Updated: Jun 8, 2020
c. Dawn Kilner
Last year I said something out loud for the first time.
It was utterly terrifying.
After 15 years of living in secret, I came out to the world as HIV+.
It was a very public coming out.
I made a theatre show about how I got HIV the first time I ever had sex aged 16 - over 400 people saw it.
I commissioned community outreach work with local artists and charities that culminated in a gallery exhibition - nearly 4000 people saw that.
And then the press picked up the story.
Local press at first, then Gay Star News, Buzzfeed News, BBC News... before I knew it I was on the BBC Breakfast couch with Naga and Charlie...
In total, 3.4 million people saw or read about my story in broadcast, digital and print.
I received 100’s of messages of support on social media.
It’s fair to say the week leading up to World AIDS Day 2018 is up there as one of the most eventful I’ve ever experienced.
Three months have passed and the dust has settled.
So, what have I learned?
Well, in the same week I premiered First Time, MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle hit the headlines with his emotional HIV 'coming out' in parliament.
He too found himself the centre of the press’ attention.
That crazy week of press calls and shows taught me one thing - coming out publicy as HIV+ is still considered a radical act.
HIV is more manageable than diabetes these days.
People living with HIV who are on medication CANNOT pass the virus on.
AND there's even a preventative medicine that can stop you getting HIV in the first place.
But public knowledge lacks far behind.
Feedback from audiences who saw First Time demonstrated that the show had not only brought them bang up to date with advances in modern HIV healthcare, but that it had also challenged the misconceptions about HIV that linger in the public consciousness.
Towards the latter part of my life in the HIV closet I was self medicating with drugs and alcohol and was on the cusp of developing serious long-term mental health issues.
I was living in shame, fearful of people finding out, fearful of being judged, fearful of being ostracised, fearful of being victimised and blamed... fearful of being rejected.
And I'm not alone.
There are thousands of people living with HIV across the country who live in fear, just like I used to.
Today, HIV is an illness of stigma that forces people into lives of secrecy and shame.
Well, it’s time to say: no more.
We're on the cusp of a huge shift in how people perceive HIV in the UK today.
Cities across the UK (including my home in Manchester) are signing up to become HIV fast track cities, meaning they are committed to reducing new HIV infections to zero by 2030.
And last year, the UK also became the first western nation to meet the UN's targets on reducing infections.
Leading HIV charities (and I) believe that we now have the tools to end HIV in a generation.
HIV healthcare has revolutionised the prospects of people living with the virus.
Now another revolution is on its way: a generation of people living confidently with HIV.
No more shame, no more secrecy.
First Time is part of that revolution, educating, informing and inspiring other people to live proudly with their HIV status.
It’s a show about MY journey with the virus.
It’s a rollercoaster of emotions (so I’m told) and it’s brutally honest in its portrayal of the ups and downs I’ve faced coming to terms with my diagnosis.
I’m reclaiming the narrative told about people like me... Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (great film, btw), just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.
We’re taking the show on tour - first to Edinburgh, then across England... who knows, maybe we’ll go international (if they’ll have us).
I’m hoping for a future where people like Lloyd and me don’t have to make public declarations.
I'm hoping for a future where saying you’re HIV+ is no longer a radical act.
I’m hoping you’ll join the revolution with us.
First Time was originally commissioned by Waterside Arts and Creative Industry Trafford in association with Dibby Theatre.
First performed in November and December 2018 and presented alongside First Time: In Equal Parts, a collaborative community exhibition exploring HIV stigma, it received unprecedented media coverage and rave reviews.
For more and for touring news click HERE.