It’s safe to say that Charlie Tredway is a force to be reckoned with. He has been a prolific HIV advocate, both here and further afield and he was recently crowned Mr Gay NZ 2017.
However, every high has its lows and Tredway experienced the ugly side of advocacy when he became a target in the media after his win. Sitting down with express, he sets the record straight once and for all.
After moving back from Sydney, Tredway said he immediately slid into advocacy, participating in the More Than HIV campaign for the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. Following this, he was offered a job at NZAF which he said wasn’t exactly unexpected. “I was on the Board of Body Positive previously so I sort of came into those roles already with a history of advocacy. I’d already been putting a face to HIV, living openly, discussing it with everyone so it just seemed like the next logical step.”
After seeing bold progress being made in the HIV response but little work being done in the field of stigma, he decided to enter into Mr Gay NZ – something he admits he never saw himself doing. “I entered into Mr Gay NZ sort of on a whim as an openly HIV positive person,” says Charlie. “I know that New Zealand has a real issue with HIV+ visibility and when I first moved back from Sydney, there were no gay male HIV advocates my age and nobody was the face of a stigma campaign or visible under the age of 40.”
He never in a million years thought he would take out the title running on a platform of HIV education and stigma reduction as he perceived there to be a limit to public acceptability a person living with HIV could garner.
“Now, more than ever, we actually need to be having a discussion about stigma, about what the barriers are to testing. Stigma is the single most prohibitive thing to every step of the HIV response. It stops people from going to get tested because they think ‘I don’t want to know my result’ or ‘How will people react, and how will people treat me.’ Tredway wanted to challenge this and let people living with HIV know that it is a manageable condition and you are just as vital, important and valuable as everyone else.
“The only areas you really run into difficulty now are other people’s perception of you once you have been diagnosed and you decide to tell people and be open. We need to move past that so I thought this is the prime opportunity to really ramp up the visibility.”
You only need to look at the comments on anything pertaining to HIV – whether that be a NZAF campaign or a video or a post about New Zealand’s rising HIV rates to understand what we are talking about. Social media is filled with misinformation stating that HIV isn’t actually on the rise, or that we should be blaming it on immigrants, or that people that know they are living with HIV are out there perpetuating new transmissions. Tredway comments, “None of this is actually backed-up by science and the big question is, how you counter all that – especially when now more than ever HIV prevention is on a knife edge. There is so much information out there and there are so many new options and tools at our disposal. How do we educate around that, how do we cut through the bullshit and stay on message. We have to keep pushing things forward and actually look and adopt what is going on in the global response to HIV and tailor it to the NZ market.”
The message that he is sending is both diversified and in line with what all global experts are saying. “It’s a really bold time and the flip side of that is there is a lot of misinformation out there, there is also a lot of out-dated thinking. People are stuck thinking that we are still experiencing the HIV landscape from the ‘90s, when meds weren’t tolerated very well, or there weren’t options for treatment, or condoms were the only legitimate and effective option for protecting yourself and your partner. So it’s like okay, now how do we move forward from that, and how do we add these other tools to our arsenal and give them merit and airtime?”
After taking out Mr Gay NZ, Tredway faced a lot of backlash from the media stating that he was advocating for condom-less sex and bare-backing after someone with an axe to grind sent screen captures of his profile on a bare-backing website.
“I just found it really hard to get a handle on this whole situation. The judgement and the reception I received by being honest about the different tools you can use and being honest about the fact that there are more options available. I’m not advocating for condom-less sex and to be honest, I didn’t actually think my consensual sex life that I had in discussion with my sexual partners in full honesty, full disclosure, was really anyone’s business” he says in regards to people offering up their opinion on what he chose to do with his sexual partners. “Especially seeing as it was somehow perceived as indicative of my complete sexual history and practices.”
In regards to some of the articles that surfaced on the internet containing misinformation about HIV and what Charlie was advocating, he says “I think what was really frustrating for me was that they weren’t based on facts and yet they claimed their point of view was backed by global HIV organisations and experts globally”, referring to an article released by The New Zealand Herald.
“But everything I have said actually has the backing of the Prevention Access Campaign, the U = U( Undetectable = Untransmittable campaign) and even the NZAF’s own new strategy, so when I read the part implying that I was wrong, I was like you don’t have the global consensus and this was an opinion piece based entirely on outdated information .” “The HIV landscape has changed so quickly that you really do need to stay abreast of it, you need to change the party line in accordance with the new breakthroughs and data, something which I constantly make sure I do. So for that to be construed as me setting the HIV movement back when the information that was spouted in that article was at least a decade old, not factoring in or even mentioning PrEP or the PARTNER study and just seemed like sheer gall.”
Charlie has decided to dedicate his life to being an HIV advocate. He has been HIV positive for 11 years and even had the honour of being named one of HIVplus Magazine’s 16 HIV advocates to watch for 2016. He even received a scholarship to attend the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. Having attended all of these meetings, presentations and workshops that are at the forefront of HIV response by the leaders in the field globally and still having people question if he knew what he was talking about and recent articles infer that they knew HIV better than him “just felt a little bit ridiculous.”
He says he has had no choice but to keep going with his advocacy and although some questions he has faced have been extremely invasive and disgusting, he says he has been answering everything with as much “solid information, honesty and dignity as possible” while being mindful of not putting other HIV positive people in jeopardy or setting a precedent for stigma and perpetuating misinformation.
“I keep feeling like I have just been playing catch up just trying to stay on message, make sure that what I am saying is clear and concise and irrefutable based in line with global science. We are talking ASHM (Australasian Society for HIV and Sexual Health Medicine), ACON, the NZAF’s new strategy, and that is the information that people need to focus on. People actually working in the sector are the specialists in the field, we understand the nuance of HIV prevention, the nuance of HIV response.”
Commenting on articles that keep trying to de-value what Charlie says obviously begins to take its toll, hence why he has tried his best to stay silent since his Mr. GayNZ win. “I am open and unashamed of my sex life because I know it’s consensual, I know it’s in line with the legalities of NZ. I know I am looking after my sexual health and my partner’s sexual health and whether that be by serosorting and only sleeping with HIV positive people, by using treatment as prevention, by making sure that if it is having sex with a HIV negative person, it’s someone I know to be on PrEP, or I do in actual fact use condoms. I use all the tools at my disposal, so I’m perfectly willing to have honest conversations and get into gritty detail, but it’s the tone of the questions that I have a problem with. If you’re not concerned about doing a good piece, that’s nuanced, that’s addressing the issues– if it’s just about you doing something really punchy and salacious and sort of a hatchet job, it invalidates all the good messaging you are supposedly trying to do about the HIV response, and it also makes it really hard for other HIV+ people to feel comfortable living with dignity and openness. So you know, that’s what I really have a problem with.”
A good example of this is after he won the title, he said he had three HIV positive people who sent him messages to say that they felt like this would serve as a turning point for them and their diagnosis and allow them to feel like they could be more transparent and open in their lives. When a few of the stories broke and it was clear the tone was negative, he said he received messages from them to say that actually no, it appears nothing had changed and that the “demonization of HIV positive people and the way stories were written about them” were still very much prevalent. “That for me was the most hurtful out of all of this.” “You know I have got really thick skin. You can say pretty much whatever you like about me, because I know what I am doing is fact and evidence based and I have had 11 years to build up my knowledge and resilience living as a PLHIV.” Following this, he says he is scared that that is the indicative of the culture we are living in. “People who have tested HIV positive and are already going through a hard-time, then get shit from the community and it does leave a mark, it has an effect and some of the most vulnerable people in our community who are already trying to get their head around their situation do not need the extra hate or vitriol. It’s not what we need as a community and it’s also counterproductive to the prevention of new transmissions.”
The bullying that happens in this community in regards to being gay and dealing with that and then finding out your HIV positive too is the driving force behind why Charlie says he decided to be one of the most visible HIV positive people in NZ because “I mean seriously, who the hell wants to deal with this sort of crap? Why would you risk being open if this sort of behavior is par for the course.”
“If I can be that person that gets the brunt of it, then I’m more than happy to be on the receiving end if it saves others from dealing with it, or if it moves progress along. I didn’t move back to NZ with a view to popularity or not to be my authentic self.”
Before moving back from Sydney, Tredway admits that he was so caught off guard and ashamed of his HIV diagnosis that he swept everything under the rug, went off the rails, mismanaged his health and got really sick so part of his decision to move back to New Zealand was not only for a fresh start, but also to take accountability for his health and to get the support he needed from both national and international HIV positive peers. It’s the whole reason he said he willingly got into advocacy. It was “to give back, and I saw that there was a real gap here in NZ in terms of people willing to pick up that mantel and now it is especially vital. HIV isn’t a hot-button issue, contrary to what this last couple of months has shown, when people aren’t dying in droves and life expectancy of people on effective treatment is that of anyone else, it no longer is a priority for the government. Which is really disappointing because we actually have the tools we need and the knowledge we need to end new transmissions and turn the tide on the HIV rates. But we need them to step up to the plate and we need people in the community to stop dealing in misinformation and get current and informed.”
After all that has happened over the last couple of months for Charlie, he reflects on those who have supported him and continue to do so. “The people that are really at the forefront of the HIV response, I haven’t lost their faith because of this, I haven’t lost their support. This is the strategy and this is the messaging that is being adopted globally. And for the most part people in the community have really had my back and been there for me, and that has been extremely gratifying and humbling.”
When asked if he would consider himself a role-model, he says “I didn’t set out to be a role model, I didn’t do this to be on a pedestal – this was just the most expedient way I could think of to have a platform to get the message of HIV out to the general public and also on a global level. I think people fail to realise its other people who put that ‘role model’ mantel on you so obviously they just love it when there’s a skeleton in the closet so they can then be like “omg look, it’s a disgraced role model!” He is however definitely leading the pack when it comes to being open and honest about his sex life.
“For some reason as with any discussion about sex, we have been conditioned to not talk about it but boy do we like to judge it. Even in today’s society, it’s like our sex life should be private. So here I am, happy to talk about it and then oh, heaven forbid you’re gay and HIV+ and talking about sex! How do we unpick that and have honest conversations about this stuff when slut shaming or HIV-shaming or any other kind of stigma is still so prevalent?”
It is clear that Charlie Tredway is incredibly passionate about HIV education and advocacy, and that these hurdles have done nothing to impede his desire to use Mr Gay World as a platform to move the HIV response and awareness along.