Novel and writer, Harry Rey was diagnosed with HIV himself ten years ago. To tackle the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDs and the representation of people diagnosed with it in the media, Rey shared his story with the Terrence Higgins Trust “the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity.”
Harry Rey was diagnosed on his 22nd birthday at a time where if you ever had sex again, you could go to prison. At the time, doctors were also against starting treatment immediately. In fact, to get treatment, “You had to wait until your CD4 count dropped below 350, basically until you started to get sick. Every clinic visit was like one more nail, one more mile post along the road to the horrors of ‘the pills.’”
Rey lived through months and years of misery from friends ghosting him to pity dates from the people who were still around. All he really wanted was someone to talk to. He spent night after night trawling online chat rooms that were “buried away in the darkest corners of the early 2000’s internet” just searching for someone like him.
It took years for Rey to learn what undetectable meant. In fact he, like many other people, had never heard to word that had been shrouded by the stigma of HIV. Finally though, he met a researcher who explained to him what undetectable = untransmittable (U=U) means.
“Being undetectable means there is zero risk of transmission to a sexual partner,” Rey explained, “Not almost zero. 0%. It’s an absolute zero. Undetectable = Untransmittable. You can’t pass it on.”
Finding out about U=U “was life changing,” Harry Rey told the Terrence Higgins Trust, “I went straight to the clinic and demanded to start treatment straight away. Just twenty-one pills later, I was undetectable. That’s all it took. The virus in my body was untransmittable. Treatment prevents transmission. Suddenly I no longer felt like a walking bag of used needles. I wasn’t toxic anymore.”
Four years ago, Harry Rey married his husband, who is HIV negative. Just a week after their wedding, Rey finally sat down to do what he’d always dreamt of doing, writing. Not just writing but creating stories that depicted other people like him with HIV/AIDs and he hasn’t stopped since.
“The story closest to my heart is my gay royal romance series The Line of Succession, which is the story of a long-term gay couple dealing with closets and life and love in the public eye,” Rey said, “In the fourth instalment of the series was released on the 16 October, one of the characters is diagnosed with HIV.”
“I wanted to write about a diagnosis from the point of view of how it should be,” the author continued, “The character is fortunate to be diagnosed at the clinic in Dean Street, London, by a doctor who offers reassurance and support. I wanted to imagine what that might be like, and reassure others who have been through it or are afraid to go through it they deserve to be tested and treated in a warm, caring and supportive environment. And that they deserve to be told the truth. While on effective treatment, HIV has no discernible impact on your overall life expectancy.”
Harry explained the importance of telling these stories. He stated, “There is very little representation of U=U in literature and in popular culture, and in gay romance in particular. When HIV does crop up in a story, more often than not it’s a plot twist which does more harm than good. We’re still battling with ignorance and silence. U=U is still hard for many in the medical community to grasp, so no wonder it is harder for the general public and popular culture to understand. Even my publishers who are no strangers to gay romance novels sent me a note thanking me for educating them about the modern realities of HIV in the fourth book of the series.”
“’The story of AIDS used to be told in words of victimhood, of shame, of fear, of vastly shortened life expectancies. But that’s not how HIV positive people live or love. We have our own stories, and it’s about time we tell them.”
You can read Harry Rey’s full story on the Terrence Higgins Trust Facebook where you can also find more information about how to support them, donate and raise money. While Harry Rey’s vast collection of novels and short stories full of LGBTQIA+ characters and positive HIV/ AIDs representation can be found online.