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I was born and raised in a very multicultural Western Sydney as part of a conservative family of five boys. I’m in the middle, with two older brothers and two younger brothers. Our cultural background is from a northern middle-east area of Eurasia.

We were all taught to read and write in the language of our culture and also bought up with the whole gamut of our religion, which was adhered to from Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. My father was a very strong Catholic, and decided that he was actually going to create the first church in Western Sydney. So that’s what he ended up doing. He established two churches in Western Sydney, and then a school and a church at Kellyville. He was also the treasurer of our local church. So, you can imagine!

All my brothers are married with children, so yes, basically I’m the black swan, if you want to call it that. You’ve heard of the middle kid syndrome? The one that’s mostly neglected? Yeah, I think I preferred it that way. I grew up in an era where HIV was stigma, and in the back of my mind, it’s still there. That goes with even sexual activity and things of that nature.

I’ve always brushed the HIV under the carpet and never really addressed it in terms of sharing it with immediate family. I wonder what will that achieve? Will it actually mean any particular support? Is it going to be a point of ridicule? Is it going to be something that’s shamed? It’s all of that kind of thought process that goes through my mind.

Recently, I had a triple bypass in April. As part of that recovery process, my mother insisted that I come and stay in my single bedroom that I had for many, many years. Even though I like my independence, I couldn’t get out there fast enough!

My niece, Rachel, decided she was going to take ownership of my ten medicines including diabetes, cholesterol and so on, to make sure it was all sorted for me. Rachel is my brother’s daughter. I pulled her under my wing when she was younger, because her mother and father were constantly working, and basically educated her. Otherwise, she would have grown up completely conservative. For example, she knew I was gay from a very young age.

So, as she was going through my medications, she asked, ‘what was this medicine for? With that, my HIV status was disclosed.

And she just ran with it. She said, ‘oh, okay’ and wasn’t fazed. She’s very savvy. All she said was ‘well, that’s your gig, you can deal with that. Clearly, you don’t want anyone to be informed.’ So she hasn’t shared it or informed anyone else, I think, out of sheer respect for me, because she grew up around me. I’m completely comfortable for Rachel to know about my HIV status and leave it at that. She’s got a lot of respect for me, so she wouldn’t necessarily disclose that.

After my mother passed three months later in July, I’ve thought if I’d told her, it wouldn’t have achieved anything positive for her. Bringing it up with family is not going to achieve a great deal. So that’s why I’ve kept it to myself, and besides, it’s something that’s very personal. Even coming out as gay, for example, that was a really difficult thing for me to do as well. So when it comes to the status of my HIV, I put the stop sign there, because I knew how difficult that was being gay, let alone having HIV as well.

I was twenty-six when I was diagnosed with HIV. Oh, it was a huge shock! I think my world stood still. I didn’t necessarily have a huge support network at the time. And of course, there was contemplation of self-mutilation and suicide and all of that. I was going through a fairly dark time, and felt everything was going against me in terms of my health and so by that stage I reminded myself I had to stay positive. Mentally I mean, yeah. I went through that era, where a lot of my friends…well, I went to a lot of funerals, put it that way. Quite a few.

I think it was the Albion Street Clinic which had an offshoot clinic that actually provided support in those early days, which we really didn’t have. So I kind of leaned on them. Growing up in Western Sydney, there wasn’t a huge support network at all. Particularly, we’re talking pre-internet. I had some horrific circumstances with support in the general community. Based on my experiences, I wasn’t really leaning towards counselling services.

Western Sydney needed a lot more services and resources which were based here in the city. So I had to travel down from Cabramatta into the city, anytime I wanted to go for entertainment, anytime I wanted any support, anything on a social level, so it was kind of restrictive in that regard.

In those early times, ‘92, ‘93, ‘94, a lot of men just did not have sex during that time, because we were unsure how HIV/AIDS was contracted. Combination therapy didn’t come in until ‘96. I remember taking my first medication with AZT in particular, and it really does throw you around.

Thankfully, my body was able to actually cope. I also tried self-injections with another piece of medication that was on trial. I injected myself constantly for a good year, and thankfully, they eventually put it in tablet form. I mean, even to this very day I can still feel a lump in that site that’s still bad and is never going to go away.

In that time, we didn’t have the internet either. The sort of information we were desperate for was not readily available. It was only if you had a GP that was familiar with the processes and medications and therapies, then you were lucky.

I was one of the luckier ones with my GP, and we didn’t try medication for at least two years actually. I basically sat on my status for two years, and then he said, ‘well, your T-cell count is really low, let’s try something’. So yeah, he was very good. He’s recently retired.

I’ve never had any hospitalisation whatsoever with my HIV status. I’ve been very fortunate in terms of how my body can actually cope with it. So I’ve been very grateful in that regard. But yeah, the only thing that got me into hospital was a triple bypass. That’s only because I had type two diabetes and high cholesterol and all of that sort of stuff. So, HIV didn’t get me. Go figure, right?

For me, HIV is one of those things that are very personal, so I’ve never disclosed it. In fact, I only disclose it with my partners. Aside from that, no one really knows.

I don’t disclose that information at work. I don’t disclose any information on a social level. I just think it’s no one’s business. I think that’s the main reason why disclosure was never high on my priority list. I’m the one that’s living with it, I’m the one that’s coping with it, I’m the one who has to manage it. Realistically, telling my mother, or my siblings, whatever the case may be, it’s just not one of my priorities. It just wasn’t an issue. And it’s not because of the stigma.

It’s basically because I’m a very private person. Right? I mean, if people ask, then I’ll be honest and tell them of course. I’ve had work situations where people have actually asked me, ‘are you gay?’ I’m like, ‘yes, of course. Why?’ They say, ‘just curious. That’s all. Just curious.’ Okay. So that sort of conversation still occurs with people who are much older, and never occurs with the younger generation. I feel as if the generations coming through are more open minded as well.

Today, I’m in touch with all my brothers. We still have a good relationship. Great. Even though both my parents have passed. Yeah, I think when you’ve got a negative situation, you’ve got to turn it into a positive. I think I’ve used that kind of philosophy throughout my life, you know, when you get something thrown at you, that’s going to impact you in a negative way, I think you’ve got to turn it around and make sure you either change it or accept that. For me, most times I have to accept it. I guess being a Taurean, as well, I’m very practical. So I take things on a practical level and look at them.

Logically, I look at them, you know, ethically, politically, you know, I take all of that into account.

So I think it’s important to actually establish personal standards as I think I’ve gone through life just doing that.

— Austin

Published in Talkabout #207 December 2023

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