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Hans – Thankfully you don’t hear “Are you clean?” often anymore. It was awful, because that would make anyone living with HIV ‘dirty!’ And the question if I am STD-free? Jesus, did anybody seriously ever answer that question with “No, I have gonorrhea, but can we still have sex?”
In the past I felt more stigmatised by straight people “You’re gay, you must have the virus!” Some still saw us as sex-craved monsters. Thankfully that has changed now.

Jason – It is uncomfortable hearing HIV stigma; because I know from experience it is useful that I state I am negative before I then educate the fool saying the ignorant things. Sadly telling them my status makes it look like I would be ashamed to be mistaken as HIV+… But it is important for them to relate to me and trust in what I say next. I then explain U=U and PrEP (U=U means Undetectable equals Untransmittable, that someone with HIV on medication can get such a low measure of the virus in their body that it cannot be detected and cannot be passed on. A person with HIV can also live a full, long life. PrEP is a preventative drug for HIV- people, it’s designed to prevent the user from catching HIV if exposed to the virus).

Explaining these to someone shouldn’t be impacted by them knowing my status, but if they are ignorant they may already discriminate against things told to them by an HIV+ person. I prioritise getting results in de-stigmatising people, so I do it that way. An HIV- person not accepting what an HIV+ person is telling them, is upsetting to even watch as a third party. All informed people should get involved when they hear HIV stigma, regardless of their status.

Hans – In Germany, people didn’t ask about your status when you hooked up with someone. You just assumed they had ‘everything’ so you protected yourself with a condom and stayed away from bodily fluids. Of course, once I knew I was positive, I made extra-sure that everything was ‘safe’.

When I moved to the States, things were different. I felt like people asked for your status so they could have condomless sex with you if you said you were negative. In my opinion, that’s a very weird way of trusting someone with your health. Certainly, there were times, when I did get rejected after telling them my positive status.

Sex for the first decade of my positive life included rejection, shame, and a feeling of ‘guilt,’ which very often comes along with a new HIV diagnoses. When I started having sex in the 90’s, they constantly warned us about HIV, and I still got it. So I felt like it was my own fault because I ‘failed’ at protecting myself. It took me some time to lose these feelings. My concerns also came from how I felt my HIV would be viewed from society. Mainstream culture does little to counter those worries.

That’s why it was also hard to form a relationship with someone. Maybe deep down inside, I felt like I wasn’t loveable anymore because of my virus. I started seeing a therapist, Michael, around 2010. Michael helped me to see things differently. Also, the new findings of U=U, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, helped immensely and gave me newfound self-esteem.

PrEP Undetectable Untransmittable

Jason and Hans | Photo: Matt Spike

Jason – When we get chewing gum on our shoe, we just sort it. It’s less about blame and shame, more about communal litter picking: sometimes gum happens. Being this casual with HIV doesn’t mean forgetting to avoid contracting it. It simply means even in prevention campaigns, explain that people living with HIV live normal lives. We now have lots of pills for HIV infection, but there is only one treatment for HIV stigma, normalising people living with it.

HIV occasionally gets used for a cheap laugh in media. Jokes commonly reinforce outdated ideas, however challenging them can be seen as being petty or no fun.

The most frustrating thing is seeing people acting piously after donating to HIV charities… It is frustrating as many of these same people are unable to talk about HIV on a personal level. The support is great, but treating HIV+ people with pity or ignoring them doesn’t respect how many people with HIV live. You do not need to have experienced living with HIV to know this needs to change. It doesn’t even need to come from empathy, but even outrage at common ignorance and the behaviour shown towards other humans should be enough.

“I sometimes lied about my status when a hook-up asked, because I feared rejection. I told them that I was ‘negative’ but wanted to use a condom.”

When I found out that I had HIV in 2001, I only told a handful of people. I sometimes lied about my status when a hook-up asked because I feared rejection. I told them that I was ‘negative’ but wanted to use a condom. There were times when they found out the truth or I told them at some point, and that led to a lot of drama. Thanks to my mentor Michael, I learned to be more open about my HIV status. Now I even put my ‘positive’ status on my dating apps, I don’t get rejected anymore. Either people are really more educated, or they just don’t want to hook up with me because of it. At least, I don’t have to have those painful conversations anymore.

I don’t know if it was the grey weather, or the fact that from now on I would have to take medication until the day I die, or the potential side effects, but I felt depressed when I started my pills. That disappeared when spring came along, or maybe it was by then, my body had gotten used to the medication. As we move along, more and more HIV treatment options have become available. So if you face side effects from one medication, you have many others to switch to that might work better for you.

It took me 13 years to tell my parents because I didn’t want them to worry, or be ‘scared’ of me. They took it very well. They were even educated enough to know that I don’t pose a risk to them and that modern medicine keeps me alive and well. Never being sick was additional proof that my medication works. Since I told them, nothing has changed. They treat me exactly the same way they treated me before they knew. But it’s the greatest feeling to not have to keep this secret from them anymore. I guess, sometimes we underestimate our parents. In the long run, everybody needs to find out for themselves who they wanna tell their status to, family, friends…

“Once negative people are on PrEP they may not think about their partner’s status at all. After I started daily PrEP in 2015 I saw no need to talk about HIV with partners, unless they wanted to.”

People are different depending on what they are used to. Some HIV+ folk think if nothing is said about status before sex, then both are confident and likely positive already. While some negative people think the exact opposite if nothing’s been said. Once negative people are on PrEP they may not think about their partner’s status at all. After I started daily PrEP in 2015 I saw no need to talk about HIV with partners, unless they wanted to. As PrEP doesn’t protect you from other STIs, I still check they’ve had an STI test recently. Condoms can prevent against a range of infections. I’ve had no side effects from PrEP and feel optimistic when I go for my regular sexual health test. Along with testing, I got my HPV, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis A vaccinations, and I learned about minimising Hepatitis C transmission.

I find that many HIV- people expect HIV+ people would tell them their status before sex. They are surprised to learn an Undetectable partner is zero risk to them, so they don’t have some ‘right’ to be told. When an HIV- person relies on HIV+ partners to disclose before they’d have sex, the HIV- person can get lazy with responsibilities. Responsibilities like having regular HIV tests and learning about Undetectable, PrEP, PEP (emergency HIV treatment within 72 hours of exposure) and condoms. It is almost as if they think someone else is taking care of HIV for them. Many places have legislation that anyone above a transmittable threshold should tell a partner before condomless sex with an HIV- person. This legislation doesn’t cover those who are Undetectable, and the legislation is no excuse for a HIV- person to care less about their own sexual health.

PrEP Undetectable Untransmittable

Jason and Hans | Photo: Matt Spike

PrEP is another wonderful addition to the palette of safer sex options we have now. Back when I started having sex, the only safer-sex tools we had were condoms and abstinence. A lot of progress has happened quickly so of course people will need time to catch up, and come to terms with what they have learned.

People just learning about PrEP can make some odd assumptions around promiscuity or condoms but with time it will be common for people to see PrEP similar to being on the contraceptive pill. Just another sexual health tool some people choose.

When an HIV+ person explains HIV to others they become a role model for progress. In my opinion, it would be great if more people living with HIV would come out about their status and not just to the ones they wanna have sex with. It would show the world that it’s something completely normal. Your neighbor, your teacher, your soccer star might have HIV. If HIV+ people knew more people who are in the same ‘boat,’ they could support and help each other.

When an HIV- person explains modern HIV knowledge to others, they become a role model to the ill-informed. They show a relatable perspective that opposes outdated HIV stigma. When an HIV- person shows unity with people with HIV, beyond charity, they cross the status divide. Normalising the exchange in either direction means good friendships and romantic relationships are not missed over ignorance or fear. Openly serodiscordant relationships (relationships between HIV positive and negative people) look set to play a huge part in the future of HIV activism.

Jason and Hans

Jason and Hans | Photo: Matt Spike

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Fitness

Meet the vegan body-builder

Alexander Kosztowny is building mass without harm.

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Alexander Kosztowny (image supplied)
Alexander Kosztowny (image supplied)

I caught up with aspiring bodybuilder Alexander Kosztowny to talk fitness, food, and life as a vegan body-builder.

Were you into sports at school?

No. Growing up, I was a heavy-set kid, and not very active at all. In school, I was very academic, and focused mainly on my studies rather than athletics. I didn’t dread gym class, and always worked hard and enjoyed certain sports like tennis and volleyball, but the lack of variety of activities in gym class limited my view on the variety of types of activities out there. If I’d tried a weight lifting class, or yoga, or karate, my attitude may have changed earlier in life. My sister was always active, but I come from a family who are not very big on physical activity or sports. Of course, like most, I wish I’d started earlier, but better late than never.

Can you remember what your first experience of a gym was?

I lost a lot of weight in high school with the onset of puberty, and with the gaining knowledge of nutrition, portion control, and cardiovascular activity. When I went to college, I found myself putting a lot of the weight back on, and knew I had to prevent that. I joined a gym, and hired a personal trainer for the first time to help me get back on track.

I absolutely fell in love with pumping iron. I was able to coordinate working out into being a part of my schedule, as opposed to limiting it only to ‘when I have time’ and having a trainer not only motivated me and taught me technique, but also kept me accountable for my actions. He helped me with adding strength while paying attention to form, and meal planning, The excess weight fell off, and I became addicted.

Now I’m in the gym every day, pushing my body and transforming both my health, my appearance, and my outlook.

When did you decide to get serious about your fitness and bodybuilding?

About four years ago. But I’ve only been super-serious for about a year, and I’ve only been extremely strict in terms of diet for about six months. I’m still a beginner.

What’s your aspiration as a bodybuilder?

To get huge. That’s it.

As someone who’s plant-based, I’d also like to show others what’s possible on a non-traditional diet. That there are other forms of nutrition and protein, and you can build muscle, look great, and have tons of energy without harm.

What’s the difference between your body as it is now and the way that you want your body to look?

I’d still call my self thick or chubby-muscular. The interesting thing about bodybuilding is that there never really is an end goal. You just lift and grow bigger and you’re never quite big or strong enough. I’m just trying to push myself as far as I possibly can. It’s exciting to see the changes you can make that way.

What’s your work-out regime like?

I’m in the gym six or seven times a week. This seems excessive to some people, and I know others who only go three or four times a week, and that works for them. For me, the gym is therapeutic and a stress reliever, as well as a hobby.

I usually spend about one hour doing weight lifting — machines and free weights — and then I wrap up with about 35 minutes of cardio. I focus on one body part per day. It’s a traditional bodybuilding split, so muscles have a chance to rest. This routine works for me — I know some people have luck doing high-intensity, full body workouts, but I like the focus of working each muscle group in isolation.

Do you have a work-out buddy?

Not currently, but I’ve always enjoyed it when I do. It really is vital for really heavy spotting, and the dependability is nice if they’re as motivated as you. If anyone is in Los Angeles and wants to train with me, hit me up!

How important is controlling your diet?

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Controlling diet is extremely important. It makes or breaks your progress in the gym. if you lift but don’t eat right, you won’t get anywhere. I’ve seen this happen both for myself and others. When I finally got on the right meal plan, the results happened in no time at all — abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym.

I eat about five times a day, and I’m plant-based, just like Tom Brady. My diet consists of lots of legumes, lentils, tofu, peas, broccoli, peanut butter, protein shakes, and other natural, nutrient-rich foods that contain protein without resorting to animal products.

Besides the ethical and environmental sides of going vegan, I find I have more energy, need less time to recover, and am less sore, as well as having clearer skin. I count my macros — calories, carbs, proteins, and fats — and eat the same foods every day to stay on track. I’ve pretty much eliminated bread, gluten, alcohol, refined sugars, and beverages besides water from my diet, except for special occasions. I’m super-strict, but do let myself enjoy food.

Are your friends and family supportive of your bodybuilding aspirations?

For the most part. They’re always impressed at my progress and dedication, but I need a lot of willpower when I have a family who loves to cook, bake, and tempt me with treats. That’s why having a partner or workout buddy who is on a similar plan is helpful, if you’re lucky enough to find one. It keeps you on track.

Are you competing?

Nope, and no plans to either. But that may change as I grow bigger.

What are some of your priorities for the months ahead?

I’m currently in the best shape I’ve ever been in, so I want to just keep on progressing. It’s a slow process, and takes a lot of time, so you have to be patient.

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