Growing up as a young gay guy in a rather difficult environment, Chris Vincent experienced bullying like many queer people. After graduating from acting school, the Danish LGBT and HIV/Aids activist had to face an additional challenge in his young life: He was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2014. Since then, he has taken part in different campaigns to spread knowledge and awareness for HIV/AIDS and founded an NGO. For Couple of Men, feminist and women’s rights activist Sarah talks with Chris on World AIDS Day about his coming out as gay and as a person living with HIV (human immunodeficiency viruses), persistent misconceptions, and stereotypes, dating as an HIV-positive man, HIV Activism, and worldwide access to HIV medication.
Interview by Sarah Tekath
You grew up in Denmark. Did the matters of LGBTQ+, HIV, and Aids have been a topic at that time?
Not in a positive way. I grew up in the south of Denmark, in a rural area. My first encounter with LGBT there was being bullied before I even knew what gay meant. That also set the scene for later, when I found out myself that I am gay because I was not living in the most embracing environment. Access to information was mostly self-driven. I would actively find out by myself that there is such a thing as the LGBTQ+ community. Luckily, when I was discovering my sexuality, the internet and social media had already become a thing. In online forums, I learned that I was not alone. Sexual education at school was mostly limited to one perspective of how a man sleeps with a woman. How to put on a condom etc. LGBT was for sure not a topic.
You were diagnosed to be HIV-positive. Did you have any symptoms, or was this completely unexpected?
Looking back, I can say I had symptoms, but I wanted to avoid admitting it or didn’t want to connect the dots. After the diagnosis, we found out I had an acute HIV infection. It was like horrible flu, with nausea and diarrhea. But when I went to my GP at an earlier point and I explained all my symptoms, nobody made an HIV test. Instead, they transferred me to a specialist for gastroenterology. Also, there, nobody made an HIV test. Until the point where I thought to myself that I should get tested. So, I went to one of these anonymous checkpoints. It went positive quite immediately. It was a shocking experience.
However, I was not afraid of having HIV. I already was well-informed enough to know that I can live a long and happy life with it. But having struggled about being in the closet as a gay man and having come out, having HIV felt like being shoved back into the closet again. Right after the test, I was sent to the hospital and started my treatment. Even though I had strong symptoms, there are also HIV infections that do not come with any symptoms at all, which means people do not know about it. And that is one of the main reasons why it gets transmitted. This is why it is so important to get tested regularly and to know your status.
What was your and your family’s reaction?
It took some time for me to deal with it. I got the diagnosis two days before my graduation from acting school. So, two days later, I am with my whole family, everybody is happy, I just finished three years of school, and I am crying. There is a picture of me holding my diploma, and I am crying. I remember that it was such a conflicting feeling because, since my childhood, I have been dreaming about becoming an actor. It was supposed to be the first step into my adult life, but it turned out to be the beginning of a very rough journey that I had to make to achieve the self-acceptance that I am feeling today.
I told my mom first, but it took years before I finally come out to her with this. Because I felt like I needed to be strong on her account first. I also wasn’t sure how well-informed she was. I just knew that so many people are badly informed that I worried she might think that this was a death sentence. So, I waited until I could tell her, “Mom, I am fine” because, in the beginning, I wasn’t. When I finally told her, after a long pause, she simply said: “I love you.”
By sharing their stories, we learn about the daily lives of couples running a business together that are activists for freedom and equality together, facing everyday problems together, or that is what they are actually two people in love. We want them to be seen – by sharing their stories.
How did you get involved in LGBT and HIV and Aids activism?
In 2013 Putin signed the anti-propaganda law in Russia. Half a year later, the Olympic Winter Games took place in Sotchi. Many voices claimed back then that sponsorships by big companies should be withdrawn. I wrote a message to Coca-Cola about it, which just led to one of these typical political responses. And this pissed me off. This was probably the first moment when I understood how privileged my life is. As a white, male, cisgender person, I can do whatever I like. But there are people out there who cannot do the same. I felt powerless and furious at the same time. I wanted to get that off my chest, and the only thing I knew back then was how to make videos. So, I made this video which is called “Dear Russia, it is not okay.” It went viral. People shared it everywhere, and I was interviewed by Huffington Post. And I have to admit all this attention got to my head.
In 2014, I received the Axgil Activist Award (Danish Rainbow Awards), and I was sitting at a table with all the other award-winners that had invested years of their lives into HIV Activism, and I realized that I needed to do more to have a real impact. So, I promised myself from now on, when I do something, it needed to add value. Real value.
In the same year, I caught HIV, and suddenly, I found myself being in the minority. I did not want attention on me at that point. Back then, the topic was still sort of taboo. But that was also when I realized how important it is to make your voice hear. Because I had no person to go to for help or answers because I didn’t know anybody in the same situation, this became my motivation because I didn’t want others to feel as lonely with their HIV as I felt.
What kind of campaigns does your activism involve?
My video message to Russia was my project, and it was absorbed later into the worldwide campaign of ToRussiaWithLove. That way, I also got involved with Copenhagen Pride, where I was a board member for two years. After I moved to Amsterdam, I cooperated with the Danish Aids Foundation within a group that focuses on the special needs of LGBTQI in the health care system. Additionally, I am also a community ambassador to provide people with the latest information regarding tests, treatments, etc. So people can contact me via all my social media profiles and ask their questions, and the information will be Aids Foundation approved.
Last, but not least, I am the president of Checkpoint Malta. We are trying to make HIV testing more accessible in Malta. Our goal is to make testing more popular because Malta is so small, and everybody knows everybody that people are too afraid to get their HIV tests in clinics because they might be seen by someone they know.
Have you experienced negative reactions against yourself as an activist?
Yes, absolutely. However, the negative comments I received were not very precise. People said, for example, that I only became an activist to promote my acting career. If anything, it damaged my acting career. Another negative incident was with a Tumblr profile that shared intimate personal information about people of the LGBT gay community. It was called send me your dirt, and people would get outed there against their will. Some naked pictures of mine had been leaked and ended up online with some very mean comments. Interestingly, though, the negative feedback was always about me as a person. Nobody was ever criticizing my opinion and what I said as an activist.
What is the current conception in Denmark of people that are HIV-positive?
There are two different ways to look at it. There is the official statement when you look at websites, official information, etc., and there is the way how people act when they feel like nobody is watching. For example, I still have conversations on dating apps where I feel like I need to convince other people who have misconceptions about HIV. This is mostly the case with me being undetectable. Some people still do not believe that this is a thing.
In general, I can say that HIV has become more approachable as a topic, but then again, I am biased because it is me who makes it more approachable. Also, it seems like there is still a lack of knowledge. Luckily, people are at least up to date with the fact that HIV does not mean that I am dying. In Malta, it is different, though.
But I very often receive messages with the content ‘I know I should know this but …’. And this sort of makes me happy because I become the person who I didn’t have, who is visible, who creates a safe space, and who can just be approached with any question.
That is why we would like to use today’s opportunity to share knowledge about this important topic, help to raise awareness, and show our support. Because, even though luckily nowadays there are HIV treatments, the virus has not disappeared and in many parts of the world still threatens people’s lives.
How is the situation regarding medical support in Denmark?
I have not heard of any kind of medical shortage, also not during the pandemic of Covid-19. Our medical expenses are covered by health insurance and the social system of the Danish state.
You have lived in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Malta. Do you see a difference in how those countries deal with topics around LGBT and HIV?
Amsterdam has a culture for a sex-positive lifestyle. There is the Red Light District, so it would be weird not to talk about sex when talking about Amsterdam. Furthermore, sex is very much part of the local party and cultural scene, which leads to more incidences of sexually transferable infections. Therefore, it is also in the interest of the state to invest more money into information, prevention, and testing. Denmark does not have this in the same way, and Malta has its religious roots. All these things add up to how the conception of HIV is in a specific country. So, regarding knowledge, we have Amsterdam as the first in line. Denmark is the runner-up, and Malta has recently started to get into a normal dialogue about it. Until this day, I am still the only person who has officially and openly talked about being HIV-positive in Malta without being anonymous. I feel like I am the face of it in Malta.
Which changes would you like to see among society around people that are HIV-positive?
I have this naive vision that revealing my status of being HIV-positive could become completely uneventful to disclose. I have the ambition that people’s knowledge about HIV, treatments, and prevention become second nature that it doesn’t worry them anymore. Of course, people should take care of themselves, anytime, that goes without saying. But I want knowledge, not fear. So, take care of yourself because of what you know, not because of what you fear. For Europe or, in general, I have the hope that thanks to the knowledge, people will treat people who are HIV-positive as uneventful as it is today.
For Malta, I hope that we can make testing something that is understood as positive. No slut-shaming or no thinking that he had a wild night but seeing it as a responsible, mature action to take care of yourself and others. I just want to make it something more casual to get tested.
Even though HIV-positive people can live a good life in Europe, there are still places in the world where HIV means death. Which changes does the world need to end this?
I am glad you asked this because my experiences relate to an environment where health care is granted and affordable to keep me safe. On a worldwide scale, I hope we can make medication accessible to everybody who needs it. I wish more funding could be sent to regions requiring it- domestic and international funding. My next project will be to learn more about this side of HIV activism.
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I hope that the world can somehow make a mutual effort to reach the 90/90/90 UNAIDS aim. By 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV infection will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, and 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will have viral suppression. That means they become undetectable. Unfortunately, looking at the UNAIDS website, we are not even close. We need to unite forces here because the world gets to see what a pandemic can do right now. So, hopefully, Covid-19, once we have beaten it, will become a reminder of how vital HIV research is.
Chris, thank you very much for the interview.
Do you want to know more about our gay travels around the world? Stay tuned on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. See you again in Europe, the world, Amsterdam, or somewhere around the world! Karl & Daan.