Nathaniel Hall’s First Time, showing as part of Birmingham’s SHOUT Festival, is a one-man performance piece about contracting HIV during his first sexual encounter, aged just 16. Midlands Zone caught up with Nathaniel to chat about his show and find out more about being positive in a negative world...
Looking back, had you considered the risks of contracting HIV going into your first sexual encounter?
I did know about HIV and AIDS at 16. I’d had a very sketchy sex education, but there was nothing in that education that was relevant to gay men. Section 28 - the legislation Thatcher’s government introduced in 1986, the year I was born - was still in place and stopped schools from talking about homosexuality in a positive manner. This was scrapped in 2003 by the then-Labour government, so I lived all the way through my school life with that legislation. It was actually very difficult for schools to talk about safer sex for gay men because it was a completely different ball game...excuse the pun! The only sex education I had about being gay was a video that our maths teacher, who was completely out of her depth on this subject, showed of a gay man who was dying of Aids. At that time I was trying to make sense of my sexuality, and I was getting this message that gay men just get Aids and die anyway, so what was the point.
So when I met Sam (not his real name), who was the first openly gay person who gave me attention, it was completely intoxicating. All of a sudden there was this rare almost-exotic creature - something I knew inside my head that I was myself, or wanted to be - giving me attention. Plus, he was older. So he was leading the way and guiding me into this world of being gay. So when it came to the sex, I knew what the risks were, but I didn’t necessarily connect them with what was happening.
Even with the very poor straight-sex education we had, there was still no open discussion about sex, or encouragement to talk to your partner before sex, so I didn’t really have the capacity or the self-confidence to suggest trying one thing or another. That relates both to safer sex and just the sex that you want - actually negotiating what you want to do. I was very much aware of the risks, but in a theoretical removed-from-reality kind of way.
What made you get tested?
I went on my last holiday with my parents that summer and I got really, really ill in the second week with a fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. We thought I’d probably eaten something dodgy or caught a virus, and the doctors said the same when I got back home. It did pass, like the doctors said it would. When I started college that autumn, I began getting other symptoms, like soreness, itchiness and discharge downstairs. I started to realise something wasn’t right and went to the clinic for tests.
Back in 2003, HIV was an opt-in test, whereas now it’s opt-out. So it was actually quite easy for me to refuse the HIV test because I was terrified and in denial that it could happen to me. They did all the other tests, but I was presenting with all the signs of HIV and eventually the doctor convinced me to have the test. I probably contracted the virus around June 2003 and was diagnosed two weeks before my 17th birthday - so October 2003.
A lot of people don’t catch it that quick, but it’s so important to be diagnosed as soon as possible. I think it’s really important to know that while I had quite a severe initial illness when first exposed to the virus, and even lost a stone in weight, most people just develop a mild flu and then they bounce back. So that’s why regular testing is so important if you’re sexually active because you probably won’t know you have it from any symptoms.
What was your initial reaction to your diagnosis?
I always describe it as like being hit by a truck. Being diagnosed was a very traumatic experience. At 16 it was particularly scary. I remember crying a lot. In 2003, being diagnosed meant you were told you had a prognosis of 37 years. I was unfortunate because I was right at the end of the time where that was the information which was given out. Not long afterwards, they wouldn’t have said that because HIV healthcare is constantly changing and improving. But I was told my HIV was a fatal illness and that there was a figure you could place on that. To be confronted with your own mortality at 16 is very traumatic.
How long did it take for you to tell others about your diagnosis, and how did they react?
I did tell partners. I went into another relationship not long after my diagnosis. That relationship lasted eight years and he remained HIV-negative but knew my status. I told some friends too, but it was very much on a need-to-know basis. I kept it secret and didn’t tell my family. It was 14 years later, so 2017, when I went public with my status. I think I had a little bit of a mental breakdown in 2017.
I joke in the show that I did a Britney, but I thankfully didn’t shave off my hair! I was in a bad relationship, I was partying too much, my work was suffering and my mental health also. I wasn’t looking after myself properly, but it seemed like I was living my best queer life. In First Time you meet me at this point. I catch myself in the mirror two days after a house party - still having not slept and living in my dressing gown - and I don’t recognise myself anymore. That’s when I decided that something needed to change, so I actually started writing stuff for the show before I told anyone because I just needed to start processing it.
Then I applied for a commission at Waterside Arts in Greater Manchester and, unexpectedly, I was successful. I realised I needed to finally tell my family; so I told my mum, dad, two older brothers and sister via a letter. The response was really underwhelming. My family were all so loving and supportive. I think the power of the stigma surrounding it and the shame of being HIV+ stopped me from being able to say it for so long, even though I couldn’t have expected my family to react in any other way than they did.
What’s been the biggest hurdle that you’ve had to overcome since being exposed to the virus?
The biggest hurdle is definitely mental; for most people the physical effects of HIV are very manageable. Medications are highly effective, and most people find a combination that works for them and their lifestyle. I think it was really highlighted for me by a magazine headline that read something like, ‘I got HIV at 16, but it was the stigma not the virus that led me to breaking point’. That’s the crux of the matter; a confident, openly gay man like myself took 14 years to say out loud that I was HIV+ - and to say it with absolutely no shame whatsoever. It’s a virus and I caught it. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t his fault. It just happened. The ongoing emotional trauma is still there from that, but it’s about overcoming that self-blame that comes with being HIV+.
I know a lot of other people who live with HIV, and the way they contracted it is very different to how I did, but I can tell you across the board that every single one of them has said they feel ashamed. Me coming out and saying it paves the way for others to do the same, breaking stigma down so that people don’t feel a sense of shame about having the virus.
Is there less stigma surrounding being HIV+ now than when you found out about your positive status?
I think in the gay community we’re light years ahead in terms of talking about sex, being sex positive, talking about STIs. That’s not to say that there isn’t still stigma and discrimination within our own community, because there is. I’ve faced that on dating apps and with people trolling me online. But I think there’s a revolution happening. My HIV community is gaining in confidence. We’ve known for a long time that we are not the problem; the people who know they’re HIV+ are not the people passing it on. Now we categorically know that undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U). If you’re on effective medication and your viral load is undetectable, which means it’s less than 40 copies per mm cubed of blood, you cannot pass the virus on.
In terms of HIV, I’m the safest person you can have sex with because you’re guaranteed not to contract it. That’s a revolution in terms of fighting stigma and misinformation. There’s scientific proof, and that gives me a confidence to challenge people who don’t believe the HIV+ community. I think it’s great that we’ve had some high-profile people go public. Lloyd Russell-Moyes announced in the House of Commons that he’s HIV+. Then we had Gareth Thomas. Unfortunately he was forced to say it, which is definitely more evidence of stigma and discrimination. But he’s really going on to inspire a lot of other people now. I’m waiting for a high-profile woman to come out and say they’re HIV+ because I think that would really help too.
When did you decide you wanted to take your story to the stage?
A few friends of mine - other solo and performance artists - had been telling me for a long time that my story needed to be told. Also, I do a lot of work with helping people tell their stories at other theatre companies and organisations - painful or difficult stories in particular. I sometimes ask people to do quite radical things, so I decided I needed to practise what I preach. Then, despite the fact I wasn’t open about my status, I was doing a lot of public speaking on behalf of the George House Trust - a HIV charity in Manchester. I’m on their Positively Speaking Programme, and we go out to schools, staff-training days and GP surgeries to tell our stories about living with HIV so that we can help and educate people from the patient’s perspective. I was carefully managing where I was doing that so that I wasn’t found out, but seeing the power of people saying it out loud really encouraged me to do the same.
A lot of people we spoke to for the programme had never met, or knowingly met, someone who’s HIV+, so it was about them realising that we are exactly the same as any other person, with the same hopes, ambitions and fears. That was hugely powerful, and it made me realise that doing First Time was really important. The act of performing my story is what’s important for me, so that people living with HIV can see other people standing up and saying it without shame.
And how would you describe First Time?
Some reviewers have described it as ‘hilarious and heartbreaking in equal measure’, ‘a joy to watch and a total cry-fest’ and ‘an emotional tumble drier’. That last one especially is a really strange but great way of putting it. The show is very funny. I think there’s humour hidden in even the darkest places, and you’re never too far from a laugh in First Time. It also has fabulous storytelling, some bad drag, audience participation and moments of quiet reflection, but it ends in a really hopeful place. No one will go away feeling too emotionally drained afterwards because it’s really important to me that my audience has a space in which to feel positive about the future. Although my story is predominantly a HIV+ gay man’s story, the show is universal in many other ways.
A lot of people come away and find that the show has really touched them, regardless of whether they identify as a gay male or not. It has really strong ties with parenting and relationships with children; it has some banging noughties soundtracks too - so if you’re nostalgic for that era, you definitely won’t be disappointed! It’s funny, educational and really moving. I’d be thrilled to see Midlands Zone readers there.
How did you get involved with SHOUT Festival?
I met Adam Carver at an LGBTQ+ artist networking event. That was around the time when I was doing the show in Waterside. But he couldn’t make it, so I asked him to come see it at Edinburgh Fringe. But given the response the show had already received in 2018, Adam wanted to book it despite not having seen it, which is very trusting! I’m absolutely delighted to be a part of SHOUT. Actually, the show is a little bit after the festival is supposed to end, so it’s very kind of them to still include me.
If you could get just one message out there for World Aids Day (1 December), what would it be?
If you’ve been recently diagnosed as HIV+, I would say you need to reach out and talk to other people who are going through the same experience. Don’t do what I did. Don’t isolate yourself, put it in a box on the shelf and forget about it because it will catch up with you at some point, even if you think you’re coping with it. Talk to other people, ask questions and share your experiences with one another. I would always advise people to be open about their HIV status. I understand that I’m in a position of privilege in terms of being safe to be open about it, and I completely understand why that isn’t an option for others. But if you can be that person who opens up about it and stands up and says ‘I’m HIV+’, then do so. For me, it’s been a positive experience on the whole. But most of all, be kind to yourself and seek out help and support when you need it.
And what’s your response to National HIV Testing Week, which starts on 16 November?
I’m an advocate for each individual making their own informed choices when it comes to sex. I think it’s really important for people to choose the right way to practise safer sex for themselves. Obviously the most effective way to prevent HIV and other STIs is to abstain from sex, which a lot of people really don’t see as an option! Then there’s condoms that stop most sexually transmitted infections, but it’s only about 83% effective at stopping HIV transmission in gay men. They’re not 100% effective, but they’re still a really good tool.
Now we also have PREP, which, if taken preemptively, can stop you contracting HIV before you’re exposed to the virus. There’s also PEP, which can be taken for 72 hours after exposure, to stop HIV. There’s a lot of criticism around the drugs because there’s a lot of slut-shaming going on, with claims being made that people are just taking these drugs and then going out and sleeping around. Taking PREP means that you have to go see a doctor every six months to get checked for HIV, which I think is always positive because you’re engaging with sexual health clinics and taking responsibility for your sexual health.
People are saying that these drugs mean the gay community is having more sex, but I think that’s only a great thing! To have loads of sex without fear is amazing! I think the connection being made between sexually transmitted infections and the amount of sex people are morally allowed to have - which doesn’t even exist - is ridiculous. Engage with your local sexual health service and ask the nurses what the best plan of attack is for you. Then you can talk about that with your partner(s) to decide what you want and don’t want sexually, and how best to protect yourselves and each other. Talk, talk, talk! And get tested!
Nathaniel Hall’s First Time is at the Old Joint Stock Theatre, Birmingham, on Thursday 21 & Friday 22 November. The show is part of SHOUT Festival of Queer Arts & Culture.
Coinciding with National HIV Testing Week, the Friday performance will include a post-show discussion with Dr David White from the Birmingham Heartlands HIV Service.
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