If you followed the International AIDS Conference in Paris this last summer, you might have read that community activists caused quite a stir. In particular they interrupted one plenary session and took over the stage. They danced, chanted and spoke about the impact U=U had on their lives. One of these activists was Minas, 36, from Istanbul. He’s tall, striking looking - and straight. His words were striking too – the fact that people with HIV have sex and the good news that U=U can bring them. It was a powerful moment, one of the highlights of the conference for all of us lucky enough to be on the stage with him. I caught up with him recently via WhatsApp.
Bob: Good to reconnect like this, my friend. Tell me what it’s like being out and poz in Turkey? Is it difficult?
Minas: Actually I am not open about my status because when I learned about my status the situation was worse because and I was in show business as an actor. And then That's why I prefer to talk from the perspective of a community representative. But I think you can get the idea of how difficult being poz is here - you can easily lose your position or job or your family or wife or husband. That means that when I am talking on TV or for newspapers I don’t say directly that I am poz. Because I strongly believe that, what I have in my blood is not important for the others. This is non of their business.The important thing is what I am saying and what is scientific proof about what I am saying.
So nobody knows your status in Turkey except yourself?
Of course some people know - a few friends, my gf, some doctors of course. Our clients, all the doctors, some family members and more. I mean I am sharing this information only with people who need to know. I am not asking anything about people’s sexual or health life. So why do they need to know about my status?
Who was the first person you told then?
My girlfriend and then some friends and my brother.
And your girlfriends’ reaction was?
I remember that she was afraid a bit and prejudiced.
So how did you reassure her?
In the first 24 hours I devoured all the scientific information I could and Ihen I talked to her about this information. It was good for me because that was how I learned that knowing scientific information could make me strong. This is exactly how I am doing activism now.
So you read up on HIV? Can I ask how recently you were diagnosed Arda?
I will tell you something really interesting about my diagnosis - and it’s not a joke. I learned about my status on December 1st and my birthday is Dec 1st. It was 2009.
Tell me about that day then.
It was a small hospital where one of my friends had a minor operation and when she needed blood I was killing time in the corridor. They asked for 0 rh+ type blood which is the same as mine. So I gave one unit of blood and they checked my blood and they found it.
What was your reaction?
A bit shocked, of course. I wasn’t totally unaware of HIV but the Doctor who told me about my results was a super bad person and also homophobic. Because she explain the results in very bad way with comment; I will gonne die in 10 years! Of course it was very old information and I am planning to visit her on my 11th years with HIV. I hope she can survive until that day. Because I will.
Did you immediately go on treatment?
Yes. My first CD4 count was 340 and my viral loaf was over 100,000. I started to take ART immediately. Truvada and Efavirenz was the best option for the moment; there weren’t any symptoms.
I see. When did you first hear about U=U then?
I was aware of HPTN052 when I first saw a report about the campaign at the very beginning. That’s when I wrote to Bruce to be a partner organization on behalf of the Turkish community. There were only five or six organizations in then.
And then you went to the International AIDS conference in Paris. Tell me about that.
Paris was an amazing experience for me even if it wasn’t my first conference. I want to share something very special about Paris, though. While we were all in the poz lounge after the U=U press conference with wonderful activists like Christian Hui, Bruce, Charles King and lots of others they talked about the planned demonstration next day. Charles asked me if I wanted to talk at that. So I said yes but then I told Bruce “this is your campaign, you are the star. Why am I the first? You should talk.” I’ll never forgot his wonderful answer. He said 'You know I come from the States and I talk everywhere. I think you should talk because you are doing really well, and this is the perfect message for people”. This moment was more emotional than being on the stage next day. It was just perfect!
So the next day, I know what happened but I want to hear it in your own words. Do you remember what you said?
Every word. For me two most important parts were first, being poz is not easy in Turkey and the EECA region. Secondly “one day, I can be a father without fear of putting my girlfriend at risk'' I don’t want to be a father but people needed to know that I CAN BE! Before Paris I’d been on the stage about 500 times but being on the stage at Paris and talking about something like U=U felt like changing the world. U=U is revolutionary. I am pretty sure that, even after 20 years, people who were there will remember that moment. When we left the stage together I saw some people crying. Some people stopped and gave me huge hugs with lots of emotional words...
Right, I think Paris was a highly important milestone/turning point - personally for me and for the U=U campaign. Were you nervous? Emotional? Happy though?
Yes I was nervous but ıf I decide to do something I will do it generally, that's me, But yes, I was very emotional before and after the demo.
Yes I remember that
I think we all cried. We all went out to dinner afterwards and I cried there too. It was such a momentous day! Anyway, let’s talk about your work in Turkey. You lead an AIDS Service Organization there?
Ok, there is a parallel connection with U=U. I have been working on HIV about nine years but the most important moment was two years ago. I was really tired and sick of this old and very pessimistic HIV language and I decided to go for a new NGO.
You started one up?
Honesty, the only thing I had was self-power and some international networks. I founded Red Ribbon İstanbul Association. Currently I am its chairperson and I am proud to tell you that in just 18 months this organization is one the most respected NGO's in Turkey. In only 18 months we had Turkey's first Red Ribbon Party, a Red Ribbon Gala and published Turkey's first joint statement together with highly respected doctor organizations, which included U=U. I believe this is really huge success because it means U=U is officially approved by most restpectful Doctors This kind of thing happening for the for first time in Turkey’s HIV story. I am really proud of myself about that.
Good. Tell me what it was intended to tell people.
Red Ribbon Istanbul is an organization that aims to raise awareness and provide information on HIV, focusing mainly on people living in İstanbul in various segments of the population. We strongly believe that the most effective tool to prevent the spread of HIV is knowledge that is scientifically-proven and data-supported. With the know-how of our members who come from various fields, including law, health, entertainment and politics, we aim to provide precise information about HIV to all segments of society, using clear and easy-to-understand language.
Tell me about the HIV epidemic in Turkey then.
Turkey is still a low epidemic country but numbers are crazily increasing; the number of cases is about 15, 000 since 1985. Approximately 9,000 people are taking ART. According to official data most are heterosexual but our data is showing HIV is a real risk among the young men who have sex with men (MSM) population.
What about infection through injection drug use?
In my experience it's not a real problem but chemsex is a huge problem. I mean really huge.
Same here in North America. It’s amazing to be able to talk to you again about so many important things and great to reconnect with you. Thank you for talking to me, Arda, and to PositiveLite.com
Thank you for your support again and for what you are doing for people living with HIV. I’m so happy and proud to know you.