Taking a daily pill to stop HIV has removed a shadow over my sex life — so why are other people being denied PrEP?
I went to an all-boys school in Liverpool growing up. One that had been given ‘sports college’ status, due to some of the people who’d been through the doors and now play(ed) for top premiere league football clubs. Growing up in that environment wasn’t easy, especially when everyone around me knew I was gay before I’d fully understood what it was, and who I was. My friendship group at the time, or as others liked to know us, ‘the queers’, made it through and built-up a way to deal with being different in that set-up. Any form of PHSE lesson (and there were very few of them) was strictly about heterosexual relationships and ultimately, reproduction. The closest we got to any sort of ‘alternative’ education around sexual health, was a showing of ‘Philadelphia’ — you know the 90s film where Tom Hanks plays a gay man who contracts HIV, is fired from his job, sues the company for discrimination and ultimately dies from AIDS-related illness. The lesson was supposed to be looking at ‘ethics’, and included several breaks so the teacher could tell the class to calm down (mainly after the park scene where two men hold hands) — as you can imagine, a closeted gay teenager’s school nightmare.
This is just one tiny part of the shadow that follows many gay men through their lives. That shadow is the risk of contracting HIV. Growing up in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, and throughout Section 28, I had zero idea of what a healthy sex life was supposed to look like. Internet porn skews absolutely everything, while society’s view of sex — especially gay sex — is that it’s not something that should be spoken about. After moving to London, I began working in several gay clubs as a photographer and became part of a community; something that I’d never felt before. I got to know a lot of people. People from all sorts of backgrounds and upbringings. Looking back to that point in my life, there was definitely one thing that everyone seemed to have in common; a lack of knowing. A lack of knowing what was healthy; a feeling of deep, dark shame, bizarrely covered up with a big smile, and an outgoing, energetic personality; the lack of knowing how to properly look after ourselves.
This shadow always followed me. I’d meet a man in a club, or speak to someone on an app and always have the idea of having sex in my head surrounded by ‘the fear’. There was a point where I would be so afraid of catching an STI or HIV, that I’d go to a walk-in clinic after sleeping with one person. I say ‘sleeping with’, but a lot of the time we’d done the bare minimum and I’d still go and get checked. The finger prick instant HIV test that a lot of clinics offer would fill me with dread. In the couple of minutes it takes for the result to show, I’d have gone through the thought process of how to tell my mum, what work would say, what it would mean to my friends, if I’d still be healthy, and forget how to breathe. When ‘Philadelphia’ is your go-to reference for HIV, what else are you meant to do? It was only when the result would show a negative response that I’d come back to earth, and then begin the same old cycle of feeling okay for a day or two, then have ‘the fear’ creep back into my head when the thought of another man would come along.
And that’s where PrEP comes in.
I followed the ‘birth’ of PrEP in the USA a few years back, and wondered what this wonder drug was that seemed to be freeing people of ‘the fear’. I’d seen sites like IWantPrepNow and PrEPster launch in the UK to ignite the conversation, and provide men with the chance to take control of their health themselves. I’d even supported organisations like Terrence Higgins Trust and NAT who are campaigning for PrEP in the UK. I then came out of a long term relationship at the end of last year, just as the NHS IMPACT Trial was kicking off in England. Desperate to not relive the single-life cycle that I’d gone through years before, I was pointed in the direction of a clinic close to where I live, and after a quick assessment, was accepted onto the trial.
Since January, I’ve been taking one blue pill a day. I visit the clinic every three months for a full check-up, blood test and renewal of the pills. ‘The fear’? I don’t know her. Being able to take control of my sexual heath in a way that I’ve never been able to do before is life-changing. It has not only got rid of the shadow that was over every single interaction I had with men… but it’s given me a confidence around sex that I didn’t know was possible. As gay men, we are taught that we are less, and deserve to have this risk follow us, simply for being who we are. This no longer has to be the case.
We have a pill that can now take away the fear and the constant anxiety around sex and yet people are being denied access to it on the NHS. This simply isn’t right and needs to change. Right now there are 13 clinics completely full for gay and bisexual men to get onto the trial — many of these sites are in the cities across England, the same cities which have the highest new HIV diagnoses reported every year.
I’ve been lucky to get onto the trial but luck shouldn’t be a factor in preventing HIV, it should be a right for everyone who could benefit from PrEP, to be offered it. For those refused access, the only alternative is to source PrEP privately — our approach to healthcare in the UK has never been based on the ability to pay and PrEP should be no different.
A 10,000 place trial is not fit for purpose. Just eight months into it, around 8,000 people have enrolled and sites are turning people away. We cannot wait until 2020 for this HIV game-changer to be made available. It’s time to finally banish the shadow that has hung over the sex lives of gay and bisexual men and give PrEP a long-term and sustainable home on our NHS.