‘HIV-positive? You deserve it’

Source: The New Paper
31 October 2008

‘HIV-positive? You deserve it’
Infected man’s mum slams him when he reveals condition. He now hides it from friends and colleagues
By Benson Ang

In 2004, one evening during dinner, he broke the news to his family. His mother and elder brother were present.

He was advised by his doctor to break the news to his family so that they could react appropriately in case of an emergency.

File picture from The New Paper

File picture from The New Paper

James (not his real name), 38, said he was shocked by their reaction at the dinner table.

His dejected mother, in her 70s, first stared at him and asked: ‘How did this happen?

He replied: ‘Through sex.’

She shot back: ‘Then, you’ve only yourself to blame.’

His brother kept silent throughout the conversation.

There was a deafening silence for the rest of the dinner, interrupted only by his mother’s questions regarding the illness.

Frightened

From then on, his family members were so frightened of the virus that they even washed and stored the plates and utensils he used separately and kept them in a different place.

James, who works in the service industry, said: ‘I know that sharing cutlery cannot transmit the virus. But because they had not much knowledge of this, I just played along to reassure them.’

This less-accepting attitude towards HIV-positive people was revealed in a recent Health Promotion Board (HPB) survey. This is the first large population-based survey of its kind, according to HPB.

Since the first HIV case in Singapore was detected in 1985, only one person has dared to come out as HIV-positive. The late Paddy Chew went public with his condition in 1998 and eventually died in 1999.

Which goes on to show that even after 10years, the stigma associated with HIV patients still hasn’t gone away.

Said James, who works in the service industry: ‘It was a double whammy – telling them that I was gay and HIV positive.

‘I think my mum was just devastated and traumatised. It took several months before she came around to accepting my condition.’

A year later, he moved out of his family flat to his own three-room flat.

It took his family about two years to come to terms with the illness and be comfortable with mixing their cutlery with his.

His mother began talking to him more frequently and things went back to normal.

He said he tested positive for HIV in 1996 through unprotected sex with a former lover.

So how did he manage to keep this secret for eight years? He said: ‘This is nothing. People have kept secrets for their whole lifetime.’

The only people who know about his illness are his family, partner, and the HIV-positive people he came to know through an Action for Aids (AfA) support group. James joined the group in 2002 when he started on his medication.

Why did he take six years to start on medication when he knew he was already HIV positive?

He said: ‘I felt healthy and was ignorant of the disease at that time.

‘It was only when I had a chest infection in 2002 that reality hit me.’

He said he has not revealed his condition to any of his friends and colleagues, despite having lived with HIV for 12 years.

He said: ‘Singapore society is still very unaccepting of gay people, let alone those with HIV.’

So why isn’t he revealing his status?

He says he is just being ‘practical’, since in Singapore, there are no laws protecting HIV-positive people from discrimination by their employers.

This was verified by three lawyers The New Paper spoke to.

James said that employers who may not know much about HIV may just terminate such employees out of fear.

He claimed that some of his HIV-positive friends told their bosses about their condition, and ended up being sacked ‘for the minutest reason’.

He takes anti-retroviral drugs at home instead: twice daily – in the mornings and evenings – to combat the spread of the virus.

He does not have full-blown Aids, but sometimes experiences side effects from his medication, such as nausea, diarrhoea and skin problems.

And although he shops, eats, sings karaoke and goes to the movies with his HIV-negative friends, most of whom are gay men, none know about his condition.

James said: ‘I haven’t got the guts to tell them. I just act buat-bodoh (blur) when the subject comes up, because I don’t know if they can really accept it or not.

‘I just don’t see the need to tell them, especially since news tends to have a roll-on effect.’

James suspects that he contracted the disease through unprotected sex with a former lover.

‘But I can’t be sure, so I don’t want to point fingers.’

A few months later, he became ‘very sick’, and had to be hospitalised for six days.

A blood test confirmed his HIV status.

Life goes on

‘At first, I felt down. But life goes on.’

He says he does not want to ‘perpetuate the cycle’ with his current partner of three years, who is HIV-negative. They use condoms.

Prior to sharing his secret, James said he asked his partner leading questions to see how accepting the latter was of people with HIV.

James revealed the truth only when he felt it was safe, a few months into the relationship.

James said: ‘My partner cried. But two weeks later, he told me, ‘No worries. We will go through it together.’

‘This made life much easier.’

Added James: ‘I’ll never have a job again if I were to come out publicly in Singapore. I’ll have more to lose.’

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