HIV-positive man goes public to fight stigma

SINGAPORE - Avin Tan has HIV, and he wants you to know it.

The 27-year-old told The Sunday Times that he hopes to show that people living with HIV can lead normal lives.

He also wants to fight for the rights of the HIV-positive community, and believes this should start with him.

And the single, part-time student, who is studying for a degree in communications, thinks that by putting a face - his face - to the illness, more people will come to embrace those who have the virus, and put an end to the stigma.

He first publicly declared his HIV status at a recent Aids conference here. Since then, he has received much support from friends and family.

Mr Tan was diagnosed with HIV about three years ago, when he was just 24 and about to embark on a diploma course.

Then already working with Action For Aids (AFA), he knew of the importance of regular testing, which he did every three to six months.

It was through one of these voluntary tests that he found out he had the virus. He contracted it from his then partner, who he had been with for five years.

"I didn't think too much about it at first. But I accepted it, didn't dwell on it too much, and started treatment immediately," he said.

Mr Tan chose to tell just a few close friends, and took about a year to figure out how and when to tell his parents.

Some friends have stopped contacting him since he disclosed his HIV-positive status.

However, he believes the discrimination is unintentional and that they just do not know how to deal with it.

On his part, the diagnosis sank in only about a year later, triggered by what he saw in a television show. 

Shocked but supportive

Coming out

In an episode of a drama serial, a character meets with an accident.

When someone offers help, he refuses it as he is HIV-positive and knows his blood is infectious.

It struck Mr Tan, who broke down and cried uncontrollably.

He said: "The condition became real to me, and made me realise that in such a situation, I would have to disclose my status to someone I don't know, or to someone I know, like my parents. It was not just about me any more."

He eventually decided to tell his parents by introducing the topic of HIV in conversations with them.

When he finally told them, they were shocked but very supportive.

His parents also supported him when he expressed a desire to go public with his HIV-positive status.

It was a decision he grappled with for more than a year, ever since he helped film-maker Royston Tan with an AFA-commissioned video clip which sought to get people to talk about HIV.

Of all the HIV-positive people they approached to talk about their condition on screen, only four agreed to do so, and only on the condition of anonymity.

By coming out, he wants to give the condition a voice, with the ultimate aim of reducing stigma and discrimination while telling those at risk to get tested.

And he wants to show that he is a prime example of someone living a full life, with medical help.

Other than having to take his medicine daily and avoiding half- cooked or raw food, he seldom falls ill, despite juggling long hours at work and studying for a part-time degree.

Mr Tan now oversees campaigns and event projects full time at AFA.

He is not certain what the future holds but he wants to help in the fight against workplace discrimination, as he knows of people who were fired because of their HIV status.

The risk of not being able to find a job, in the light of their experience, is now more real to him.

He said: "If no one is going to fight for my rights, and no one is willing to step forward, then I might as well do it myself. It's not right for me to just rely on HIV-negative friends to fight the battle against stigma."

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