BY TOBY PORTER
Andy Bates agonised for months about whether to tell his parents he is gay. When he was a teenager, he dated girls and tried to live a different way.
But eventually, he began to live a secret life. He admits he was reckless – and that he did not take enough care of himself. So two years ago, he realised he had to tell them.
Within six months of that, he had to give them the news he had been diagnosed as HIV positive.
The support worker from West Norwood need not have worried. Because now, they are proud of him. And what parent would not be – Andy, now 24, is spreading the message that HIV is not a death sentence, urging other people to take care and be tested regularly, so others do not have to receive the shock news he did.
He will do the Big Half half marathon from Tower Bridge to the Cutty Sark in Greenwich on March 4, hoping to raise more than £2,000 for HIV charity the Terence Higgins Trust. The student, who is studying occupational therapy at London South Bank University, is now probably healthier than he has ever been, he believes.
And he has also talked to recently-engaged Prince Harry at the launch of a Terence Higgins pop-up shop. He is also spreading the message about testing, on World Aids Day, last Friday.
“My mum and dad are overwhelmed,” he said. “Mam’s first thought was “Oh no, Aids!” She thought I was going to get Aids and die.
“But over the last two years her and my dad have become something of advocates for HIV, they’ve told their colleagues and friends, who then donated.
“We talk about how I am just a kid from a small town near Sunderland. They go – ‘Look, there’s our Andrew on TV again’.
“They are telling all their friends.
“It is amazing to reflect on how far I have come in those two years.
“I am able to say to people there is no reason to be upset about being diagnosed as HIV positive.
“If I can’t talk about it, no one would be able to – and nothing will change. I have a great family and a good network of friends. I can tell my story to help others in a similar situation.
And they can see it is OK – that there is a light at the end of the diagnosis.”
Coming out to his parents was hard. “I was out to my friends before that – and my mum and dad knew anyway,” he said. “But we just hadn’t had that conversation.
“I had identified as straight – had relationships with girls. Then I started living a secret life, meeting guys, being the person I wanted to be.
“But I also engaged in risky behaviour, not protecting myself. It was my fault – I did not use condoms. I did not want to be gay. But then I finally came to terms with it.
“When I was diagnosed, even I was uneducated about it. he hardest thing about living with HIV is other peoples’ perceptions.”
The revelation came in 2015 after he couldn’t shake off flu-like symptoms and went to see his GP. “I’d been feeling under-the-weather for a few weeks but initially shrugged it off,” he said.
He realised it might be something more serious when red blotches appeared on his skin and he began suffering from throat ulcers.
“I went to my GP with a bad throat and left with a leaflet about HIV and instructions to book an appointment with a sexual health clinic.
“I didn’t even consider HIV but knew something was up when I went in for the test results and found two doctors and a health care worker waiting for me.
“I’m a naturally optimistic person but it was tough telling both my parents and my new boyfriend who might have caught HIV.”
Andrew traced the infection back to unprotected sex before meeting his current partner who was subsequently given the all clear and stood by him.
He said: “My knowledge of HIV prior to being infected was practically non-existent because no-one thinks it is going to happen to them, do they? And – touch wood – my HIV will never turn into Aids.
“The two are so unrelated. But it was a big education.
“It had such negative connotations – like it was a dirty disease. But now, I am walking down the street, and no one will know I am HIV.
“I am healthier than I have ever been. Since the diagnosis, I have started going to the gym, doing yoga and stopped drinking – I would not have made those changes without the diagnosis.
“Even my support worker only told me to tell two people, she warned me “once it’s out, it’s out”, so I did feel a little kicked back into the closet, so to speak. ‘If I did only tell two people, then nothing changes does it? ‘HIV stays a taboo, it stays a dirty secret.”
Andrew, who takes two pills a day to manage his condition, is now in the second year of his course, working with adolescents with mental health issues.
“There is a lot going on, and it’s all positive,” he said. “I am not ashamed any more. Now I can say I am fine – I am not going to die. And I have made a conscious decision to tell everyone that.”
He met Prince Harry at the opening of a pop-up shop in Hackney on November 15.
Andy said: “Despite our conversation being closely filmed, recorded and intently listened to, the discussion that I had with Prince Harry was genuine.
“I had prepared multiple points that I thought would be interesting to talk to Prince Harry about – about how I was diagnosed and the importance of an early diagnosis – however the topic quickly strayed into much more personal areas, which despite being barely prepared for, I was absolutely honoured to talk about. It felt extremely easy to open up about the areas of my life that I rarely talk about with close friends or family due to the Prince being such an engaging individual.
“He seems to genuinely care about the work that hdoes and the people that he speaks to, so it was my pleasure to open up about areas such as coming out as gay, the struggle of coming to terms with having HIV and the idea of living the rest of your life with a chronic illness. Not only was this conversation therapeutic for myself, but being able to discuss such matters with an individual in such high places was exactly what I aimed to achieve, and more, when I spoke out about my HIV diagnosis and decided to campaign for the Terrence Higgins Trust.”
Doctors stress the importance of people knowing that HIV is treatable with medication and those infected can live long healthy lives. Andrew added: “I was diagnosed relatively early before anything more serious developed and would encourage anyone in any doubt to get tested.
“The support and treatment I initially received was great and, as a result of lifestyle changes, I feel fitter and stronger than I did when I was younger. It might sound odd, but in many ways, HIV saved my life.”
It’s estimated that there are 107,800 people living with HIV in the UK. Nearly a quarter don’t know that they’re infected. Forty per cent of people carrying HIV live in London.
The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. The virus often has no symptoms and the longer it is left untreated, the more damage it can do to your health.
Free home test kits are now available for HIV via www.test.hiv