2005-11-17-Positive reaction to HIV

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2005-11-17-Positive reaction to HIV

 

No one can know for sure how they will react when they hear they have a serious, potentially life threatening, illness.

It's 11 years since PC Andy Hewlett - a police officer based in Brixton, south London, was told he was HIV positive. He was just half way through his probation period after joining the Met in 1993.

The news was, of course, devastating and at that time the outlook was pretty bleak for those being diagnosed.

Most others Andy knew of in the force were leaving their jobs on ill-health pensions, and many of his friends with HIV were giving up work and going on the dole.

But fairly quickly, he says, he grasped his positive status with both hands, and decided to do something, well, positive with it.

His early disclosure to bosses and colleagues led to the Metropolitan Police devising its first policy for supporting HIV positive employees.

He also has a voluntary role as an HIV consultant for the Gay Police Association, answering all sorts of queries from staff or officers, or from people interested in joining the police, or forces wanting to develop their own policies on HIV.

"It's not just for people who have been recently diagnosed, and it's not just for gay officers. I have recently been assisting a female civilian officer who has come here from overseas and is HIV positive."

For his efforts he has been nominated for one of UK Coalition's Hero Awards. The organisation - an umbrella group which publishes sexual health and HIV and Aids magazine Positive Nation - will announce the winner later this month.


The early days after Andy's diagnosis were filled with gloom and pessimism about his prognosis.

One of the first, and most significant, decisions he made was to cancel his pension.

"I thought, 'why do I need it? Five or 10 years down the line I certainly won't need it, so I may as well have the money now'."

But at the same time he was down the gym every night, determined not to lose weight and appear a 'victim'.

'Take control'

Within a few months he decided to disclose his HIV status to the Met, which he said was his way of coping with his diagnosis.

"I felt I needed support in the workplace. I was doing relief work then - answering 999 calls and all the bread and butter stuff of policing. That involves a close network of people and, as my friends and colleagues, I felt they should know.

"I almost wanted to devolve the stress of it by telling those around me."

Andy, who lives with his partner Jason, was already out as a gay man. He had gone through years of concealing his sexuality while in the Army, and when he joined the police he wanted to "do it right," he says.

"I took the same attitude towards HIV. I didn't want to hide stuff about myself. I wanted to take control of my HIV status."

Most would assume that being an openly gay man with HIV within the police force is not the easiest career route to take.

"If you are confident, up front and transparent you tend not to get so much prejudice," says Andy.

"A lot of people still perceive the police as racist, homophobic and sexist, but the culture has changed greatly. It is a lot better equipped to deal with those kinds of situations."

'Normalises HIV'

Post-diagnosis the deterioration of Andy's immune system was relatively quick - progression rates vary hugely - and within three years he was taking medication to help slow the virus's ability to replicate.

It is in situations like these that his employer's policy on HIV kicks in, for example with time off or more flexible working arrangements while workers acclimatise to new medication.

It also sets the rules around disclosure - which is not compulsory - and confidentiality.

"When I first disclosed my status at work it was initially quite challenging for the other officers to deal with. Most people's idea was that when you are positive, you get sick, lose weight and look ill. But two years down the line they were still seeing me still in the canteen.


"For me that kind of thing 'normalises' HIV and dispels a lot of the mystery around it."

In another recent role as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender liaison officer for Lambeth, Andy disclosed his own HIV status to new recruits.

"That does generate questions, but as the instructor at the front of the class you are in powerful position. I told them they needed to know about it because on the streets they would frequently be dealing with people who were HIV positive."


The decision to disclose is not so straightforward in his current 'day-job' in the force, as co-ordinator for volunteer police cadets, who are aged 14-19.

"I have thought long and hard about it, but have decided not to talk about my HIV status.

"I do tell them I am gay - I think if they know a member of the police service who is gay, if they have that kind of authority figure to look to it helps remove some of the stigma.

"As for my HIV status, I'm not sure whether to take that leap, although some of the cadets are pretty internet savvy and have found out for themselves.


Much has changed since Andy was diagnosed, he says, although there are still many misconceptions about HIV and Aids.

"The main mistake people make is that they think people like me don't exist - that people with HIV don't work, or have relationships or take out mortgages - they think we just get sick and die."

Conversely Andy is determined to keep reaching for his goals, enjoying work and getting on with life.

Perhaps most symbolic of all, he's even started up his pension again.

 

 


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