Coming out might not be as hard as it used to be, but it’s still far from easy. A lot of the sex-ed we’re given through our teens is geared towards hetero relationships, so it’s ultimately unhelpful at a time when our sponge-like minds could be soaking up health practices we’ll actually use.
These days between study or work, Netflix and chill, the schedule fills up pretty quick. From a lack of time, money and understanding to an abundance of fear around results and stigma, we all have reasons to avoid regular HIV testing.
The fact that young males account for twenty-eight per cent of new HIV infections (the same as gay men in their thirties or forties) highlights the need to change our perception: if you’re gay and sexually active then regular testing should be a part of your routine.
A Candi Staton song, immortalised by the stunningly silver-sequinned Mercutio from Baz Lurhman’s Romeo & Juliet, pleads, “young hearts, to yourself be true”. So what stops us being true to ourselves?
We recently opened up a conversation with Tristan, Konstantin and Erroll, three young males from Sydney, to discuss stigma, fear and other common reasons to avoid regular HIV testing.
I don’t know if I’m out, and I don’t want it getting about
Most of us have been treated by a local GP our whole lives, often with a parent in the room. This is a less-than-ideal venue for a coming-out talk, but the conversation still needs to happen with someone.
Tristan, 25, says that the biggest challenge of his first HIV test wasn’t so much a fear of the result as the need for confidentiality.
“I knew that I didn’t have anything but it was the pressure of going to the medical centre, especially because it was run by my family,” he says.
If it’s difficult to find a doctor you’re comfortable with, there are plenty of other places to go that offer complete confidentiality. A trusted friend may be able to recommend a doctor, or you can contact one of the 200 gay-friendly GPs here, or at the a[TEST] sites in Sydney that are run by fellow gay peers.
There shouldn’t be any concern about your sexual orientation or HIV status getting out – all tests conducted by a private GP or public clinic are confidential by law.
I don’t have the time or the money
This may have been an issue in the past, however HIV testing technologies have changed the waiting game entirely in the last two years. If you’re in Sydney, a[TEST] sites provide fast, free and confidential testing with your results back in 30 minutes. Outside Sydney there are plenty of sites that offer free, confidential testing with results back in 24 hours.
In short it won’t cost you time or money – you don’t even need a Medicare card to book a free appointment at a sexual health clinic.
“The testing is free, and I like that you get the results straight away, so it doesn’t interfere with your social life,” Konstantin says.
I’m young, and I’m in control so I’m fine
It’s really not an age thing. Young gay men in their twenties account for a third – yes, a third – of new infections every year, the same as gay men in their thirties or forties.
If you’re in a relationship you should still be getting tested at least once every 6 months, or more frequently if you’re active with multiple partners: even if you think you’re not at risk, 1 in 4 new HIV infections occurs between guys in relationships.
The only way to be sure you haven’t been exposed to HIV is regular testing, and for such a small act it plays a huge role in ending the transmission of HIV by 2020.
I don’t know what’s involved or where to go
These days, tests are quick and relatively pain-free. You’ll begin with a pre-test discussion – legally health care workers can’t test for HIV unless you ask them to. Importantly you’ll discuss the implications of a positive or negative result, how active you’ve been since your last visit, and whether you fall into a ‘window period’ that could affect the result of the test.
While Rapid Testing sites are currently being trialled in Sydney (generally involving a collection of oral fluids or a gentle finger prick), the results from other conventional tests can take over 24 hours. To save time and effort, some clinics offer SMS notifications of your results within 48 hours.
As HIV takes time to be detected in the body, some people test positive within a month after exposure while others can take up to three months. Once someone contracts HIV their immune system will react to the virus by producing antibodies within the first 2-8 weeks, and will test positive for antigens even sooner than that. If the results do come back positive for antibodies or antigens, a further conventional blood test is needed to confirm the results.
Not sure where to go? Find a clinic here.
I’ve already been
A negative result can lift an enormous weight from your shoulders but testing isn’t a once-off thing. Basically the more sex and the more partners you have, the more tests you need. For Konstantin, 21, the free ‘Remind Me’ service helps him stay in his routine.
“I get a reminder on my phone when I’m due for another test. That’s handy, because it’s pretty easy to get busy and not notice the time passing,” he says.
Getting into a regular routine has worked for Erroll, 23, who says it only gets easier.
“A big difference between the first and last time I was tested is that I’m now a lot more comfortable talking with the doctors and nurses about my personal life. It’s part of their profession; it’s what they do,” he says.
If you’re not sure about how often you should test, ACON’s test frequency calculator can help get your head around it.
The first time for anything can be confronting. Konstantin found the courage to take his first steps towards establishing a routine with the support of a close friend.
“It wasn’t even the thought that I might be HIV-positive, it was more that I’m scared of needles and I had no idea what was going to happen. It was the process that made me feel intimidated,” he says.
Erroll suggests another reason stopping people from regular testing might be a fear of finding out their status.
“What I would say to someone thinking like that? It’s better to know the truth. For your own health and the well-being of the people you’re involved with.
“It’s important for our community and it’s imperative for our health,” he says.
As young men we can play an active role in ending HIV for good. With free, convenient and confidential testing it’s easier than ever to take responsibility for your health. Find out more about what you can do to help end HIV by 2020.