How Facebook helps individuals with HIV shed the stigma and disgrace

Just earlier than Brian Sheldon turned 50, he got here out as a homosexual man. He lived within the suburbs of Brisbane, on Australia’s east coast, along with his spouse of 25 years. He had two grownup youngsters. When he and his spouse separated, he had no homosexual associates.

And the primary time he had a sexual expertise with one other man, Brian Sheldon contracted HIV.

At first he did not know what was flawed. He sought medical recommendation, however after a yr of speaking to docs, being misdiagnosed with glandular fever and usually “feeling crappy,” Sheldon ultimately took issues into his personal fingers. The certified nurse took a pattern of his personal blood and despatched it for testing. The constructive HIV analysis got here by way of simply earlier than Christmas in 2013.

Sheldon had 1,000,000 questions however did not know the place to show for solutions. The GPs he labored with had little data, he could not get in to see a specialist till early the next yr and the HIV assist teams he discovered have been closed for the vacations. So he did what many people do once we’re on the lookout for assist with an issue. He went on-line.

Sheldon joined The Institute of Many, a self-described “grassroots movement” for HIV-positive individuals. Designed as an online-first assist community, TIM’s central pillar is a closed Facebook group that gives a discussion board for HIV-positive individuals to speak about their situation, free from stigma, and to come back to phrases with their analysis with the assist of different individuals dwelling with HIV.

The group fashioned on-line, however its assist networks unfold into the true world. In early March, TIM members from throughout Australia who’d met on Facebook marched in Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, Australia’s model of the Pride Parade and one of many greatest homosexual satisfaction occasions on the earth.

Members of The Institute of Many get able to march in Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade. 

Claire Reilly/CNET

In the period of #DeleteFacebook, when the social community is being charged with profiting off individuals’s private information, spreading pretend information and even killing civil democracy, TIM is a reminder that social media can nonetheless be an unimaginable instrument for unifying individuals.

Facebook helps LGBTQI individuals all over the world overcome social, bodily and cultural isolation and discover their tribe. And with greater than 2 billion individuals utilizing Facebook each month, there is a very huge tribe to be discovered.

Living constructive


Brian Sheldon got here out on the age of 50 when he was married with two youngsters.

Claire Reilly/CNET

Around the world there are near 37 million individuals dwelling with HIV, in accordance with UN figures. Roughly 1.eight million individuals contract the virus yearly, and whereas an infection charges are declining, as many as 14 % of HIV constructive individuals do not know they’re contaminated.

In 2013, Sheldon was a type of individuals dwelling with undiagnosed HIV. But when he was identified, he was terrified.

“Not having anyone, not having any gay friends, only having my wife and kids to support me, and working in a medical center where I had access to the drug cupboard, I was very close quite a lot of times to just taking everything in the cupboard and injecting it,” Sheldon says.

But 5 years later, Sheldon is flourishing. Why? HIV is not a demise sentence.

For these with a constructive analysis, antiretroviral remedies can hold the virus below management, lowering the viral load in an individual’s physique so HIV turns into each undetectable and untransmittable. Sheldon says managing his sickness is now just like managing the signs of different persistent circumstances like diabetes. 

And for people who find themselves HIV unfavorable, antiretroviral remedies like Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis or PrEP can scale back the danger of contracting HIV. Taken day by day, just like the best way ladies would possibly take the Pill to stop an unplanned being pregnant, the drugs can scale back the danger of getting HIV by as a lot as 90 %. 

Growing up throughout the peak of the AIDS epidemic — a illness that was described within the early ’80s as Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID — it is unusual to listen to HIV being in comparison with diabetes. I bear in mind the commercials on TV in Australia within the ’90s. The worst confirmed a terrifying Grim Reaper pulling down AIDS victims like pins at a bowling alley — an commercial that has since been criticized for associating the Grim Reaper with homosexual males.

That stigma of HIV and AIDS has been onerous to shake for the reason that early days of the epidemic. It’s a stigma Sheldon felt keenly when he was first identified. But 5 years after his authentic analysis, it is onerous to think about the pleasant, gray-haired man sitting reverse me may have felt so alone.

Your Disco Needs You


TIM’s motto is U=U: Undetectable equals untransmittable. 

Claire Reilly/CNET

We’ve met in a pub in Sydney on a sizzling afternoon in March, simply hours earlier than the beginning of the Mardi Gras Parade. It’s Sheldon’s second Mardi Gras march (his first, final yr, featured an look by Cher) and he is surrounded by 80 women and men in orange and blue T-shirts, all of whom will probably be marching alongside him to boost consciousness of HIV.

They’re all members of TIM — individuals from totally different walks of life who met on Facebook and have now solid friendships in the true world with a purpose of dwelling a contented and wholesome life with HIV.

Tonight, they’re marching below TIM’s central motto of U=U — undetectable equals untransmittable. (But as a result of that is Mardi Gras, and Aussie LGBTQI icon Kylie Minogue will make an look later within the night time, their float is technically titled “Your Disco Needs U=U”.)

The pub is a hive of exercise. There are new associates taking selfies and marchers making last-minute tweaks to costumes — the float’s sci-fi theme has translated into silver sizzling pants, disco-ball headbands, and sufficient glitter hairspray within the ladies’s loos to threaten the ozone layer.

For Sheldon, tonight is a good distance from the darkness he felt when he was first identified. For him, TIM has been a solution to come to phrases along with his analysis and speak overtly in a means he cannot in the true world.

“It’s just like being part of a family. There’s no judgment, you can talk about anything you like, you can talk about things you do in the bedroom and no one even cares.” He pauses, “So, it’s better than a family, because family judges you.”

It’s not nearly making a secure area on-line. While members use the TIM group to ask questions and share recommendation, the group additionally promotes in-person catch-ups so members can socialize “outside the traditional bar scene.”

“When you have your get-togethers, you’ll have people coming in with problems that they didn’t want to talk about on the public forum [of Facebook],” Sheldon says. “So you may get individuals coming as much as you saying, ‘Yeah I’ve seen you on the positioning, I’ve acquired this downside with my treatment, what do you assume?””

With simply over 1,900 members unfold throughout Australia, TIM has members from all walks of life — homosexual males, hetero ladies, former injecting drug customers and intercourse employees — all coming collectively in a judgement-free area on a social community they use day by day. There’s additionally a devoted TIM Women group that is spun off to solely assist ladies dwelling with HIV.

The outdated lesson of the HIV response has all the time been to go the place persons are … we utilized that considering to the place persons are as we speak, which is on-line.

Nic Holas, The Institute of Many

TIM was first established as an e-mail group and web site in late 2012 (the identify was impressed by group employee Tim Conigrave, who labored in Sydney throughout the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the ’80s and wrote the critically acclaimed memoir, Holding the Man).

But earlier than lengthy, TIM founders Nic Holas and Jeff Lange realized that in the event that they have been going to create a social motion for individuals dwelling with HIV, it wanted to be on social media.


TIM co-founder Nic Holas on the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade.

Nic Holas

“The old lesson of the HIV response has always been to go where people are — don’t ask them to come to you,” Holas says. “Back within the ’80s and ’90s, that is why individuals went into homosexual nightclubs and bathhouses with condoms and posters and knowledge campaigns. They did not look ahead to individuals to show up on the city corridor conferences.

“We utilized that considering to the place persons are as we speak and the place individuals spend most of their time, which is on-line. And Facebook was the plain area.”

It is sensible. Facebook customers are already spending near an hour a day on common on the platform. It’s there once they get up, it is there on their lunch break. Someone dwelling with a constructive analysis is already on Facebook speaking to associates, household and work mates, so why would not they speak to different individuals with HIV, too?

“Imagine the web is like the true world,” Holas says. “Asking individuals to leap over to a different web site to log in and have interaction is like asking somebody to get off the practice midway dwelling, go someplace totally different and are available again once more. We actually wished to have an area that individuals may drop out and in of day by day and hold at the back of their thoughts.”

‘Pull it collectively!’

That sort of on a regular basis relationship with social media is second nature to Ricky Monachino, a 26-year-old name heart rep from Sydney who grew up within the Facebook technology. While Facebook is dealing with claims that younger persons are abandoning its platform, TIM is giving them a purpose to maintain logging on.

For Monachino, TIM has been a lifeline that is helped him out of one of many darkest intervals of his life.

“Pre-diagnosis I used to be sort of spiraling and making a number of self-destructive decisions,” he says. “Post analysis there was about two days after I was a large number, notably as a result of I used to be going by way of my head with all of the stigma about feeling soiled and feeling diseased.

“But then I rapidly snapped myself out of it. It was two days of being a sizzling mess after which, ‘No, Ricky, you have to f**king pull it collectively!””


26-year-old Ricky Monachino says he is completed a “full 180” since becoming a member of TIM.

Claire Reilly/CNET

Ricky is frank, pleasant and instantly likable. We chat in regards to the pleasure of being in his first Mardi Gras Parade. He provides me recommendation on the place to purchase the stick-on diamantes he is sporting on his face (“They’re just from Kmart!”). And he’s unerringly open about his HIV journey.

He examined constructive for the virus six months in the past after being concerned within the chemsex scene, the place males take medicine resembling methamphetamines to maintain prolonged sexual exercise — one thing he says is a significant issue within the homosexual group.

But since being a member of TIM for 4 months, he says he is completed a “complete 180.”

“TIM has been phenomenal, it’s been very important in helping me to normalize and not self-stigmatize,” he says.

“I’ve grown up in a rural area so I know what it’s like being isolated from having a community around you. Being ‘the only gay in the village.’ So I think to have an online space that’s safe and that’s tailored just for you and that condition, it’s something that needs to be there.”


Sydney’s Mardi Gras Parade began as a protest march in 1978 in solidarity with the Stonewall riots, a 1969 rebellion that noticed members of New York’s LGBTQI group violently protesting police brutality. On that first Sydney march, 53 individuals have been arrested.

Since then, the Parade has grown to grow to be an internationally acknowledged occasion, equal components protest, celebration and self-expression for the LGBTQI group and their allies.

In 2019, the Parade theme was “Fearless” — a theme organizers stated not solely inspired LGBTQI individuals to be fearless in telling their very own tales, however to be fearless in talking up when others cannot. While Sydney turns right into a veritable glitter paradise throughout Mardi Gras, the occasion’s organizers know that is not the case in all places round Australia, or all over the world.

Facebook and Instagram’s Mardi Gras Parade float featured a large, illuminated cut-out of its Voguing Figure sticker. 


Whether it is the bodily isolation of being “the only gay in the village” in a rural space, the cultural isolation of being a first-generation Australian who’s simply come out and even the isolation that may happen throughout the LGBTQI group (notably for trans individuals and other people of shade), life is not all the time glittery.

But Facebook itself says it hopes to create areas the place individuals can overcome that isolation.

According to Mia Garlick, head of coverage for Facebook Australia, LGBTQI Facebook teams in Australia have doubled in membership up to now yr as individuals head on-line to search out their tribe.

“Where LGBTQI people can’t find community in their everyday life, a platform like Facebook becomes a powerful place to discover similar people and create meaningful relationships,” she says.

In extra socially or religiously conservative international locations, it can be a lifesaver. For individuals who haven’t got easy accessibility to HIV care and assist infrastructure, a Facebook group could be the one means somebody can speak overtly about dwelling with HIV.

But it is not nearly connections between comparable individuals. Garlick says Facebook has additionally elevated LGBTQI visibility, giving individuals “the power to change hearts and minds.”

This was notably true throughout Australia’s Marriage Equality debate. In 2017, the nation voted on whether or not federal legislation must be modified to permit same-sex marriage and Facebook grew to become one of many key locations the place debate performed out.

Australians Gather To Hear Result Of Marriage Equality SurveyAustralians Gather To Hear Result Of Marriage Equality Survey

Campaigners say Facebook performed a essential position in bringing out the Yes vote throughout Australia’s marriage equality survey. 

Don Arnold/Getty Images

There’s little doubt it was a darkish time for a lot of on social media, with platforms like Facebook and Twitter amplifying a few of the most caustic corners of the controversy. Mental well being suppliers, specifically, noticed a spike within the variety of younger LGBTQI individuals accessing their companies. But Facebook additionally grew to become a strong instrument for the “Yes” marketing campaign for marriage equality (a marketing campaign that finally received out, leading to a change to the legislation in December 2017).

According to Adam Knobel, the digital marketing campaign director for the Yes Equality Campaign, the motion’s Facebook web page reached extra individuals than the mixed readership of Australia’s main newspapers.

“When you factor in that Sydney and Perth are around 4,000 kilometers apart, social media was always going to be crucial to how we would connect marriage equality campaigners across a continent,” he stated by way of e-mail.

“We were able to promote personal, powerful stories we collected from the community on social media — people who told us why they were voting yes and who they were voting for.”

Those tales resonated. The #PostYourYes hashtag trended as individuals shared tales about why they wished to get married or how the change would have an effect on these near them. According to Knobel, these private connections have been the sport changer, as a result of the phrases of family and friends members can take advantage of distinction with regards to huge actions like marriage equality.

“It is their voices we listen to most when deciding how we feel about something or working out how to vote.”

Marching ahead

While Facebook has its share of pretend profiles and pretend information, it is nonetheless overwhelmingly about the true voices we discover on there. It’s the place we go to share details about ourselves with others we all know and care about.

And for Nic Holas, that authenticity has been central to the facility of TIM.

“People perceive the mechanics of Facebook feeds and their profiles are them,” he says. “That’s actually vital as a result of it encourages them to be sincere and to be themselves … I’m sure that we might not have grown and grow to be as profitable as we’re if we would tried to do that on a separate standalone web site.”

Back on the pub in Sydney, Ricky Monachino has been placing names to faces and has already made a couple of new associates. Later that night time, he’ll march side-by-side with them — women and men of all stripes that he would possibly by no means have met if he hadn’t joined TIM.

“Everyone kind of pulls together, we drop our baggage at the door and we just get on with it,” he says. 

Brian Sheldon will probably be behind the parade group, marching as a substitute of dancing (“I’m very uncoordinated!” he says).

After Mardi Gras, he’ll depart Sydney and head again north to his dwelling within the Brisbane suburbs. He’ll nonetheless have his tough days. He nonetheless has to take care of the common sickness that comes from working in a medical heart with a compromised immune system, and he nonetheless has to handle the negative effects of HIV.

But the parade provides him and the remainder of TIM a strong platform.

“There are so many people out there that are still so scared of it, and so we need to enlighten them,” Sheldon says.

What higher means to do this than by throwing on some glitter and strolling side-by-side with 80 shut associates that have been as soon as strangers?