Gay rugby player shares powerful message on tackling HIV stigma

"If each of us commits to making positive changes in our families and communities, we can help end HIV stigma and work to stop HIV together."

Side profile of rugby player Bhuttu Mathews.

To mark World AIDS Day on December 1, Chair of International Gay Rugby (IGR) Bhuttu Mathews shares his experience of being a HIV Positive person, and outlines how the sport can aid in tackling stigma and discrimination.

In the last 40 years, HIV treatment has advanced considerably to the point where someone living with HIV and is on effective treatment cannot pass it on. This means their viral load is undetectable and therefore untransmittable, in other words, U=U.

In March 2004, I was diagnosed with HIV. When informed of my diagnosis, I was in shock, dismay, and in a state of disbelief as to what sort of future I would have, if any. At the time of my diagnosis, my understanding of HIV/AIDS was limited; I thought I would be dead soon. As someone who was a teenager in the 1980s, I knew of the devastation that HIV/AIDS caused to a person, and the stigma it carried for gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.

I became angry at myself about my diagnosis. In the days and weeks following, I sank into a deep state of depression, as all I knew about HIV was that it was a death sentence. Substances soon entered my life.

For four years after my diagnosis, I lived with this big secret. I come from a family of South Asian/Indian origin, and I didn’t want to tell them as I didn’t know how they would react. When I did tell them in 2008, some of my fears came true. They were frightened and extremely sad as they had the same concerns as me – they thought I would die. However, through keeping fit and my adherence to treatment, I helped them to understand that I was going to be ok.

In the same month I was diagnosed, I started to play rugby with the Chicago Dragons RFC. Thanks to rugby and my team, it helped me through the dark times; my Tuesday and Thursday evening practices and Saturday afternoon match commitments to my team kept me from engaging in acts of harm to myself. Rugby is what kept my depression and burgeoning substance abuse at bay. I can confidently say that my commitment to my team and to rugby kept me out of the morgue.

I began counselling and attending peer support meetings in 2009. In 2010, I began working in the field of disability rights. It was there that I began to destigmatise and accept my sexual identity as well as my HIV status. These three factors are key reasons why I am a professional counsellor today.

One of the motivations for telling my story is to challenge the stigma and myths still surrounding HIV. Sharing the facts about the virus in 2022 is crucial for achieving that, and for spreading the message that people living with HIV and on effective treatment can’t pass it on. No ifs, no buts, and no judgements about one’s sex life.

So does HIV stop me or anyone playing from rugby? Like Jesse Ventura’s character said in the movie Predator, “I ain’t got time to let HIV stop me.” Well, okay, that’s not exactly what he said, but you get the point.

HIV stigma, as with all disabilities, is pervasive and insidious, and is based on fear and ignorance. The moral judgement that accompanies a diagnosis must be opposed. If we believe that well-adjusted people don’t yearn to complicate their lives, it naturally follows that we must support all people with disabilities with compassion and solidarity.

We must also recognise that the effects of long-term HIV are real, and that people living with HIV will need support to counter those effects. Ultimately, it is our collective responsibility to ensure that people with HIV acquire and keep the supports they need.

The rugby community can play a vital role in combating HIV stigma. We saw this when the community rallied around Welsh rugby legend, Gareth Thomas, when he came out as HIV Positive.

There are many small things that can be done to make a big difference when tackling HIV stigma, particularly in rugby. Clubs can start by ensuring that they are safe places for anyone regardless of identity or experience. Ensure that there is an active and comprehensive anti-discrimination, continuous education, and grievance mitigation policy within the setup. Furthermore, ensure all new members are oriented to this.

Here are some other ideas for standing up to stigma:

  • Get the facts. Read the People First Charter on HIV language
  • Learn more. Check out the work your local HIV charity is doing on HIV and combating stigma
  • Get involved. Give your time to HIV-related efforts.
  • Make a pledge to help stop HIV stigma

If each of us commits to making positive changes in our families and communities, we can help end HIV stigma and work to stop HIV together.

On this World AIDS Day, I wish that all of us will realise that HIV has changed. Tell everyone. And please show your support by sharing the news that someone living with HIV cannot pass it on. We can’t tackle stigma and create a better world without you.

© 2022 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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