Bob Leahy: First of all congratulations. Now I know you ran for Mr. Gay New Zealand because you wanted to talk about HIV. Tell me about that.
Charlie Tredway: Right. My only reason was to bring visibility to HIV and to move past the stigma and the (untrue) fact that people living with HIV should be ashamed of themselves, not as good as the wider community. When I moved back to New Zealand from Sydney, the first campaign I did was because they didn’t have any HIV-positive gay males under the age of 45 that were comfortable sharing their status publicly.
So now they do. Tell me during the contest itself, how were you received while having that very visible HIV-focused platform?
It was a real surprise. I had the most gorgeous support from the public. Not just from my friends and acquaintances but people in the community that I had never met before and seeing this resonate with them and my platform worth supporting was really mind-blowing. It exceeded my wildest expectations.
Are there any particular aspects of the HIV experience you want to get across to people, Charlie?
Mainly stigma; it’s the most insidious part of living with HIV. You take your meds and it’s perfectly manageable but you have no control over how other people treat you. Everybody wants to be their authentic, true selves, not to be afraid to be genuine with people and that’s generally where HIV-positive people get the short end of the stick. There is the general perception that we are lesser people, that we are “dirty” or “unclean”. You only have to open a dating site and get that sort of reaction. But more than that, stigma is found in every single part of the HIV response. It stops people getting tested, it stops people having really healthy sexual health discussions.
OK let me ask you this. I’m sure you are familiar with the U = U (Undetectable = Untransmittable) campaign which tells us that people who have a sustained undetectable viral load are incapable of transmitting the virus sexually. Would that be part of your ant-stigma messaging?
Yes, as an HIV-positive person and as an advocate for people living with HIV, I’m very much on board with U = U messaging. It is vital that we get the information out there that we are now living in a wholly different time and that starting treatment early and adhering to your treatment is important – and it’s quality treatment these days that gets the virus down to negligible levels where the risk of passing it on is effectively zero, with no transmissions recorded. That’s an amazing scientific breakthrough and adds to our repertoire of ways to fight stigma and stop new transmissions. The U = U campaign is really bold and it’s really important.
I know that’s your personal opinion, but do you think the U = U message is a hard sell in your country?
Well, I struggled myself to reach an undetectable viral load. There could be a perception of creating a sense of “otherness” if you were unable to access treatment and feel unable to achieve the same kind of benefits. It’s always important to recognize that some people, through no fault of their own, might not be able to reach an undetectable viral load. In New Zealand, we have a CD4 threshold where you are not allowed to start treatment until your CD4 count drops below 500. It’s a stumbling block for adopting a U = U strategy.
I wasn’t aware of that. What about the potential impact on U = U on criminalization of HIV non-disclosure in New Zealand?
I think it’s an issue everywhere. People everywhere are starting to get their head around the incontrovertible science of it all and the changes in the HIV landscape. It’s about playing catch-up, it’s about lobbying and making them aware of the risk of transmission when you are undetectable and how you get legal consideration for that. I don’t think in New Zealand we have had any cases where that has been taken into consideration before. We as a country – and every country - need to be modern as to the science and the laws relating to it.
OK, that’s a good answer. Getting back to your award, and on the lighter side, now everybody knows you are HIV-positive how is that going to change your dating life?
Well everybody knows I’m HIV-positive already.
But now you are a celebrity. Will that change things?
I can’t answer that. I’ve been perpetually single my entire adult life.
OK, but you have an opportunity to take this one step further now.
Yes, I’ll be travelling to Madrid, the Marspalomas Spain to compete in the Mr. Gay World in May, so that’s going to be really exciting and a bit nerve wracking.
So the big question is what are you going to be wearing?
I’m looking at a nice tuxedo for the formal wear section. I’m currently in the market for some nice swimwear. The judging criteria is a bit different from New Zealand. In New Zealand it was primarily about what issues you stand for and how able you are to articulate them. Over in Mr. Gay World there is a little more of the traditional pageant side. I know some of the other contestants may be working hard at the gym to get their bodies into top shape but that’s not the platform that I’ll be running on. I’m going as me and all that entails, and I’m going to let what I have to say speak for itself.
So you will be continuing to speak about being HIV positive – and reducing stigma.
I think I’ll be speaking about this every day for the rest of my life. It’s something I’m very passionate about. It’s a really important message, not just for New Zealand. How do we unpack that? By visibility, having people out there who are not afraid to tell their stories, not afraid to challenge those notions that we should be silent or can’t do anything that HIV-negative people can do. This whole experience has been really exciting. The outpouring of love and support and just knowing that people are on board with the message has been really gratifying.
That’s great to hear Charlie. That’s a good note to end on. Thanks a million for talking to us and good luck as you take your journey to the next level.
About Charlie: Charlie Tredway is a 33 years old, HIV-positive man born in South Africa and now living in Auckland, New Zealand. He is a community engagement officer with an AIDS Service Organization there.