Gavin is 29 and just finished his first year of university after being out of high school for ten years. He struggled with alcohol addiction, but stopped drinking six years ago. Gavin has lived in Calgary most of his life. “I’ve only disclosed my HIV status to some of my family. More because I don’t feel that I could trust my parents not to really worry about it. They don’t have a lot of education and information about HIV and how it’s like living with the virus, they will worry for me,” says Gavin with a small, but sad smile.

He was diagnosed six months after he managed to stop drinking. “I went to the doctor and I thought I’d be happy to find out I had a great bill of health for the first time in a long time for not drinking. They called me and asked me to come in but wouldn’t say why. I knew I had been tested for HIV, and that was a dead giveaway as to a why they wanted to see me” remembers Gavin.

But that wasn’t the hardest conversation he had that day. “With my drinking, I had been deluding myself on how often I was actually getting tested. I always thought it wasn’t too long a time since I had last been tested. I would tell myself ‘ I can go next month,’ but in hindsight and in sobriety, the months between testing kept getting longer and longer. Looking back, 3 months had turned into a year between tests” says Gavin. He had had condomless sex with one partner, and he wanted to talk with that person on the day he found about his HIV status. They were still good friends. “It was incredibly awkward and terrible. Even though that person was upset, he handled it with grace. He went and got tested again and again. The tests turned out negative, and that was good. We are still good friends today.”

Gavin  advocates for safer sex and the use of condoms

The stigma, strong and inescapable, came after that first shock. Gavin was talking to a nurse on a dating app for men who have sex with men where he disclosed he was positive, that he had been on treatment for a couple of years and had an undetectable viral load. “It’s a conflict of interest to have sex with you because I work in a hospital, the guy told me. For somebody in the medical profession, a gay man especially, to have so much stigma around HIV in this day and age, with the education that we have, it’s ridiculous. Undetectable means untransmittable. I also always advocate for safer sex and the use of condoms now. So using condoms, knowing my status, and having an undetectable viral load makes a sexual encounter with me far less risky than the many people who don’t know their status. My friends have experienced similar situations too. It is really upsetting that your status is used against you.” After several experiences like this, Gavin has begun to screen who he discloses his status to. “I don’t show my face online until I chat with the person and understand what they think about HIV,” he explains.

Gavin is now studying to be a nurse, and believes doctors and health care providers should be more educated about HIV and offer HIV testing routinely. “My last year of drinking was really bad. During that period, I went to the emergency, because I was sick, I had a fever that had been going on for a couple of days and not getting any better. My white blood count was out of whack, but the doctors decided that I was severely stresses and not taking good care of myself. They said it’s likely just due to my drinking and that I needed to take time off work. I wasn’t offered an HIV test, but I wish they would have asked me. It’s not like I would have said no,” says Gavin, who always encourages his friends and people in his community to get tested regularly.

HIV Community Link helps me feel “normal”

Gavin was in junior high when he started drinking. “It wasn’t a huge trauma that led me to drink. As a kid, I felt isolated and didn’t really feel that I belonged. Even though I was liked by a lot of people, I was always trying so hard to fit in. I had that feeling of being on the outside all the time,” says Gavin. Drinking “switched” that feeling, he explains, as it worked as a social lubricant. For a few years, he was able to reduce the frequency of his drinking, mostly because of financial constraints. In his teens, Gavin was dating guys in their mid to late 20’s, “because there were no gay friends to talk to or socialize with in my age group”, Gavin explains, adding that it wasn’t a healthy environment for a 16 year old. These older partners encouraged harmful behaviors and Gavin felt he had to validate his worth to them sexually. Gavin has now been in a happy relationship for the last two years.

“Most days, I’m OK. Being committed to helping other people really helps me to stay away from drinking and other behaviors. I volunteer and I am a part of a community that helps high-risk populations, supporting people who are going through the same struggles of being queer. I work with youth, LGTBQ specifically.”

Sharing your experiences with other people who are living with HIV can be very therapeutic, Gavin says. HIV Community Link has helped him be aware of the resources available in the community, and helps him feel “normal” . Meeting other positive people and listening to their experiences has made him understand that his HIV status doesn’t define him. “As much as it is a part of me, being positive isn’t going to be a barrier to achieving anything,” Gavin concludes.

On September 17, Gavin will be walking alongside other HIV Community Link supporters to raise awareness of HIV and funds for HIV programming in his community.

You too can register and fundraise for the Scotiabank AIDS Walk Calgary at scotiabankaidswalk.ca/calgary. Join us today and make a difference!

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