Geoff from Yorkshire Bears suggested that I introduce myself to you, some of you may have seen me around the bars and some I might have tested in the past. For you who don’t know, my name’s Tom Hunt and I have been working for Yorkshire MESMAC Leeds for about 6 and half years working in HIV prevention for gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men. It would be no secret to say that one of our biggest services Testing Times – our rapid HIV testing service – is an absolute passion of mine. The service is a trailblazer in providing free, confidential and flexible HIV testing to our community, it has won awards, I’ve had NHS medical professionals say to me with a tinge of envy that we’ve got an amazing reputation nationally for innovation and doing what should be done. I remember when I first joined, we were delivering Testing Times on just Thursday evenings in Leeds…now we do every Tuesday and Thursday evening 6-8pm, first Saturday of the month 12-3pm, first Sunday of the month at the Basement Sauna 2-4pm and appointments can be made outside of those hours any day in Leeds alone. We have also rolled out Testing Times to other areas in Bradford, Wakefield & North Yorkshire. That’s a massive shift in HIV testing availability thanks to your feedback and support. Thankfully the guys that suggest early morning on Sundays are few and far between!
All of these things are brilliant but the reason why I am passionate about Testing Times comes from an experience rooted in my teenage years. I was potentially exposed to HIV from a partner when I was 16 and needed to get an HIV test. I was, to use a colourful term, “shitting bricks” in fear and my experience at the hospital was awful. I got judgement for having underage sex, being gay, and the nurse seemed more interested in that than helping me with the facts of HIV or my questions. At the time, I was so terrified of HIV I used a condom for oral sex every time and had trusted my partner completely…rather naïve I know. Being gay basically meant that I was going to “get HIV” which I know is complete tosh now. I had to wait 3-4 weeks for my results and kept it quiet from everyone I knew. I had to re-test as the test might not be able to pick up HIV within 12 weeks. Every time I saw something about AIDS, I went quiet in fear. I thought about my funeral. Thankfully I finally got a negative result, an admonition not to do it again and that I was lucky for now. The NHS has changed massively now and I genuinely like many of our nurses and doctors in sexual health as I know they would be horrified to have that kind of service now.
That experience means that I can understand fully why someone might be put off testing for HIV, for fear of judgement and while horrible at the time, it has made me a better person for this job. I absolutely love talking with people (the service is open to everyone not just gay men) and giving them the exact opposite of my first testing experience. Even now, I get people surprised that we give them the results in 20 minutes…a cuppa tea later and they have their result. That’s a powerful thing. I get people saying that they were stupid…I firmly state to them, that YOU are definitely not stupid as you haven’t buried your head in the sand and have faced your fear head on. You have our support in what comes next. Yes, HIV can be scary but somehow explaining the facts in a simple and honest non-judgemental approach works. We don’t expect you to have a huge behaviour change from seeing one of us but we do hope that we can give you information to make your informed choices about how much risk you want to put yourself in the future.
We will be changing in the future as new tests and technologies become available, and I’ll touch upon some of these in future articles. We’re not content to let the other services play “catch-up”, we’re VERY competitive and want to reduce the stigma of HIV testing for all of the Yorkshire MESMAC areas. If you want to get in touch I’m on Facebook “Tom H Mesmac”, my email address is email@example.com and our Leeds office number is 0113 244 4209. For all our testing services’ times and locations, including our full sexual health testing clinic at the Steam Complex Sauna run by NHS nurses, please visit http://mesmac.co.uk/testing-times-session-calendar
Thank you! Tom
And don’t forget, if you’d like to give a few hours of you time to help MESMAC, you can join the Yorkshire Bears at our next condom packing event on July 16 at Bar Fibre in Leeds. More details here.