“The Beastie Boys of HIV activism. We’re doing our own thing with quite a punk sensibility to try and change things for people like us.”
Poz Vibe is a podcast for People Living With HIV, their friends, family and allies, sponsored by Dublin Pride and as co-host and Irish drag legend Veda describes it, all about “trying to create change and spread those positive vibrations throughout Ireland.”
The other half of Poz Vibe, Robbie Lawlor, Co-Founder of Access to Medicines Ireland and a Doctoral Scholar at Dublin City University, explained that when he was diagnosed with HIV in 2012, “the only person who was speaking about HIV and AIDS was Panti Bliss.”
Recalling the very moment that he realised something needed to change around HIV stigma in Ireland, Robbie described: “In my world, no one was speaking about HIV at all. It just wasn’t spoken about. My first point of call in getting involved in activism was trying to give support to other people living with HIV because there were very few supports back in 2012. I really understood the stigma and how that stigma affected people. The more friends I started making who were living with HIV, the more stories of stigma I heard, I realised that there is this common denominator when it comes to HIV stigma and a lot of it has got to do with ignorance around the virus and people who are living with it.”
Robbie went on to discuss one of the pivotal moments where he realised that something absolutely had to change. “One of my really close friends sent me a screenshot of a message and it said something along the lines of ‘I can’t believe you touched me! You AIDS riddled whore. I gotta tell everyone about you. I can’t believe I went near you, you dirty…’ whatever. It was the most horrendous message I had ever seen in my life. I was shaking with anger because this person is the nicest person in the world. And that’s when I was like, ‘Okay, this is an actual problem. I want to be part of the solution.’”
At that moment, surrounded by silence and stigma, Robbie knew that he was “part of the problem” so to speak. Something needed to change.
Similarly, when Veda was diagnosed with HIV in 2009, “I chose to keep it to myself for quite a long time. I became increasingly aware that I was part of the problem. And I wanted to be part of the solution. I think because I had been dormant for so long, I just exploded like a volcano into HIV activism!” Veda laughed. “I’m really trying to be like the Beastie Boys, with Robbie, the Beastie Boys of HIV activism. We’re doing our own thing with quite a punk sensibility to try and change things for people like us. We’re building a community and it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life! I would do it all again in a heartbeat. I work very hard, we work very hard, but it pays off in ways I can hardly imagine.”
Laughing about their “explosion” into HIV activism, the pair talked about what their hopes for the Poz Vibe podcast had been when they were setting out. Veda continued, “The podcast was an experimental thing to do. And my hopes were so much less than what came to be once we started! A lot of the podcast’s success has got to do with my relationship with Robbie and the chemistry that we have and the fun that we have.
“All of that chemistry and fun is way more contagious than HIV could ever be! The fact that I can go to my local coffee shop and the people working there listen to our podcast is incredible. We talked about it, and they are not HIV Positive people. They aren’t even thinking about the podcast in the mindset of being diagnosed with HIV, they just enjoy the entertainment. I never in a million years imagined that it would be such a success and that people would relate to Poz Vibe so much. It’s been an incredible journey.”
Robbie similarly echoed Veda’s sentiments about his expectations for using a podcast as a platform for change. “I always knew a platform like a podcast would be an amazing thing to do, but I always shut it off in my head because I knew that it was such a saturated field. I didn’t think I could make a podcast on my own. It wasn’t until Veda came to me, and suggested it that I started seriously thinking about it.
“To be honest, it happened right after being on the Tommy Tiernan Show. I saw the importance of just having these chats with people and hearing their stories and the amazing response and relatability that people find from those conversations. We were almost like ‘well, let’s kind of give that back in our own very fun way!’
“Veda brings all the entertainment. So, actually, I wouldn’t be able to bring anything on my own. But as a team, we bring so much! Not only that, we really believe in lifting up the voices of other people that need to be heard in this country and creating that sense of community through shared storytelling. It’s just so powerful. We never imagined how strong the podcast would be, but the amount of messages we get from people telling us how much it has impacted them is amazing. It’s just so reaffirming that we are on the right track. We said at the beginning if we help one person well then all these hours of work are worthwhile, but that we have actually helped many people is the biggest joy, to be honest.”
Coming up to World AIDS Day, Robbie and Veda really wanted to share an important message to people living with HIV. Veda focused on celebrating yourself, remarking that: “My message to anybody who is celebrating World AIDS Day, especially anybody who’s an activist, would be to celebrate yourself afterwards. You know, have a holiday! That’s what I’m going to do. Do whatever is going to make you feel good because it should be a happy time and it should be a healing time where we honour our ancestors, but we also have got to honour ourselves.
“I celebrated World AIDS Day in 2019 by coming out about my HIV status in song, and it was very stressful and scary, but I reward myself by going to Vienna immediately afterwards, to see Justin Vivian bond performing in the opera. I went with Christine the iconic drag queen. We had the best weekend and all of my fear of stigma and all of that, that apprehension I had about coming out, just drifted away into the ether. I really just got to be me again. Me without HIV or me with HIV. It made no difference. To celebrate how lucky I’ve been to make all of these amazing new friends. There is nothing negative for me about being HIV Positive, apart from the stigma and the health condition, everything else that it’s brought into my life has just been such an amazing blessing.”
Robbie’s message, in line with Pride celebrations, focused on viewing the date as a protest, articulating that: “I treat World AIDS Day like I treat Pride. It’s a commemoration of those who came before us. It’s an opportunity to think about the structural issues and the homophobia and everything that came with the AIDS crisis. But it’s also about celebrating where we are today. To celebrate how far we have come in medicine and to educate people about U=U (Undetectable equals Untramsmitable).
It’s also about telling people that HIV stigma is very much alive. And just like Pride, it’s a protest – and it’s World AIDS Day, it should be a protest. We still have to come together as a community. Because there are far too many people living with HIV in this country, in our community, whose lives are destroyed by stigma, not by HIV! And it’s our fault as a community for not doing enough. So we should stand up and protect our family, our community.”
The pair ended the interview by focusing on the positivity that Poz Vibe has lent them in terms of reaching out to people in the community who are living with HIV. They wanted to encourage people who feel isolated or stigmatised by their diagnosis to contact them via DM. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to myself and Veda, whether it’s on our personal Instagram accounts or Twitter. If you need help we can direct you towards peer support networks. You don’t have to do this alone. There is a community out there. Please reach out.”
You can listen to Poz Vibe podcast wherever you get your podcasts and can keep up with their fab work here.
All portraits by the wonderful Babs Daly.
© 2021 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.
This article was published in the print edition Issue No. 369 (December 3, 2021). Click here to read it now.
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