activist, and speaking out against stigma and discrimination experienced by people living with HIV, has forced me to overcome my natural shyness, and emboldened me to be much more self-confident. In the last couple of years, I have attended events at the House of Lords, and spoken at the European Parliament and on national radio and TV about living with HIV. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think I would have done those things!
How and why did you get involved with the Terrence Higgins Trust?
I first became involved with Terrence Higgins Trust when I accessed a newly diagnosed group. I found sharing experiences about being HIV positive very empowering, and I made a lot of good friends through that group.
My next step was to become a volunteer. I was one of the founder members and volunteers on myHIV, the online community forum, providing advice, support and help for people living with HIV. It has been really rewarding to see the membership of myHIV grow and watch the forums thrive. My motivation for getting involved with online peer support was a way to give back to the community and charity that had helped me so much in my hour of need.
I now volunteer for the Terrence Higgins Trust in a variety of ways – I am an outreach volunteer with the Soho scene team; I have worked in our pop-up Soho Boutique store; I get involved in numerous fundraising events; and I am currently a mentor on the Work Positive programme, which aims to help people with HIV who are long-term unemployed to get back into work.
But volunteering is not a one-way street – I get as much out of volunteering as I put in. I have made lots of new friends, and built and developed a very supportive network, which has proved invaluable to me in my HIV journey.
Why did you become a Terrence Higgins Trust trustee and what does this involve?
I became a Terrence Higgins Trust trustee just over two years ago. I see the role of a trustee as that of a critical friend – I want the charity to be the best it can be, and help and support as many people as possible. That involves asking the right questions, and challenging the executive team if needed, to ensure we are making progress and staying on track.
Today is World AIDS Day and EQView are running this interview as a World AIDS Day feature. What message would you like to convey to our readers?
The Terrence Higgins Trust’s campaign for this World AIDS Day is to ‘Wear it’ – to wear your red ribbon with pride, to show solidarity and support for people living with HIV, and to challenge the stigma and discrimination that HIV positive people still encounter on a daily basis.
For me personally, World AIDS Day is a time of commemoration: to remember the amazing people we have lost to HIV and AIDS. But it is also a day of celebration: to recognise the progress made in the treatment of HIV, and to show support and solidarity for people living with HIV.
On World AIDS Day 2015, I am filled with hope. People living with HIV still face many challenges, but we have come a long way. Today, we can live healthy and happy lives. With help and support, we can break the stigma around HIV.
This World AIDS Day, 1 December, the Terrence Higgins Trust is asking people to “Wear It” – encouraging people to wear their Red Ribbon with pride to show support and solidarity for people living with HIV, for a world where HIV stigma is a thing of the past.
Take a photo of yourself wearing your Red Ribbon and post it online with the hashtag #StopStigma.
You can find out more about the work of the Terrence Higgins Trust here:
Follow the link to find out more about World AIDS Day here: