LetsGetChecked is joined by Tonie Walsh to discuss HIV stigma and sex education in schools, his experience with living HIV and how improvements can be made in battling the stigma and shame that continues to hang over the diagnoses.

Tonie Walsh is the co-founder of GCN, or Gay Community News. GCN was founded in 1998 by Walsh and Catherine Glendon. GCN is Ireland’s longest-running LGBT publication.


An Interview With Tonie Walsh On HIV Stigma & Sex Education

Tonie Walsh on HIV Stigma & Sex Education

“I never wanted to be a poster boy for H.I.V or AIDS but I do realize that we’re never going to get anywhere in offsetting a culture of shame and stigma that has boggled it ever since the AIDs crisis began.”

You say you had the compulsion to scream out your status when you found out you are HIV positive. Can you talk me through this moment?

I was 45, I was in deep shock. Here’s the thing, it was a really weird mixture of sanguinity and shock, I was like “Oh this is it, so what? Next!”

On the other hand, I was really annoyed, I was annoyed at becoming positive at 45 years of age because it threw up a real host of potential health issues that I didn’t really know about and that really annoyed me. As someone who is an advocate for sexual health I was ashamed that I became positive at forty f**king five.

“There’s no age you want to be HIV positive. I’m not ashamed of it but i’m not proud of it.”

I did have a compulsion to scream it out, maybe it’s the show off in me but I think it was also about off-loading any sort of potential trauma that had attached itself to me in that moment. I’m not one for dwelling on negatives of anything, you know you make yourself sick.

Do you think sex education in Ireland and further afield is of a high enough standard?

The reason behind so many crisis pregnancies is because we don’t have sex education in our culture that is fit for purpose and we don’t have accessible contraception for those who need it. If you think about it, 25 years ago that it was still illegal to wear a condom.

I still remember them being illegal in the 80s when I was advocating for sexual health during the aids crisis. It’s just nuts. Sexual education culture that’s fit for purpose would absolutely lead to corresponding declines in STIs across the board.

Why do you think sex education in schools continues to leave a lot to be desired?

There’s still a guilt around sex and sexual behaviours that’s informing the stigma. In reality, H.I.V tests should be similar to going to the dentists for a check up.

You should approach getting tested with the same causal attitude, well maybe a dentist is the wrong example because people hate going to the dentist. I love it but you get my point.

We need to normalize STI screenings and we need to remove the stigma around STI screenings, people still equate sexual disease with something shameful when all it is is an occupational hazard.

Has GCN worked to educate the LGBT community in matters of sexual health?

In it’s 30 year history, it was the only significant print media in the republic. There were different magazines in the North but rounds have come and gone over the years.

GCN was born out of the AIDs crisis, my friends were dying in increasing numbers, it was born, literally from the AIDs crisis and it took the horror in our midst really seriously.

There’s been over 30 LGBT print periodicals since 1974 in Ireland and I mean that’s a lot but the thing about GCN, what becomes really apparent about GCN’s is it’s forward thinking reportage of health. They always took the health of the queer nation very seriously and what I mean by health is psychological health, emotional well-being, integrity and sexual health.

At one point they had 3 pages devoted to health which covers everything to psycho-sexual well-being and for a long time it has had a specific H.I.V page. It continues to do that and it continues in the absence of government policies that are not good enough.

The notion that you need to be somehow promiscuous to pick up an STI is rubbish - you and I know that, but of course if people are better educated around sexual health and disease, we’d be able to keep an eye out, see the signals, for symptomatic diseases anyway.

If you are aware of what to look out for, like a canker or a rash, you will be more likely to go get yourself checked rather than just ignoring it and going out and having unprotected sex.

Do you think there is sufficient sex education for younger generations of the LGBT community?

I received my sex education in the 70s. I was simply told this is a penis and this is a vagina . That was the sum total of our sex-ed, this is the penis and this is the vagina and it goes there and that’s it. “Gay” hadn’t even entered our lexicon back in the 1970s, you were lucky if you came across the word bi-sexual or lesbian.

Today I sense an openness and desire especially amongst young people to actually embrace a more accepting attitude toward discussing sex and what comes with it, but I’m impatient. We need to ramp it up, we’re all stakeholders here.

We need to be a bit more proactive and assertive in dragging the country to a new cultural dispensation around how we negotiate this issue, you know. In this day and age, we shouldn’t have rising levels of gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV.

What positive changes has there been in Ireland in taking on a more accepting attitude towards sexual health?

The Repeal the 8th Campaign has made a huge impact.

Here’s the thing, the Netherlands has abortion on demand and it has the lowest rates of abortion worldwide. They have lower rates of teenage pregnancies that we do.

No girl or boy should be having kids in their mid teens, it stunts a woman’s physical growth, they’re still only children, the cost to them and the cost to the government is huge. Children continue to be born into cycles of social poverty, that’s the scenario.

I am hopeful that the repeal the 8th will start something more progressive in Irish society, we have had marriage equality, we have had repeal, now I am hopeful for more. As a society, we’re acknowledging each-other’s concerns in a much more meaningful way than we did before. We’re being a bit more honest about things we would have previously slide under the carpet.

There are more vocal male activists in the area of HIV than women, why do you think this is?

I don’t know why that's the case and I know women who have HIV. I’m not sure why it’s the case that they don’t feel able to talk about it.

Men, gay or hetero are more willing to go on the record and talk about whether or not they are HIV positive. It should be viewed as something like diabetes.

What are the leading causes of HIV?

Poverty is a significant factor in increasing the risk of HIV infection.
Poverty of the mind as well as social poverty, a poverty where people don’t have access to sex education or medicines or clean drinking water, they don’t have access to the fundamentals of proper living and all of that conspires to HIV.

If you’re infected by dirty needles, that’s a result of poor education or lack of access to clean needles. This generational poverty and exclusion is a leading cause. People who live in dire circumstances take drugs because quite frankly, they have nothing else to do.

What is living with HIV like?

It’s fxxking shxt having HIV, nobody should be HIV positive in this day and age. It’s fine now because we can live a reasonably normal life but it’s still shxt, especially as one gets older, it throws up a whole load of health issues.

I take a pill that costs 43 euro everyday, paid for by the government. Imagine if there was a better screening programme, and a better prevention programme.

It costs 80 to 100 quid a month to take a preventative drug called PREP. We should be rolling out PREP to everyone who needs it and anyone who thinks they are engaging in risky or sexual behaviour or don’t have access to condoms.

Something is not working and we have to ask ourselves, we need a critique of the processes that have failed us.

I try not to hold onto anything negative. Stress kills the immune system, lots of cancers are indirectly caused by stress, they are aggravated by a combination of diet and lifestyle. I go for walks up the mountains to relax.

Rory O’ Neill (Panti Bliss) really demystified HIV for me when I was first diagnosed by saying “About Time” - It helped me process it and think, “Next!”

It’s the only way, you need to say next, be positive, say next. Until we put a face to it and we need to have men and women, gay and hetero and trans who are say you know what, I’m positive, “Next!”

Learn More About HIV With Dr. Dominic Rowley

Read: Living with H.I.V.

Written by Hannah Kingston | Approved by Medical Director Dominic Rowley