World AIDS Day speeches show we still have lots to unlearn

Perth kicked off World AIDS Day with a breakfast in Yagan Square where three diverse speakers shared their experiences of being diagnosed and living with HIV.

The speeches from Peach Ngamchaipisit, Travis Szolkowski and Rhys Ross, all team members at WAAC, showed that there is a wide range of experiences of living with HIV but also a great deal of misunderstanding and false information continues to thrive in society.

For Rhys Ross, who delivered a speech that brought on many laughs, his HIV diagnosis came at a time when he was not living a healthy life.

Rhys reflected on his high school education, recalling that information about HIV still included the 1980’s Grim Reaper advertisements and warning that HIV could lead to deadly outcomes. More alarmingly he also shared that medical staff who informed of his positive diagnosis were not up to speed on the realities of the virus in the 21st century either.

“It was about six years ago, I was very unwell, I was a late diagnose.” Ross shared, noting that he’d probably been living unknowingly with the virus for a significant amount of time before he was tested.

“I’d not been looking after myself physically or mentally, I was not in a very great place in my life.” he shared. When his new partner urged him to see a doctor, he was quickly referred to a series of sexual health tests.

“Sexual health was the furthest thing from my mind, so when the doctor referred me for a sexual health screen, I honestly thought he was being homophobic.”

A next day he was called back in and informed by another doctor he had syphilis.

“She sat me down and started by telling me I tested positive for syphilis – which is not great, but in my head, I was like ‘Oh, Thank God, that’s such good news.” Rhys shared.

Before adding that the doctor then looked away and told him he’d also tested positive for HIV, and then added he also had gonorrhea.

I was very scared at the time, and I unfortunately did not have great knowledge around HIV, in school all we really learned was it was an illness that killed gay people and they showed us the Grim Reaper ad – and that was it.”

“I wasn’t aware that this wasn’t happening anymore, and this GP didn’t seem to know that either. I asked her if I was going to die, but she didn’t seem to be able to give me an answer.” Rhys Ross shared.

For colleague Peach Ngamchaipisit discovering she was HIV positive occurred a decade ago, but today was the first time she’d publicly shared her journey of living with HIV.

Peach was living in her birth city of Bangkok when she was first diagnosed, she faced a difficult time with her family who did not fully support her after as a teenager she shared that she was transgender.

She faced bullying at school, and an unwelcoming home environment that led to many traumas. Peach said the loss of family and friends support lead to her looking for love in the wrong places. It took her many years to build up the courage to have a HIV test.

After being diagnosed Peach learned that the realities of living with HIV today are very different to what people experienced in years gone by, and current medical regimes allow people to maintain an undetectable viral load.

“In ten years, I’ve never had any health problems” she shared. “The most serious problems I have to deal with is stigma, and discrimination in society, and misconceptions about people living with HIV.”

“I’m here today to stand tall on stage, to show these are the people living with HIV in 2022. I’m here as a transwoman who survived childhood trauma and suicide attempts. HIV is no longer a threat, and there’s no need for it to be feared. But not having someone to love, or a place to call home, is of much more concern.”

Travis Szolkowski shared that he learned he had contracted the virus when he was forty.  Now he works one on one with newly diagnosed people spreading a message of ‘being positive when you discover you’re positive’.

He shared that having reached his 40’s, and being concerned about catching the virus, he had begun to think that maybe he had some kind of special natural immunity power.

“I thought it was something that happened to other people.” Travis said of discovering he was HIV positive. “I was floored by the diagnosis; I really thought it was something that happened to somebody else, but it actually happened to me.”

When Travis was told he was HIV positive he experienced a giant rush of anxiety and fears that had been with him since he was a teenager.

“I’m a child of the 80’s, I remember the Grim Reaper campaign. All that terror from then, all came rushing to me in that moment. Even though I knew there was medicine I could use now, I was still thinking ‘Am I going to die from HIV?'”

Travis said he faced an internal battle between knowing that there was amazing medical treatment available, and long held fears that had been planted into his psyche as a teenager. Today his message for newly diagnosed people was simple, “There is hope, don’t let it get you down.”

Australia’s Grim Reaper advertisement was intended to warn people of the dangers of HIV when it first aired in 1987. The commercial featured images of people standing like skittles in a bowling alley, being bowled over by rushing bowling balls thrown by the symbol of death.

The narration of the advertisement noted “at first, only gays and IV drug users were being killed by AIDS” but warned if left unchecked it would kill more people that World War II. Many people associated the image of the gaunt Reaper with gay men struggling with the disease, and it’s been widely acknowledged the campaign ended up causing stigma.

To learn up to date information about living with HIV – visit WAAC

Graeme Watson

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