When it comes to HIV, we finally have reasons to celebrate. No longer the elephant in the gay bar, HIV has been in the media a lot lately thanks to new statistics announcing a 42% drop in new diagnoses of the virus at London’s busiest sexual health clinic, 56 Dean Street. Combine that with the court ruling in November 2016 that NHS England can fund life-saving, game-changing drug PrEP to gay men most at risk. At last, it seems as though we can look at a future free from HIV.
While you can now take a pill to prevent the virus or treat it, there’s no pill for the stigma and discrimination that comes along with the diagnosis. No, for that, you can’t rely on science; you need the arts. You can’t appeal biologically; you need to appeal emotionally. And that’s why productions such as Patrick Cash’s The HIV Monologues are so important. They humanise a media-twisted concept, showing the people rather than the statistics, and challenge out-dated beliefs and stigmas.
“I wrote The HIV Monologues to explore where we have been as a community in the 80s, in the 90s when medication came through, and today in terms of us polarising and the stigma,” explains Cash. “We lost almost an entire generation of gay men in the 80s. This play commemorates our history of what’s happened.”
The story follows Nick, newly diagnosed with HIV and newly dating Alex, and follows his emotional struggles with romance, drugs and self-worth. Interweaved are the stories from a nurse who cares for an AIDS patient, and the story of his lover who survives. The lover is played by Jonathan Blake – one of the first people diagnosed with AIDS in the UK, who is now an actor, an activist and something of a gay icon.
In writing the play, Cash found himself in “Catch 22 situation” – how to stop the demonising of people living with HIV without diminishing the importance of not getting the virus. Simply put, the message is: “Don’t get it and don’t stigmatise it.” To achieve this, Cash “shows the human aspect, and looks at the beauty of human warmth that can come out of something as debilitating as a terminal illness.”
When researching the play, Cash found many moments of such warmth and kindness. He spoke to a nurse, for example, who once arranged for an AIDS patient to go out on a motorcycle ride because it was something they’d always wanted to do, just three days before the victim died. When he recounts the story, the playwright is still visibly moved.
In its approach to HIV, the play doesn’t try to sugar coat it. It doesn’t shy away from unsafe sexual behaviours and drug use, two features commonly associated with the gay scene. “I’m not saying whether drugs are good or bad,” defends Cash. “What I am saying is that there are people who use drugs in harmful ways, and with drug use and risky behaviours, there can be underlying reasons and those reasons are important. They need help and support.” This play isn’t a Sunday School lesson on the dangers of drugs, sexual health and HIV; it’s a realistic and empathetic portrayal of someone’s experience of it all. It is this kind of understanding that helps to challenge stigma.
Cash is a prominent figure on London’s sexual health scene. He is a patient champion at 56 Dean Street; runs a popular community forum called Let’s Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs; hosts a monthly event called HIV Conversations, and as well as The HIV Monologues, he wrote The Chemsex Monologues, which was much praised throughout its run.
“I’m not talking about gay sex, or drugs, or HIV, to cause shock or to distress; I’m talking about it because so few people are. If we don’t create a dialogue and make it more open, the gay community will perpetuate the shame and stigma of issues that need help.” Through all of his work, Cash is not only generating conversation, but also building communities, offering support and overcoming stigma. The future might be HIV-free, but until then, that’s everything we need.