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The AIDS pandemic of the 1980s pushed some people back into the familiarity of the closet but coming out a second time can be transformational.
Paul Coleman is Chair and Co-Founder of the National HIV Story Trust which is dedicated to preserving the stories of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Anyone growing up as a gay man or woman in the 1980s will remember the difficulty of coming out. Those challenges still exist today, but the level of fear, anger and revulsion towards the LGBTQ+ community was on another level.
Coming from a rural community in West Sussex, without the social media we enjoy today, made connecting with the gay community a major struggle. Living with my 'secret' eventually led me into depression at 16, and I started medication.
In my last year at a Catholic school - whose doctrines added to my insecurity - I was outed by a student who knew I had finally slept with a boy. I was called a 'poof' and bullied by others with physical threats.
One close friend told me ‘It’s your funeral Paul' and my 6th Form Head shared his disappointment that I would not be an amazing 'father of many children'.
Coming out to my immediate family was also very traumatic. The reaction was less than positive - although over the years they changed their opinions remarkably.
Not knowing any different, they applied awful stereotypes perpetuated in the media to me, damaging me as a result. I didn’t feel accepted anywhere and was very lonely.
Soon moving to London proved to be my nirvana. I was finally able to be out and proud. I volunteered at the London Gay Switchboard in 1978 and helped lift people out from their isolation and self-loathing with my own experiences.
In this moment life was good, but just as we reached the pinnacle of ‘gay liberation’, it was about to be unexpectedly ripped apart.
The AIDS pandemic represented a hideous interruption of the freedoms I had newly found, and I did not want my sexual, social or political freedoms repressed again. My initial, naïve, approach was to ignore the dangers of infection.
Many of my friends’ behaviours began to change and I assumed this was through fear of the virus – but I now realise they were positive already. Few were open about their status until what was happening to their bodies made it obvious.
Some retreated back into the familiarity of the closet – and I did too when I received my own diagnosis.
Once again we were living in fear, hiding a truth. It was a time when we longed for loving arms to surround us, but we were afraid to reach out and touch.
Even now, many remain in that closet even after 30 or 40 years.
Until recently, my experiences also remained a secret. The losses and the fear of outing myself was sealed inside a box.
It wasn’t until I had a sense that the story of HIV was being forgotten that I unleashed a 40-year tsunami of grief and outrage to a friend one Sunday afternoon.
The foundation was laid for the National HIV Story Trust, a charity which would preserve testimonies forever. We must never forget the incredible story of AIDS.
We have now interviewed more than 120 people about their stories. Many have not spoken about their status so publicly before.
Sharing their experience has been a second coming out, and for some it has proved so transformational they have returned to long neglected interests, or turned their lives around.
It’s not easy, I know. Lots of people remain afraid of revealing the truth about themselves and sadly for some, they have good reasons for feeling that way.
But they must take courage and remember they have an absolute right to be accepted for who they are – and know that there are arms to embrace them out here.
Talking about what we have gone through supports others who do not yet feel ready to share. It helps to destigmatise what it is to live with HIV and empowers all of us to hold more control of our destiny.
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