Russell: An Outreach Ambassador for the Positive Allies Charter Mark
So why Positive Allies and why do I volunteer as an outreach ambassador?
I grew up in a society that was mostly homophobic, where simply being ‘different’ was not an option. Homophobia was rife in the 70s, 80s and the 90s and still prevalent today. So, growing up back then was not without problems. Mostly feelings of not belonging, isolation, being different, secretive, not knowing who to trust, no role models and not having a voice. This has left many scars which as an adult (in my 50’s) I have only recently discovered is the route of my anxiety and sometimes bouts of depression.
I was diagnosed in 2014 at 44 years of age. This was devastating to me as I had only really had long term relationships, so it wasn’t something I was overly concerned about. I had forgotten I had taken the test, so the result was a shock to say the least. I had known PLWHIV throughout my early adult life and thought I was pretty much ‘in the know’, turned out I was not. I knew pretty much nothing about it at all, despite dating someone with HIV.
I met Roland Chesters at a HIV retreat for the newly diagnosed in 2015. Here I met people of all ages, genders, race, religion and people with very different backgrounds and experience to my own. I learnt many things about HIV and heard some really heart-breaking stories direct from the people who had experienced it. My heart was touched.
During the first year following my diagnosis, I struggled, I struggled a lot. I struggled with all the feelings and emotions from my youth, and I quote ‘feelings of not belonging, isolation, being different, secretive, not knowing who to trust, no role models and not having a voice’ I hated this most of all but little did I realise it would be these exact feelings that would drive me and give me focus on wanting to challenge attitudes and try to limit, as much as I could people experiencing the same emotions. I had much support from family and friends at this time so I finally had a voice, I could use this voice to face HIV stigma head on. I can be the person you can trust, I can be the sympathetic ear, the voice of reason and offer knowledge, understanding and compassion. But how would I achieve this and what would this consist of?
A few years later I came across Positive Allies via a comment from Roland on a HIV support group we were both members of. I began advocating for Positive Allies initially by contacting my own employer, National Grid. Who went on the to become the first utility company in the world to gain the charter mark. I also asked friends if they could put me in touch some with someone from their company and thus the advocating had begun. I joined the Positive Allies training and although I had been diagnosed for around 7 years, there was still much I wasn’t aware of so I learnt a great deal more. I now had furthered my knowledge to go with my voice and also a ‘lived experience’ to share to help raise awareness.
Sharing my ‘lived experience’ seems to resonate with people, it gives HIV a face, a person, it humanises the disease, just as it did for me at the newly diagnosed weekend. I have shared this experience with various companies across the UK, which, despite my anxiety and fear of public speaking I have happily attended, and the speeches have been received well with people thanking me for being honest and open and raising awareness of the some of the issues PLWHIV encounter.
Positive Allies has allowed me to speak up for others who are unable to, to show other PLWHIV there is nothing to feel ashamed about, that we can live a happy and fulfilled life and we do not need to hide ourselves away. It has allowed me to share real life experiences with people who may not have spoken with or listened to someone living with HIV. It has allowed me to feel that I can make a difference in helping to eradicate the stigma by talking openly about by HIV status and being proud of who I am today. To help bring compassion and understanding to the disease. To share the knowledge I now possess. It has given me far more than I could have expected or ever foreseen.