If you’re living with HIV, some of the best people to talk to are other people living with the virus. Jim Fielder, Positively UK’s Gay Men’s Support Worker talks about the value of mentoring and how this is helping gay and bisexual men living with HIV in London
With 1 in 11 gay men in London living with HIV, we probably all know someone in our social circle living with the virus. But do we know who they are and have we ever talked about it with them? The answer to that, I suspect, would be far less definitive. The invisibility of HIV still reaches deep into society and into our own community. The impact this has on the rising numbers of us that are testing positive leaves many feeling unable to talk about it with our friends and loved ones and unable to find safe spaces to explore what it means to be living with HIV in 2015.
Positively UK has been providing peer mentoring support since 1987. I’ve been running the organisation’s first dedicated gay and bisexual men’s programme since May, thanks to three years of funding from the Big Lottery. Like all our frontline staff and mentors, I’m living with HIV myself (nearly two years and counting) so I have insight into what the guys who rock up at our door are going through. Having lived through an HIV diagnosis ourselves is the essence of our approach. As one of our service users has said: “would you want swimming lessons from someone that can’t swim? Or would you prefer to talk with someone who has done the walk?”
At the heart of what we do, therefore, is training up volunteers living with HIV to provide mentoring support. Clinics and hospitals are often too busy to do much more than get people tested and onto treatment, so our growing network of peer mentors provide the practical, emotional and social support that people often need following a diagnosis. We do this in two main ways; providing one-to-one talking support over a number of sessions, and then bringing people together in our Recently Diagnosed weekend workshops and at our Gay Talk Saturday group and social events.
Gay Talk in particular is popular and well attended because it provides that safe space for the guys to meet, to share and connect – and not just around our HIV. We understand that HIV is only one part of our lives and although it can feel like taking over for a while after a diagnosis, it doesn’t define who we are. That’s why we talk about people ‘living with HIV’ rather than ‘being HIV positive’. We believe there’s a difference. I try to think of the guys walking into our groups as men first and foremost, then gay or bi men and finally as men living with HIV. This helps us to see the layers of experience and issues that the guys bring to us and how these interconnect.
This is important because an HIV diagnosis rarely happens in isolation, instead happening within a context or set of circumstances – that may be a relationship breakdown, difficulties around chemsex, problems with work or housing, challenges around accepting sexuality. Some of these issues and their underlying causes may have lain dormant or been building for years, suddenly erupting to the surface following a positive HIV test. We might need to support a recently qualified foreign student who’s visa is about to run out and he can’t face returning home for fear of HIV related discrimination and violence; or an older man diagnosed for many years, who’s long term partner has died and he’s losing their home; or a young guy who’s just moved to the big city and quickly gets himself in too deep with the chems. As gay men who may have grown up in a suffocating environment, we rightly love the freedom and the anonymity that London provides, but the city can be an unforgiving place when we hit the skids.
At Positively UK we’ve been there, so we can help you navigate through the complexities of the day to day aspects of living with HIV; whether that’s accepting a new diagnosis, help with treatment and drug adherence, sex and relationships or disclosure and talking about HIV. Most importantly we are a listening ear, someone to talk to and connect with, fostering a kind of solidarity.
This article appeared in Boyz Magazine on 26th November 2015