No more secrets. “I’m a proud man living with HIV”, says the Danish Chris (31) with a smile. An honest conversation about shame and liberation. About dark, deep valleys and overcoming them.
June 2018. Chris Vincent is Skyping with his mother in Denmark. The reason: His second coming out. This time not as a gay man, but as a man who, since 2014, has been living with HIV. He lets out a deep sigh, and tears up as he thinks back on that day, a couple of days before his 31st birthday. Chris feels that the time has come to tell her. Because he was ready for it himself now. “I knew that she wouldn’t reject me. That’s not the reason that it took me four years to find the courage to tell her. Something else was at play: deep, deep shame.”
The choking shame was a heavy burden to bear. Almost too heavy. The joyful, confident man that sits before me now is a different Chris than the one a few years back. Then, he almost lost himself in a downward spiral of self-destructive behavior, with low self-image as a catalyst. “He deserved” the bad things that were happening to him. He was a failure with – and because of – HIV.
Receiving the news that he had HIV felt like a punch to the gut. He lived in Copenhagen, and it was two days before his graduation from his acting school. “I guess I did kind of know already. In the weeks preceding my appointment at Checkpoint (a place in Copenhagen where you can be tested anonymously), I was very sick and lost 5 kilos in a very short time. It was dealing with an acute HIV- infection.” When the nurse delivered the news, the otherwise chatty Chris couldn’t muster a word. “The only thing I was thinking was: Let my veins burst open, let all the blood gush out of my body, let me die.”
In the time that followed, he rarely spoke about his new life with HIV. He avoided the subject, or commented on it vaguely. “I told myself that HIV didn’t define me. Therefore I also chose to not talk about it. When I did tell someone, I’d get negative reactions. Some guys would block me on dating-apps if I told them I had HIV. That hurt.”
But there was more at play. Chris felt the social pressure of living up to, what he calls ‘the perfect image of the young, successful gay man’. HIV didn’t fit that image, neither did Chris’ taste in kinky sex and fetishes. “There are many guys with similar sexual preferences, but I only realized that later. The shame of HIV and the shame of kinky sex was deeply rooted in me, and they enforced each other.”
Flight behavior followed. “I immersed myself in sex and drugs. One night, during a sex date, I took too many drugs. I thought I was going to die. And something in me told me that I deserved it, that’s how low my self worth was at that moment.”
There was a bright spot, though, in his then boyfriend with whom he lived in Copenhagen a couple of years. “He had no issues at all with my HIV-status. Through him I slowly began to accept that I wasn’t made for that ‘perfect’ gay life that I mirrored myself in.” When they broke up, Chris decided to change course. He decided to move to Amsterdam, a city he had visited for the first time half a year before, and immediately fallen in love with.
“In Amsterdam I learned to appreciate my kinky side. I worked in the Mister B shop [A fetish sex shop, red.], and was asked to do a kinky photo shoot. I got a lot of fun, positive reactions on that! It was totally new for me. I didn’t have to be ashamed about something I liked, or who I was. It was very liberating.”
It was the beginning of a journey towards self-acceptance. “In The Netherlands I didn’t have to live a secret life. There was nothing that couldn’t be said.” Slowly, Chris also parted with his shame revolving his life with HIV. And even better: He realized that getting HIV has had positive consequences as well. It forced him to be honest to himself about who he really was, and to be critical towards the shame he felt – and that had been imposed on him. “It was a big kick in the ass, but one that I really needed. I’ve become a much more happy person because of it, which I think also shows. Old friends from Copenhagen tell me that I now am emitting happiness. I’ve only found that happiness because of all the shit I’ve done after getting HIV. It gave me a direction in life.”
Chris wishes for more openness about HIV. “There’s nothing more for me to hide, I’m over the shame, and I think that it would be great if others realize that openness is a good thing. Don’t doubt yourself, and don’t mind what other people think about you. It’s important that we’re not only talking about the HIV stigma exclusively. No, we have to show the positive sides as well: I’m living a happy life with HIV! I mean, of course I have my problems. I worry about work. And yes sometimes I do doubt myself. But those are all things unrelated to HIV.”
Chris suddenly stands up, and lifts his shirt. He has the three red crosses, the coat of arms of Amsterdam, tattooed on his rib cage. “The red crosses symbolize my new life in Amsterdam, my new life in front of and behind the camera, and accepting my HIV status.” For Chris, those three things are inextricably linked to an ultimate sense of freedom. “My aspiration in life is to be as free as I can be, free from stigma, free from worrying about what other people think of me. People around you want you to be happy, but often have a very specific idea of what it means to be liberated. For example, people sometimes doubt that my preference for kinky sex really makes me happy. Oh yes it does! And I’ve only been able to get to that realization because I’ve worked through my shame.”
For the umpteenth time during the interview, Chris gets a big smile on his face. “You know what, I have an amazing life, and what I want everyone to know is that I’ve gotten to this point in spite of, but also very much because of, having
HIV. It has made me who I am. Don’t let HIV come between you and your dreams. Don’t let yourself be influenced by what other people may think of you. Use your HIV to figure out who you really are, and what you really want. Let go of the shame.”
This article was previously published in hello gorgeous #24.
Original text by Rick Meulensteen Photography by Linelle Deunk