Baring all about HIV and U=U

Wednesday 2 January 2019 marks the 12th anniversary of my HIV diagnosis. In this interview to accompany the latest HIV Stripped Bare photo shoot, I reflect on what’s changed — and what hasn’t — in my first dozen years living with the virus.

  • This article features partial nudity and might not be suitable for viewing at work or in public places.
Photos © Chris Jepson

About me

Name: Ant Babajee
Age: 40
Occupation: CRM Manager and student of MSc Applied Public Health
Years living with HIV: About 12 — I was diagnosed in January 2007
Are you undetectable? Yes — and unashamedly so! I’ve been undetectable since 2010.

My photo in the first HIV Stripped Bare issue of FS magazine — photos © Chris Jepson

Why did you decide to take part in the photo shoot?

I took part in the first HIV Stripped Bare shoot back in 2014 and really enjoyed it. I even had quite a few compliments about my bum when the pictures were published. A former colleague saved it up until my last day in that job to tell me (over drinks) that she’d seen the photos — haha!

Anyway, when the opportunity came around again, I thought: why not? Also, we don’t see too many gay South Asian faces (and bodies) in health promotion campaigns — I’m mixed race and my Dad is from Mauritius — so here I am!

So much has changed in HIV prevention since 2014. Four years ago, PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] hadn’t really become a thing in Britain. It’s made such a huge difference to the lives of many of my friends. Although we’d known for years that HIV treatment worked really well for prevention, we needed more data from research studies among serodifferent couples [one partner is negative and the other is undetectable] to prove conclusively that undetectable equals untransmittable. It was so exciting when the results of the PARTNER and the Opposites Attract studies were announced — zero transmissions between the partners. As long as I stay undetectable I know I can’t pass on HIV — no ifs, no buts. U=U is scientific fact.

Baring all again: my photo in the 2018 HIV Stripped Bare issue of FS magazine — photos © Chris Jepson

How did you find the photo shoot?

I’m pretty comfortable with my body and I’m also a bit of an exhibitionist, so I found the shoot liberating. Chris Jepson is a great photographer, so I wasn’t too nervous.

Have you experienced stigma because of your status? If so, what happened?

Some of the worst stigma I’ve faced has come from two sources who should have known so much better. My first HIV consultant told me that I wasn’t the sort of person he had expected to receive a positive diagnosis. At the time, I let this pass — I’m not sure I knew what to say — but I know now that’s a deeply stigmatising attitude to have. I think stigma is holding back some HIV doctors and nurses from telling their patients about U=U. Just as there’s zero risk of HIV transmission if someone is undetectable and keeps taking their meds, there’s also zero excuse for positive people not to be told about it.

Gay men can often be the worst perpetrators of stigmatising attitudes towards HIV. Yes, I get that you’re scared about getting HIV. I was too when I was negative. But by not informing yourself of the risks, and by treating positive guys — and negative guys on PrEP — like crap, you are the problem — not us!

How do you deal with stigma?

I’m someone who likes to see the best in people, and so I think often people only say the wrong thing unintentionally. So, when I’m faced with stigma I try to calmly explain to the other person why they’re wrong. I only get frustrated when the person I’m talking to doesn’t want to listen or refuses to accept scientific evidence.

The 2018 HIV Stripped Bare shoot features not only guys living with HIV but also guys taking PrEP — photos © Chris Jepson

Do you think stigma against people living with HIV has got better or worse over the past few years?

I think stigma has got better — and it’s great to see more positive gay role models now. But the sad thing is that stigma around the virus is still so widespread. After all, HIV is just a virus that we can prevent and treat effectively. Anything else is stigma.

What would you like a negative person to know about you and your status?

I’m really open about my status — did I say that I’m unashamedly undetectable‽ The thing is I know I’m lucky — I have an amazingly supportive and loving family (even though I’m the wayward child), a great circle of friends, and brilliant colleagues at work who don’t bat an eyelid about my status. But not everyone living with HIV who you meet will feel anything like that. They may feel a lot of shame and guilt about their status. Help them to cast off that shame by treating them with love and respect.

For me personally, U=U is so empowering and liberating. I’m currently starting out with a guy who’s HIV negative and we both know that he’s safe from the virus, whatever we get up to between the sheets. He doesn’t have to feel guilty or worried about the sex we have, and I don’t have to feel nervous about it either. The fear about HIV has gone for both of us.

As a student, I can’t think of many areas of public health that are so exciting, where we now have the biomedical tools to make such a difference to so many people’s lives. We just need gay men — HIV positive as well as negative — to take the U=U message to heart.

In 2017 I was one of the HIV-positive guys who was featured in The Undetectables video

How do you think we can eradicate HIV stigma?

I’m really hopeful about HIV and HIV stigma. People living with the virus are people at the end of the day — we just happen to have a virus that means we need to take daily medication to keep it under control. The day I got my HIV diagnosis back in 2007 I didn’t suddenly become a completely different person. The virus did lead me over time to try to improve things for others — that’s why I speak out about HIV and why I get my kit off from time to time! You can do something to make our community the best it can be.

HIV facts:

  • HIV [Human Immunodeficiency Virus] attacks the immune system and weakens the body’s ability to fight diseases.
  • Antiretroviral medication — also called ARVs, combination therapy, or HIV treatment — lowers the amount of the virus in the blood to undetectable levels, which stops it from damaging the immune system, and means it cannot be passed on to other people.
  • HIV treatment is now extremely effective and easier to take than ever before. Many people take just one or a few pills once a day.
  • A person with HIV should live just as long as an HIV-negative person — especially if they are diagnosed early and begin treatment.
  • There is still a great deal of stigma about HIV. Stigma is damaging as it prevents people from getting tested, from accessing treatment and from living a happy and healthy life.
  • Aids [Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome] can develop when HIV damages the immune system to such an extent that it can no longer fight off a range of often rare infections it would normally be able to cope with. In the UK, the term ‘late-stage HIV’ is now generally used as it is much less stigmatising. HIV treatment stops the virus from damaging a person’s immune system.
  • HIV cannot be passed on through casual or day-to-day contact. It cannot be transmitted through kissing, spitting, or sharing a cup, plate or toilet seat.

Unashamedly undetectable: ex-BBC journo, uni marketer by day, HIV campaigner and public health master’s student by night