"Only in the last few years have I begun to think more confidently about HIV. Confident in terms of knowing that my status doesn’t make me a lesser person. If I was rejected by someone over it in the past, I would have thought I’m unloveable. Today, you can take it or leave it. I'm not desperate for anyone's affection". Daniel Tóth is a LGBTQ rights campaigner, a Googler, a member of Intertech Ireland, and a board member of the National LGBT Federation. Hungarian-German, he is originally from Budapest and currently lives in Dublin.
On turning eighteen, Daniel moved from Budapest to London. He describes his arrival: "I was partying a lot and started going out with a heavy coke user for a year, before we split". Although the two were not in an explicitly open relationship, his boyfriend contracted HIV during that time. Though they used condoms a couple of times following that diagnosis, "it was a bit pointless by then" – implicit in his boyfriend's infection was Daniel's own also. Following that relationship, he stayed on in London. Although managing to hold down an office job – a detail he seems somewhat surprised by on recollection – he was homeless: "I was going from a gay hostel to house-sitting to calling someone every morning to see if I could stay with them".
On his own diagnosis, Daniel doesn't know much, perhaps mirroring the chaotic dimension to his life during this time: "I’m not 100% sure who I got it from, or where, or how. But, shortly after, someone got it from me. I had just broken up with that guy and was out and about. I took a guy home and didn’t use a condom. When [he and I] first started hanging out I thought, ‘oh, I should tell him, I should tell him’. Eventually I did. And that’s the thing, after I told him, whenever we had sex, we always used condoms. But I couldn't remember for certain if we did or not that very first time. When I asked him, he said no. We didn’t. And that was the end of that. A few months later, he called me and told me he was positive". He had missed the PEP window. Daniel has written to him on-and-off to see how he's doing – he has never responded. Swapping London for Budapest shortly after all of this in order to take some time for himself, Daniel returned to Britain before eventually landing in Ireland.
When I ask what he felt following this transmission, guilt is the reply. However, and speaking to what he said at the beginning of our conversation, back then and with that guy, Daniel simply wasn't in a position to disclose his status: "I couldn’t have told him at the very beginning because I didn’t have the confidence to. I had that fear of rejection, that fear of facing your own perceived failure. Looking back, knowing how it works now, knowing a lot more about HIV, I know it’s not the end of the world. But back then I didn’t know that much".
The situation Daniel describes is one of real familiarity: "When you don’t have a condom, your first reaction is, ‘well, I just won’t use one’. That is until the next morning when you’re filled with regret". I mention the ease of rationalising away the need for a rubber in such a moment. Daniel continues: "That’s the thing, desire is not rational. Suppose you’re in a club and you’re probably already drunk or high and horny. You don’t think about what’s going to happen to you in two weeks or two months when you go for the test. You think about now – here’s this hot man who wants me and I don’t care".
In talking me through his experience, Daniel reminds me of some of my conversation with David Stuart about a need for greater empathy from within and beyond our community. No doubt, there are some who may deem Daniel's action or inaction back then, at nineteen, as reckless. But any consideration demands nuance. The set of circumstances directly leading to that transmission are not the result of some disregard or selfishness, but of humanness. We can't lose sight of the chaos and complexity of lived experience and the bearing this has on the paths we walk down and the decisions we make – especially if they are madedfv in a split-second. Arguably, this is central to achieving the broader goal of demystification and destigmatisation. As Daniel says: "If I see someone and size them up, I might think that they may not have problems. But no, there could be, and probably is, something there in the background".
This leads us to talk about how we communicate desires and expectations intimately, before landing how sex is spoken about more generally. Daniel sees most discussions bound up in negative framing: "We never talk about the pleasure of what you do in bed, harm seems to be the only kind of language we can use in public discourse around sex. Because sex is considered dirty, it can only surface publicly in its public health dimension. It’s not just about harm or harm reduction and condoms or no condoms but also, 'Well, what else do you get up to in bed? With whom? With how many people? Is it vanilla? Is it intimate? Is it emotional? Is it nurturing?’" A more open, holistic and nuanced understanding of intimacy and sex may make it easier for us all to navigate and feel secure within these domains.
We continue this particular conversation but in the context of rising infection rates. From Daniel's experience, our problem with communication is systemic: "Even sexual health nurses aren’t comfortable talking about gay sex. And if you’re not even comfortable with your own patient, they'll be able to tell and they won’t take anything you say on board". Similarly, "we can’t just turn up the volume on the ‘wear more condoms’ thing – you will see a parallel rise in bareback porn and bareback parties. People are desperate for a release, for an escape from that constant framing of sex as problematic". To be sure, the infantilisation inherent here is another source of frustration. Daniel goes on: "Look at the pushback now towards bareback sex, risky sex, drug-fuelled sex. We should really be offering people the structures and supports necessary to make informed decisions in terms of [their welfare], rather than turning to the morality of another era – to, 'if you have the 'wrong' kind of sex, you’re gonna die'”.
Daniel describes how his diagnosis transformed his sense of self – something touched on previously by Robbie when describing his own experience – opening his mind to the way in which his multiple identities interact, and the particular outcomes produced by this intersectionality. "The issues we have are more than the sum of their parts. If you’re gay and black, your issues are not just racism, not just homophobia, but a peculiar merger of the two. It's similar if you’re gay and have HIV, which is different again if you're trans and have HIV".
A feeling of empowerment in his positive status, bred from education and self exploration, has distilled in Daniel a new outward confidence around HIV: "Panti gave a talk last Summer and she brought up HIV. I asked her a question about it and [in doing so] self-identified as HIV positive in front of a whole audience [of colleagues]. Afterwards, a few people came up to me, mostly privately via chat, to say that they are too but that nobody knows. That felt nice". Although Daniel found reassurance in this, his disclosure story makes plain the social barriers still faced by people with HIV, hindering them from being their truest and best selves. This is not lost on him.
"That’s what a lot of it is about. Suddenly there's a face to HIV. It's what early gay rights activists were all about: that coming out is an important political act because then you move from being this abstract other – the queers in some faraway land – to the neighbour, the son, the cousin. That just makes it more human". It is not unreasonable to suggest that this far easier to say after the fact, but Daniel sees it as a two-way street: "It’s one thing that we do live in a society that has a homophobic and judgemental element. But on the other hand, our fear of those elements only exacerbates them and perpetuates them", he says. However, he maintains that the elimination of stigma will ultimately flow from simply talking. Again, drawing on a more general example: "until people came out as gay, you could think of them as these weird queers in some basement somewhere fellating each other. And fair enough if they do, until you realise it’s also your cousin or neighbour or whatever. Starting those kinds of conversations around HIV is what we need to do".
Daniel argues perfectly that we should take ownership of our composite identities, embrace and exploit our hybridity and use it as a tool to potentially help others. He returns to Panti's talk for illustration: "I wasn’t even planning on doing that reveal, but I happened to be serendipitously in a situation that activated that part of my identity. I thought, 'oh, yeah, maybe others could benefit from this – let’s do it'. When you are yourself, you give license to others to do the same. If you hide yourself away, then others will feel that’s okay. You kind of contribute to this idea that some things are just not said, just not brought out in public. It takes a lot of conscious effort to break that".