'People living with HIV are the walking embodiment of the shame we attribute to sex'

HIV campaigner Robbie Lawlor talks about the stigma surrounding the condition in Ireland

Living with HIV, activist Robbie Lawlor (25) believes that in order to overcome the stigma and discrimination against the condition in Ireland, people need to start fighting the shame society attributes towards sexual activity.

“We have to talk openly about sex,” says Robbie, “We all do it and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

He believes that a more open attitude towards sex would contribute to safer practices and less stigma surrounding sexually transmitted infections.

“If we can’t talk openly about sex with our friends and family, how are we going to negotiate safer sex with people we may potentially sleep with?

“Shame inhibits people from going to get tested, and prevents people from getting the information they need.”

Robbie has been campaigning for increased awareness of HIV and AIDS in Ireland since his own diagnosis at 21.

He had just finished college and was planning to move to Australia permanently to pursue a career in zoology, when he went for his first sexual health check.

“I was going to fulfil my dream of working with animals, and working in conservation, all the while living in a sunny climate.”

When it turned out he was HIV positive, his plans fell apart as it wasn’t possible to get permanent residency in Australia if you were HIV positive in 2012.

Robbie understands the ban has now been lifted, but the cost of medical bills and insurance would prevent him from living there.

Before he was diagnosed Robbie said he was naive enough to think if he had no symptoms he didn’t have an STI.

“I never thought HIV would affect me because I never really heard of anyone my age talking about it. I didn’t even know it was in Ireland.”

He now wants to encourage more people to open up about their diagnoses in order to de-stigmatise the disease.

“I have to be cognisant that some people are in very difficult situations and are maybe not in a position to talk,” he added, “everyone has different reasons and individual stories.”

“But to those people who may be living with HIV and have a great support system behind them, I want to give them that extra push.

“The more stories we hear about HIV, the more faces we can put behind the statistics. I think we can break down the stigma together.”

Robbie referenced the example of the awareness raised by Niall Breslin surrounding mental health recently.

“I think people like Bressie talking about anxiety really registered with people. It’s a good model to go by for anything that’s taboo.”

New figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre have indicated an increase in HIV in Ireland.

There were 491 new HIV diagnosis notified during 2015, which is 30% more than 2014.

Robbie believes the increase is as a result of sex becoming more readily available, through social media and dating apps, and not down to a higher number of people coming forward to get tested.

He also thinks this rise in sexual activity is not matched by a rise in adequate education and is now calling for better communication and information around HIV and other STIs in Ireland.

"HIV is such a loaded medical condition," he explained, "but it's actually very manageable.

“If you don’t want to talk about your HIV status, just talk a bit more openly about sex and shame.

“I find when I start the conversation, it breaks down the barriers with other people and gives them a safe non judgemental space to really talk openly about things."