I’m slightly ashamed to say that at the end of 2008, I did my first ever HIV test at the age of 21.
Sadly, I didn’t know much about HIV and I didn’t know testing frequently was a thing. By then, I had only been sexually active for a couple of years and I did that first test not because I was worried, but because I was curious.
I was called a few days after and asked to attend a local hospital to talk about the test. To my surprise, the test was ‘reactive’ and I needed to do another to confirm the verdict. This resulted in a heartbreaking positive diagnosis, which led to lots of crying, isolation, negative thinking and suicidal thoughts.
Thankfully, I’m in a much better place with it all after a lot of growth – but I needed to learn and unlearn what I knew about the illness, as well as leave Colombia and settle in the UK.
Growing up in Cali in the south west of Colombia always felt magical. It’s a country of great weather and stunningly beautiful landscapes, fauna, and flora. It was a privileged upbringing in a big and loving family with the advantages of education and some wealth in an extremely unequal society.
Colombia was both exciting and scary to explore my own identity. I started understanding my sexual orientation at an early age, and being gay in any heteronormative society, where ‘machismo’ prevails can be an experience of mixed feelings.
I fully embraced being gay and came out at the age of 17; I had some sexual experiences online and used gay porn as part of my poor sex education. I then started going to gay clubs, meeting other gay men, and having sex for the first time at about 18. I felt like I was on top of the world.
But those few thrilling years of being queer and joyful soon dimmed with my HIV diagnosis. I became depressed and blue. Lonely and withdrawn. My meds kept me alive, but I was half-dead inside.
I spent the next couple of years avoiding learning, understanding, talking, and living well with HIV. I couldn’t get myself around it. I decided to put that part of my life on hold or ignore it for a while. I took my meds and carried on with my life.
Luckily, I had a supportive group of friends, who cared for me at the darkest times when all I wanted was to drink in isolation. I also have loving parents and a sister who embraced me with the condition when I allowed them to do so – including supporting me to navigate the intricacies of the healthcare system.
I had instances of racial discrimination and HIV stigma (Picture: José Mejía Asserias)
Trying to balance my professional life with multiple appointments and a monthly collection of medications located far away in a remote part of the city was a big challenge. This was particularly difficult because I wasn’t open about my HIV status with employers at the time.
But navigating the healthcare system wasn’t the only challenge then and isn’t the only one now. I’ve faced HIV stigma and discrimination both in Colombia and in the UK, in dating apps, by sexual partners, and within circles of friends.
I visited London in 2013 and immediately fell in love with the sense of anonymity the city gave me. My sister was living here at the time, and with her guidance and support, I decided to move to the UK in 2015 to complete a master’s degree.
Before I even arrived, I faced some obstacles trying to get a student loan to pay for my studies. The loan required me to have life insurance, and companies wouldn’t insure me because of my HIV status.
In the end, the loan was granted to my mum. I managed to jump through the hoops, but a lot of others living with HIV miss these opportunities in fear of disclosing their status.
Soon after arriving in London, I was immediately surprised by the awful weather and how fast-paced the city was. The capital has a truly global cultural offer with many things to do, food to try, and beer to drink – but I had so little time and money to do it all.
In my day-to-day life, I noticed how diverse and welcoming London was. However, I promptly realised the prominence of anti-immigration narratives within the Brexit discourse and understood that similarly to Colombia, racism and xenophobia were part of the DNA of the country.
I commenced my studies and used my free time to do part-time jobs, dating, and more. Dating was initially difficult because I was interested in meeting people and getting to explore the city, but people were only interested in having sex. I had instances of racial discrimination and HIV stigma, particularly using dating apps like Grindr.
Dating opened the doors to an inviting drug scene that I quickly realised I wanted to stay away from.
I then realised – after unsuccessful dating and overly-available sex that made me feel like spiraling down – that I needed to prioritise my emotional and physical wellbeing, so I decided to use my free time differently. Things like exercising and volunteering were the perfect opportunity to learn more about HIV and improve the relationship with my diagnosis.
I feel physically and emotionally healthy (Picture: José Mejía Asserias)
So, I did. I joined an HIV charity as a volunteer, and this opened the door to paid professional opportunities and a career in sexual and mental health.
Working in HIV and mental health was the key to improving my wellbeing and self-esteem, increasing my sense of community and belonging, and learnt from sharing experiences with others living with HIV.
Through this process, I’ve learnt to focus on the things that I can change. I’ve understood that timing is wise and things happen for a reason. I’ve grasped the importance of self-love and knowledge. Ultimately, I realised I needed to use my voice to advocate for myself.
Today, I look back and see how far I’ve come. I feel like a better version of myself, and I know I have a lot more progress and growth ahead.
I feel physically and emotionally healthy, and I feel part of a wider community of mental health and HIV professionals, activists, artists, academics, and diverse humans who are aware of the challenges ahead.
We won’t get to zero cases of new HIV transmissions in the UK if we don’t take a global and intersectional approach. That means decriminalising drugs and sex work, removing hostile environment policies, providing gender-affirming care, ending racism and health inequalities.
In order to do that, we will need to centre migrants, trans people, women, prisoners, sex workers and Black people and remove the existing barriers we face when accessing HIV testing, treatment and care.
As for myself, I will keep working on my wellbeing and nurturing my relationships. I will continue to learn from the stories and experiences of my peers.
I will carry on sharing my story as part of my own recovery, hoping it positively impacts others.
Lastly, I will continue to challenge discriminatory policies and narratives, and advocate for a more kind, inclusive and equal world that respects the experiences of all people living with HIV.
José shared his story on the Bottoming Podcast, which you can find out more about on their website here.