Over six months ago. After meeting with David Pendlebury and the MAD Trust. I found myself in the wings of the Dominion Theatre holding a collection of cue cards to share that I was HIV+ with my friends, family and the industry that I passionately love and work in. My heart was racing and my mouth was dry. I was truly terrified. But not by the enormous audience that I was about to address, but by the thoughts that were going through my head that had led me to this night.
I thought about the time I was diagnosed in a sterile little room in Southwark, how the nurse’s voice changed before he told me the results of my rapid HIV test, how like in a dream I was ushered from one room to another, blood being taken and appointments being made to start my treatment and new regime., Then in a daze, I went straight from that test to celebrate the end of AS IS (the first AIDS play by William M. Hoffman) which ran at the Finborough Theatre. How I arrived at my co-producer’s house (Andrew Harmer) and uttered to him for the first time in my life, “I’m HIV+”. Then joined my beautiful cast with a faux smile as they casually asked, “do you think anyone got tested because of the play?”. All I could answer them with was, “I know they did”. And disappear occasionally for a private sob, wipe the tears away and pour another glass of wine.
I thought about the partners that I had to speak to when I found out. The immense amount of shame and fear I had that I may have ignorantly passed on this horrific virus to people I intimately cared for. I thought about the people I told who now no longer speak to me who once I shared my bed with.
I thought about the hundreds of times I had been in a social situation and friends had casually made AIDS jokes. Even wishing HIV on strangers in bars because of how they looked. Often those evenings I had been plucking up the courage to tell them what I had. So many times I was too scared of how they would look at me.
I thought about when I first told my mum and sister that I had the virus running through my veins and how much I didn’t want it. And they told me, “we love you – virus and all”.
I thought about how people would view me. Was I about to commit professional and personal suicide? Was I now going to be ‘that Andrew Keates guy with HIV’ and everything I have relentlessly created would now become secondary to this fucking virus? Would someone now be frightened to kiss me on a drunken night out? Would someone be frightened to love me because it’s easier to be with someone who is negative? Was I now on a scrap head for a reason that is often only thought, but many dare to utter. I suppose a little like racism.
Then Richard Gauntlett the MC uttered those words I’ve heard all my life, “Mr Andrew Keates”. I walked out to a sea of people and a great cheer, then underneath a devastating rumble of boos. I so very nearly ignored everything I had planned to say and instead improvised how we should support the MAD Trust and kept quiet about my status. But I didn’t.
I said what I said because I have no secrets. Say what you like about me, I’ll never lie to you and I’ll always tell you anything you want to know. Just ask.
I wanted everyone to get tested and to challenge the stigma surrounding HIV. I wanted everyone to know that regardless of what I have, the virus is everywhere. And it’s not passed on by medicated folk like myself, it’s passed on by those who don’t get tested and think they’re untouchable. I’m aware I can be a little arrogant, which is why maybe some felt it necessary to boo, but I ask this, what is more arrogant than sleeping around and never thinking it necessary to get tested? To make jokes when you don’t even know your status. To judge, when you don’t know the facts. To heckle a 28 year old who is opening his heart for the good of those that are listening.
Since this extraordinary night, I must have received between 2-3K messages of people reaching out and saying thank-you, or that they’ve been tested, that they’ve given money to the MAD Trust, that they have a friend who they’d like me to meet for coffee or that they just need some help. Literally thousands of people either saying thank-you or tragically… help. I’ve answered every single message and will continue to do so.
I’m only one person. But I will keep on fighting, so that one day we will stop this incessant prejudice and ignorance that comes with this virus. As I said in the speech, ‘it’s hard enough’. What can you do today that might make things easier?
Thank you for reading this. Please share and let’s make a difference by being open about the facts of HIV and the fear so many of us are faced with everyday that does not come from the virus, but comes from those who are all around us.
“Mr. Andrew Keates”