New BBC documentary discusses what it’s like to be gay and HIV positive in Northern Ireland

Matthew Cavan delves into the lives of those affected by HIV and AIDS in new documentary “True North: Cherrie, Me and HIV”.

A beach in Northern Ireland, a young man smiling at the camera
Image: Ronan McCloskey

New BBC Northern Ireland documentary True North: Cherrie, Me and HIV, narrated by actor Matthew Cavan and set to air tonight Tuesday, November 5, focuses on what has changed, and what hasn’t, since the 1980’s when the AIDS epidemic was first brought to the public’s attention. The documentary also discusses the possibility of a cure for HIV and AIDS and the new wider availability of preventative medications as well as delving into personal accounts of those affected by it. 

Matthew also speaks about his own experiences as a gay man in Northern Ireland and the impact of his own HIV diagnosis 10 years ago at the age of 21 and the prejudices he has encountered because of this. As part of the documentary, Matthew introduces the audience to Cherrie Ontop, his drag alter-ego, who he says helps him cope with his HIV diagnosis. 

Matthew discusses his decision to speak out about his HIV status and his determination to keep the conversation going despite receiving immense amounts of online hate after announcing he was HIV positive. During one of his drag performances, Matthew talked about his own experience living with HIV and dispels some of the myths about the disease and its spread in order to fight against stigma.

The documentary also captures a poignant discussion between Matthew and his parents, who are present at the drag performance, regarding his sexuality and HIV diagnosis and how it impacted them and their religious beliefs. The programme also delves into the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS and Mathew meets with his own doctors as well as doing more research into the medical help and support available for those living with the condition.

The documentary also heavily focuses on the impact on the families and loved ones of those who with a HIV positive diagnosis. BBC broadcaster Wendy Austin, also from Northern Ireland, features in the programme discussing the passing of her brother, David Austin, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1993 while he was living in London. Austin explained how ill her brother was before he passed away in 1994 and recounts her last visit with him. 

The journalist went on to explain that the family’s grief surrounding David’s rapid decline in health and subsequent death was only added to when they were unable to bring his body home for burial due to his death from AIDS. Rather than have a funeral at home surrounded by their friends and extended family for support, Austin explained that she and her family were forced to go to London for the funeral. She recounted the event saying; “he was zipped up in a bag and taken away and that was that. He had to be cremated.”

Similar to Matthew, Wendy has been outspoken about ending the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS in the years following her brother’s passing. The documentary which is part of the True North series is airing tonight on BBC Two Northern Ireland at 10pm and will available to stream on the BBC’s iPlayer. 

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