In this week’s installment, gay businessman and philanthropist Philip Baldwin talks about shame, HIV and Hep C.
My diagnosis as HIV positive came as shocking news. I visited the STD clinic over lunch and suppressed my emotions before returning to the office. I hid the news from my colleagues at work. That night I slept fine. The next day I had to deal with platitudes regarding the commute or the grey weather. I panicked and, overwhelmed by emotions, hid in an adjacent office. Crying, I called some of my friends for support, but I didn’t dare tell anyone at work.
Over the next week I had to make excuses to attend doctors’ appointments. I went to the specialist HIV clinic and at my first appointment was informed that I was co-infected with Hep C. I was petrified that what I had worked so hard for would be undermined. At work I had two wonderful gay supervisors, but I felt I couldn’t tell them or confide generally. I was concerned that there would be misunderstandings about my health and I didn’t want to place them in an awkward position. Secrets, by their very nature, are burdensome. I thought it would be unfair to ask my supervisors to keep this secret on my behalf.
In the straight community and, especially in the workplace, I felt shame surrounding my HIV. In the gay community I always encountered acceptance regarding my HIV status.
“Having to behave furtively surrounding my HIV reinforced the negative connotations of my illness, perpetuating a sense of shame.”
For a number of years I was too frightened to tell my employer I was HIV positive or Hep C positive. I work for a Magic Circle law firm, who, it turned out, have been supportive regarding my HIV and Hep C diagnoses. They helped me to overcome a difficult period in my life.
HIV stigma and visibility is a real issue, especially in the workplace where there is often a reluctance to talk about this. One of the goals for my forthcoming autobiography Positive Damage is to challenge perceptions surrounding HIV, so that HIV positive people and their employers feel more comfortable engaging in debate. In this way HIV positive people can be supported appropriately, to perform at their peak and contribute to a diverse and happy workforce.
I felt I had to be secretive and therefore perceived myself as alienated from my work colleagues. Having to behave furtively surrounding my HIV reinforced the negative connotations of my illness, perpetuating a sense of shame. I was so disheartened that I would hide in the bathroom to cry, lying in a foetal position, my loafers pressed against the cubicle door.
In the final months of 2012 my CD4 count plunged. I was open with the partnership at my work from then. By the beginning of 2013, I was completely open in the workplace. They have been supportive and it was with their support that I was able to get through this difficult period in my life. The acceptance I received from my colleagues in the workplace was like a second coming out.
One of the most amazing things to emerge from my diagnoses is that I was encouraged to look outwards. I became more active in terms of my charitable commitments. I started to host for the Terrence Higgins Trust Supper Club in 2010 and I do a lot of work with Stonewall and the Albert Kennedy Trust. In this way I was able to take ownership of my illnesses, rebuilding my confidence by helping others. I am full of hope and optimism for the future. Every gay man has their own journey with shame. The process by which I came to terms with my HIV and Hep C in the context of the workplace was not easy. It takes a while for anyone to grow into a happy and confident individual. I am now a proud gay, HIV positive and Hep C positive man.