Living with HIV, I feel respected by EastEnders' handling of Zack's story

‘I was worried people thought I was gay, or at least I’d slept with some guy. Because in my head, it was always a gay thing, right?’ EastEnders’ Brett said to Zack. 

‘But the gay guys I’ve met with it though, I’d be proud if people thought I had their strength.’ 

As a gay man with HIV, I watched that scene in EastEnders and I felt fully respected, and a deep sense of relief. 

By adding that last sentence, with its entirely positive language, tone and angle, EastEnders had chosen to respect gay people with HIV, not make us the scapegoat that we’ve become so accustomed to over the years. 

But I should have never doubted the long-running soap; they’ve always represented our story responsibly. 

Even before my diagnosis, I vividly remember watching Mark Fowler becoming the first mainstream soap character to contract HIV in 1991 with my parents. This was a brave step for EastEnders to take at the time. 

I remember being struck by how powerful and groundbreaking the storyline was.

Incidentally, 1991 was also the year that Freddie Mercury died from bronchial pneumonia as a result of AIDS. I believe these two events impacted the psyche of the nation on a very personal level. 

People felt like they knew both Mark and Freddie, and there was genuine love for them. This, in turn, caused a significant shift in public attitudes for the better towards people with HIV/AIDS. 

Even my understanding, as a very young person, changed. I then saw the virus as something that can affect anyone and, importantly, that those who contract it are beautiful and loved. 

Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody was re-released immediately after Freddie’s death to raise money for the fight against AIDS. The song spent five weeks at number one in the charts, such was the level of public feeling.

Unfortunately, since then, stigma has creeped back up. A recent examples of irresponsible reporting happened in 2015 when The Sun claimed that Hollywood was ‘gripped with fear’ about an actor with HIV. 

Sadly, media sensationalism like this can set back the work charities and activists do to curtail HIV stigma by years. 

A World AIDS Day survey conducted by HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust, showed that 74% of people living with HIV have experienced stigma or discrimination due to their status.

Which is why, each time there’s a major new HIV TV or film storyline, or a news story about a celebrity who’s gone public with their status, I brace myself. 

My emotions span from being happy that the virus that changed my life completely is being talked about — surely that’s a good thing, in theory — to agonising about how HIV will be presented in this instance: specifically the language, content, tone, and angle that is adopted. 

Which, whether I like it or not, is what often shapes public perception of topics that are unknown to people. It’s a huge responsibility and can be a minefield.

I will always be emotionally connected to how HIV is depicted because I am an AIDS survivor. That’s the term I use because it empowers me and turns my hellish experience into one of hope. 

In 2005, I was gravely ill, just seven stone, hospitalised with AIDS-defining illnesses (pneumonia, meningitis, anaemia), and it was in hospital that I was diagnosed HIV-positive — an aggressive strain.

I had no time to process my newfound status. I just had to get better and out of the hospice where a friend frankly told me: most people leave here in a coffin. 

It’s thanks to expert NHS care and advances in HIV treatment that I’m here today and HIV-undetectable (can’t pass it on). 

I was fortunate because my parents were very supportive during my hospitalisation. They would visit me twice a week in hospital and later the hospice, travelling a hundred miles each time, with a tartan trolley full of goodies and gay magazines. When I was discharged they continued to help me recover at home. I don’t know what I would have done without them. 

My parents’ unconditional love without judgment was a major factor in me coming to terms with my HIV.  When my father died in 2012 I was by his side and told him thank you; I wanted to be there from him as he was for me.

Therapy also helped. Lots of it. I’m still a work in progress. 

Over the years I’ve been turned away from dentists, faced discrimination at work, and rejected when forming new relationships after disclosing my status. HIV stigma is very real. 

Zack’s HIV experience couldn’t be more different to my own. He discovers he is HIV positive after Brett confides that he has been diagnosed with the virus and, because they shared needles in the past, Zack gets tested. 

Everyone’s HIV experience is different, of course. It’s important to remember that. 

But Zack and I both face the same social stigma, which doesn’t discriminate between sexuality, gender, or how someone contracts HIV. It affects a great deal of people with HIV, and the impact on one’s mental health can be profound. As I can attest to. 

Watching Zack’s storyline play out so far, I’ve been impressed by the way in which HIV is being respectfully handled. 

The two main characters, Zack Hudson (James Farrar) and Brett Nelson (Fabrizio Santino), are acting out the rollercoaster of emotions, which so often manifest as a cycle of anger, fear and guilt, consummately. 

Zack’s understandable fears, which could spiral and result in misinformation in the wrong hands, are quickly countered by facts (that undetectable equates to untransmittable, it’s no longer a death sentence, it can be controlled by one pill a day) thanks to Brett, and no doubt the expert guidance of the Terrence Higgins Trust – the charity helping advise on the storyline. 

I cannot overstate how important that line of dialogue is: ‘But the gay guys I’ve met with it though, I’d be proud if people thought I had their strength.’ 

A part of me would really like to see Zack befriend a gay person with HIV as the storyline progresses. It would be interesting to see a portrayal of two people from completely different backgrounds who contracted the virus under different circumstances, form a friendship and break down stigma further. 

But whatever happens next, I’m confident that people with HIV will be respected. 

Thank you, EastEnders, for being a shining example of how best to portray HIV.

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