Getting to Give Back

I often say my journey with HIV began in 2015 when I was diagnosed, but really it began much earlier. Just because we don’t think of HIV doesn’t mean we aren’t affected by it, and for me the journey began when I became sexually active. 

It’s hard to admit now, but before my diagnosis, I was judgmental and stigmatic. I blame this partially on a lack of education from school but also a lack of personal education; I chose to not read up about things and to remain afraid. I regret thinking of HIV as something shameful – but I avoided thinking about it as much as I could, which meant serosorting my sexual partners and pushing it as far back in my mind as I could. I didn’t face HIV until I was forced to.

And then, I was forced to. My diagnosis turned my world upside down. I was confused, angry, I felt like something was wrong with me and I’d never be the same. I am so lucky to have had such a strong support system in my friends, family and my partner; without them, I think I’d be in a much darker place than I am today. Aside from the amazing people in my life who love me, I also had the incredible support of my community in Toronto through ACT. Upon diagnosis, I was paired with Eric, a therapist at ACT who helped me reshape my beliefs and thoughts around HIV. While seeing him, I learned the importance of education and proper information, and I learned the power of that education paired with my lived experience. He taught me that I could use my diagnosis in a positive way (pun intended), and he encouraged me to pursue a job with ACT.

I began part time and under contract with ACT as a Community Trainee in December, 2020, working with the Outreach Team to help guys with questions and concerns online.  I then took the role of Peer Facilitator with Totally outRIGHT Toronto, a leadership program for gay/bi/queer/trans men who have sex with men. Now, I am full time with ACT as the Gay Men’s Community Education and Resource Coordinator.  I run a monthly series of Community Health Forums; I organize the largest distribution of free condoms and lube in Toronto; and I help develop campaigns around sexual health. I actually led the development of Living and Thriving with HIV, a live Q&A session where the community could ask me any questions they had about my life with HIV. My knowledge of HIV came from the lived experience I was forced to have. It sounds strange, but part of me is grateful for my diagnosis. Without it, I may have remained stigmatic instead of actively fighting to end that stigma.

HIV is a serious matter; it’s something our community has been fighting for decades and my work is dedicated to its reduction and elimination – but I see it as more than that. It’s a historical thread that has connected our community in arms since the 1980s. Whether you’re neg or poz, you are affected by HIV. What can you do? Help reduce stigma! Talk to your doctor, read some resources on ACT’s website, tell your friends about U=U (and if you don’t know what it is, look it up right now!). Things in the realm of HIV have improved so much in the past 40 years, but we still have a long way to go.  

Aaron Clarke

Aaron Clarke is an HIV-positive actor living in Toronto and is also the Gay Men’s Community Education and Resource Coordinator with ACT. His passion for acting brought him to the city where his passion for HIV work has been able to grow as well. Aaron counts himself very lucky to be able to pursue two things he loves. To see him on screen in either capacity, check out ACT’s YouTube page or try to find his 3 second debut on Netflix. Good luck!

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