How I get tested for HIV for free

This article is also available in Simplified Chinese.

Starting life in a new country isn’t easy. Everything is different to what we’re used to. From renting an apartment, to registering for class, even how to shop, it sometimes feels like playing a game. The best way to compete is to keep trying, keep making mistakes, and keep learning.

One of the biggest challenges is how to manage your health within the Australian system, especially sexual health.

But here’s the good news: it’s actually really easy and in most cases free. I’m about to tell you everything you need to know.

Regular testing is the key

My friend Jason came to Australia from China three years ago to study for his Masters degree.

He loves the Aussie lifestyle, especially the freedom to live life as a gay man. That freedom included new sexual encounters.

During his second term here, he woke up one morning to find a rash all over his body. He figured it was because of stress from study. He bought some creams from the chemist and tried some Chinese medicine, but nothing seemed to help.

After attending a university clinic, it turned out he had contracted syphilis. That diagnosis was critical as it meant he could finally get the right medicine. He soon recovered.

Jason tells me that after that lesson, he went for testing every three months. He now has a boyfriend but still gets tested a few times each year.

Many young Chinese gays are not familiar with the concept of getting tested regularly for sexual health.

Cedric Cheng is an advocate for the Chinese-speaking gay community. He says many new arrivals never received proper sexual health education in their home countries.

“In Chinese culture, sexual health is not something you can discuss with your teachers or your parents,” says Cedric.

That could help explain why HIV diagnoses continue to rise among newly arrived gay and bisexual men.

Early diagnosis of HIV is crucial to ensure it can be properly treated, allowing people to lead a relatively normal life.

HIV and STI testing: free, private and convenient

So, let’s cut to the chase. Sexual health testing and treatment can be easily accessed in Australia, and it doesn’t have to cost you a thing.

When I first moved to Sydney, one of my priorities was finding a GP. I chose one who speaks Chinese. She is a bulk-billing GP, which means you don’t need to spend a cent out of your pocket if you have a Medicare card. But when I asked her sexual health-related questions, the atmosphere became awkward. I now know there are plenty of good gay-friendly GPs in Sydney, but that initial experience led me to something else completely.

It turns out there are many public sexual health clinics across NSW where you can access HIV and STI testing and treatment. They are really easy to book. In NSW, they’re free to use and they take care of your privacy. There’s also ACON’s a[TEST] service which is a Sydney-based HIV and STI testing service for gay and bisexual guys, and it’s free too.

On my first visit, the nurse who tested me happened to be Chinese. She started speaking Chinese with me, which surprised and delighted me, as I’d not spoken it for a while. She was very approachable and straightforward in her questions and answers, and never made me feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

My friend Vincent Li also goes to a public sexual health clinic for regular testing. He is an international student in Canberra and was the first Chinese international student elected as the Queer Officer for the ANU Students Association. He knows only too well the struggles and challenges of being an international student and gay.

He says that the cost and accessibility of testing are often a significant concern for international students.

Vincent wanted to remind other gay friends who are new to Australia that you can often get testing and treatment at sexual health clinics without paying a cent, even if you don’t have Medicare. If you live in NSW, public sexual health clinics are free of charge, however in other states and territories, some may charge fees for treatment.

Testing for HIV in your own home

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things. I’ve heard some people say they’re now afraid to go to a clinic, in case they’re exposed to COVID. It’s worth remembering that clinics have strong protocols in place, designed to keep everyone safe.

But there is now an alternative type of HIV screening. Self-tests have become available, meaning you can get tested without leaving home!

Last October, the Therapeutic Goods Administration approved the first HIV self-test kit in Australia. HIV self-test (HST) is quick and easy to use. It’s actually pretty similar to the rapid antigen test for COVID-19, which we’ve all become used to using.

If you’re worried that you don’t know how to do the test by yourself, you can reach out to you[TEST]. The service is free and can provide you with a test kit and set up a free video call with a trained peer who will guide you through the process and answer your questions.

Remember, you have options. Testing can be accessed for free at public sexual health clinics throughout New South Wales. And early testing means early treatment. That could make all the difference.

So, for anyone newly arriving in Australia, good luck with navigating the many new things you’ll encounter. I hope you’ll take comfort in knowing that taking care of your sexual health is one of the easiest things on the list.

Garrison Cheng came from mainland China and now calls Sydney home. He works in media as a journalist and producer with a focus on Chinese communities in Australia. He also helps manage ANTRA, an NGO for Chinese LGBTIQ+ communities. He has a passion for food and is a strong advocate of the Chinese saying: ‘Most problems can be solved over a good meal. For things that can’t, make it two meals.’