Gareth Thomas opens up to Panti about his HIV journey during World AIDS Day event

"I didn't believe in what undetectable meant because I felt I was educated.": Gareth Thomas tells Panti his journey to understanding his HIV diagnosis.

Gareth Thomas and Panti
Image: Babs Daly

Last night in Trinity College Dublin, Panti Bliss was in conversation with rugby star Gareth Thomas who shared his story growing up gay in Wales, coming out and his experience telling the world that he is living with HIV.

The World AIDS Day event raised funds for HIV Ireland and GCN and was supported by GlaxoSmithKline, Dublin City Council, HSE sexual health and crisis pregnancy programme, Trinity College Students Union, and Guinness.

Gareth Thomas, Adam Shanley (HIV Ireland), Lisa Connell (GCN), Stephen O’Hare (HIV Ireland) and Panti Bliss.

“We’re delighted to have jointly hosted such a vibrant and special fundraising event in advance of 2019’s World AIDS day and raise vital funds for both HIV Ireland and GCN,” said Managing Editor of GCN, Lisa Connell.

“Gareth Thomas and Panti exemplify the magic that is truly being yourself and the power of telling our queer stories. GCN’s job is to reflect queer life, and events like this provide a great opportunity for people to connect in real-time. Thanks to all who attended and our wonderful sponsors whose generous support made it possible”, Connell added.

“Gareth is one of only a handful of elite athletes in the world to speak willingly and honestly about his own sexuality and the challenges of living with HIV,” said Stephen O’Hare, Executive Director of HIV Ireland.

“Though he himself finds it difficult to attach the label ‘activist,’ his quiet dignity and determination to tell his story places him at the forefront of efforts to tackle stigma and discrimination around HIV. We are grateful to Gareth for using his profile to shine a very bright light on the challenges often faced by people in our community and how, by increasing public awareness and support, such challenges can be overcome,” he added.

The conversation started as Gareth recalled growing up in a mining town in Wales where “men had a role to play.”

“We all were like clones of each other, and I was as guilty as anybody because I didn’t want people to recognise my differences.”

Gareth said when he was 18, he planned to run away from home and go to London to live authentically, but he could never go through with it.

“I’m packing the bag, and I started crying, and I was in tears. Then I picked the bag up, I took the bag down to the stairs, I put it by the front door, and I just broke down and I just I knew I couldn’t do it.”

Thomas went on to speak about the messaging he learned about HIV when he was young and how he didn’t learn anything else about it until after his diagnosis.

“I learned about HIV as in that infamous advert that we all know that with the gravestone and death. But one thing weirdly, I remember never learning was how you got HIV. I can never remember being told to have safe sex. All I knew is that HIV was this virus that would kill people.”

Five years ago, Thomas found out he is HIV Positive and said he was petrified that he would die and decided then to tell nobody.

“I decided at that point; I will tell nobody, I will live alone. I will live a life on my own. Not only did I feel that I was ill, I felt I was a threat at making other people ill as well.

“I didn’t believe in what undetectable meant because I felt I was educated because I’d learned what I had as a kid. And nobody really told me any different. I thought, ‘why would you put an ad without to say HIV and AIDS is a killer yet not put an advert out to say HIV and AIDS is not a killer anymore?’.”

Thomas did confide in a few close friends but soon realised one of them had gone to a newspaper. The newspaper contacted him and said they were going to write the story.

“So for three years on a Saturday afternoon, I would have panic attacks. I would be sitting by the phone waiting for 12:59 pm because that’s when [the newspaper] said they would call.

“What I realised I would have to do if that happened is I would have to tell everybody who I loved everybody who I cared for that I’m living with HIV. And I hadn’t accepted it myself at that point.”

Thomas managed to block them from printing the story for three years, but the journalist decided to disclose the information to Thomas’ parents, in horrific fashion, by asking his father if he would like to comment “on the fact that there is the sun is living with HIV, and these are the living with HIV and will soon have AIDS and probably die.”

Thomas said it was a moment which was stolen from him but that it brought the family together.

“As we’ve always done as a family and a unit is we felt we were in the corner and there’s only one thing we can do now to get out this, and that’s fucking put up a fight.

“We decided together, go on the journey of discovery, go on the journey of education together, learn everything but in the process of us learning. [My parents] didn’t want other parents to be in the position they had; they didn’t want other sons to be in the position I was. That’s why we decided to embark on the documentary journey of educating and breaking stigma and also giving us our life back.”

The evening ended with a powerful reminder of the message of Undetectable = Untransmittable.

Adam Shanley from HIV Ireland said:

“If a person that’s living with HIV is on effective medication it means that it brings the virus in your body down so low to an undetectable level that you cannot pass on HIV and I think that’s an important message to come out of an event like today. I think it would be massively powerful with the weekend that’s in it with World AIDS Days for you to be able to pass that on to two or three other people.”

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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