UK Advocate Matthew Hodson Helps Map HIV Info So We Can Find Our Way Forward
by John Francis Leonard
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Simon J. Webb
The UK recently became the seventh country to hit the UNAIDS 90-90-90 target for HIV diagnosis, treatment access, and achieving viral suppression. It not only met those goals, but it surpassed them with a ninety-two percent diagnosis rate, ninety-eight percent of those diagnosed on treatment, and ninety-seven percent undetectable and unable to pass on the virus to a sexual partner.
The impact of effective treatment has seen drops in diagnoses in all key groups, including heterosexuals and persons of color. It’s great news and can be attributed to the incredible work being done by an amazing group of people. One name that comes up often is that of activist and advocate Matthew Hodson. Matthew Hodson is the Executive Director of Britain’s leading source of HIV/AIDS related information, NAM (Aidsmap.com/NAM Publications). NAM is a lifeline for the newly diagnosed, patients currently living with HIV, and the medical community at large, dissimilating the latest, most current information on treatment as well as prevention. I recently had a wonderful, informative conversation with Matthew from his office in London. We spoke at length about his personal journey with HIV, his career in the theatre, and his most cherished role, heading up a vital organization that serves anyone needing information on HIV/AIDS. He’s also a very visible face in the continued fight with thousands of followers on Twitter and his recent turn speaking publicly at the 2018 International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam. You might say that for Matthew, that this is the role of a lifetime.
London-born and bred Matthew long dreamed of becoming an actor and attended drama college after completing university. He worked regularly with small roles in film and television and eventually found roles on the stage, both in fringe theater and London’s West End. He was a working actor, not a major star, but working often, including a West End production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Modestly, as he puts it, it was a satisfying career, but nothing “incredibly glamorous.”
The latter part of the eighties was a pivotal point for Matthew. As he puts it, “AIDS had reared it’s head by then.” Earlier, still at fifteen, wanting to experiment with his sexuality, he went out to a nightclub and picked up an older American man and had sex with him. “Literally, the next week, I was watching a documentary on the BBC, the first such broadcast in the UK, about HIV and it said that it was a disease that you caught from having sex with Americans, so that was a pretty bad start,” he recalls now. Three years later, in his first year of university, a television campaign about AIDS ran and like similar campaigns in many countries, it was filled with fear and foreboding, featuring ominous landscapes and icebergs wth the word “AIDS” being carved into tombstones. These ads weren’t meant to merely inform the public; they were meant to seriously frighten. In the same years, a signature piece of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s legislation was enacted. Named Section 28, it was intended to teach schoolchildren that homosexual relationships were wrong and could never be the equivalent of heterosexual ones. As Matthew recalls now, “It felt like a profound shift in our consciousness about LGBT issues. Actually, that piece of legislation helped me to came out about my sexuality because I felt that gay men like myself were being attacked by our government. I felt that I had to make a public statement of solidarity.”
Working as a jobbing actor, Matthew met another American man and started dating him. He felt early on from small things the man said that he was positive and perhaps struggling with telling him. Eventually he did and they had always followed safe sex practices, so that wasn’t an issue for him at the time. This relationship lasted almost three years and would see the couple wearing rings and exchanging vows, the kind of vows available to them at the time. Sincere and heartfelt, but without the legal recognition afforded to straight couples. He expected to be with this man for life, but that life would be shortened as these three years were those leading up to 1996 before effective treatment would become available. When such treatment did became available and he no longer feared being a widower, the man instead left him for someone else. It’s not an unfamiliar story from those years—a man with a sudden second lease on life deciding to leave the partner who stuck by him when he was doomed to a shortened one. A dark period followed for Matthew; he began drinking heavily and engaging in risky sexual behaviors, nothing of Olympian proportions,I both sense and am soon told, but definite risks were taken. Matthew sums it up perfectly by saying, “I drank too much and I didn’t take care of myself because I was so unhappy. The idea of making additional efforts to preserve my life wasn’t something that interested me.” Matthew isn’t clear on whether he acquired HIV in his previous relationship (condoms do fail), or if it was during this period of carelessness and I sense that that’s not important to him. The fact is that he did eventually test positive in 1998. He points out that in both scenarios, he would have been the perfect candidate for PrEP, had it been available, and its one of the reasons he’s so vocal about its importance now.
At the time of his diagnosis, he still expected to not make it much past fifty. Also, as he recalls, “I fully expected to have the sunken cheeks, the buffalo hump, or a combination of both. Being as incredibly vain as I am, that prospect terrified me almost as much as the prospect of death. I saw how people with HIV were treated and the idea of visibly living with HIV was a prospect that I found terrifying at the time.” This and the additional stress of the rejection an actor already faces made him rethink his choice of career. As they say, when one door closes, another opens.
An opportunity came his way to work with the HIV/AIDS nonprofit GMFA (Gay Men Fighting AIDS) as a project worker, advertised as an administrative post. At first it wasn’t a very high responsibility job, but things soon changed as the organization grew and project workers became project managers. Matthew tells me, “As I started doing the work, it became very clear that the organization was changing and the way that we needed to deliver projects was changing. That if we were going to be a sustainable organization, that we needed to achieve a level of professionalism that required, if nothing else, continuity.” He had two main groups he oversaw at GMFA, one dealt with analyzing the most current information about HIV/AIDS to make certain all projects were evidence based. The other group developed projects assisting those living with HIV/AIDS and insuring that there was involvement and input from the communities that they served. All of this experience would serve him well in preparing for his current role as Executive Director of NAM.
NAM, once called the National AIDS Manual, had its beginnings as an information resource for the staff of volunteers at The London Gay and Lesbian Switchboard at the height of the pandemic when they were being inundated with calls from people seeking information about HIV/AIDS. Matthew describes the circumstances during that time of fear, “Back in 1987, which was my first year at university, that iceberg and tombstone ad had come out and it had a major impact. When that happened, the switchboard got a lot of telephone calls. There was little in the way of accurate and reliable information to give these people.” The volunteers at the switchboard decided to create their own resource with the latest, most reliable information. In this time before the internet and smartphones, it was an actual manual. Now NAM uses its website as well as social media to fulfill the same mission, to get the latest and most accurate information about HIV to anyone who needs it, from healthcare providers, to persons living with HIV, or those hoping to protect themselves from it in the first place. Included at its inception was everything about HIV and how it was transmitted given the limited information available at the time. It was a resource for people concerning the virus and grew into being called by its acronym, NAM as technology grew and research and medical treatment progressed to what it is today. Walk into any sexual health clinic or AIDS services organization in the UK and you very well might see a colorful wall of NAM’s pamphlets covering a wide variety of sexual health information, especially pertaining to HIV/AIDS. NAM’s mission is to dissimilate information and they’ve mastered it in the digital age, staying relevant in a time when most people get their information via their smart phones. When Matthew started his work at GMFA in 1999, he and his associates were fighting. Fighting to ensure that the needs of gay men were central to HIV/AIDS prevention. In a way now, the battle is being won in the UK and he feels that it’s time to make a space at the table for the communities that haven’t fully realized those goals, that aren’t being reached. Says Matthew, “Stigma remains the greatest challenge to HIV prevention in the UK and it continues to hamper HIV support and prevention efforts worldwide. I believe that most of the fear and prejudice against people living with HIV can be dispelled with sound information.” This is a message that has particular resonance here in the US where shame and stigma are so common. The lack of basic, solid information, even in our own communities, is sometimes startling.
I ask Matthew what motivates him in his work and advocacy and he replies, “I think I’ve always been interested in communications and I guess it’s the thread that runs through all of my work; acting, the information sharing we do at NAM, the sexual health campaigns I worked on at GMFA, and even my use of Twitter.” Other issues affecting people living with HIV also came into play whether it was mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, or other STIs. NAM had always been an important resource in his previous tenure at GMFA, so when the opportunity to work for them came up, it was an exciting prospect for him. “I’m a bit of a nerd, so the idea of being surrounded by really smart people who know what they’re talking about when it comes to HIV, and being one of the first people with access to new information was really exciting to me. It also matched my skills and interest in communications and that made me a good fit for NAM,” he continues. It’s evident that Matthew is proud of the work he does and is very confident in what he brings to the table. He feels strongly that it’s an exciting time to be working in the field because of the particular power of getting much needed health information out there to those that need it through the growing power of the internet and social media. He has over 10,000 followers on Twitter and harnesses it to disseminate information internationally—it’s actually how he first came to my attention as one of the key players in the fight against HIV in the UK, a country which has seen remarkable improvements in its percentages of people tested, on successful treatment, and of an all over decline in new infections in key communities as well as healthcare providers.
Matthew has also found new work in the theater and it’s tied closely to the cause he so believes in. Four years ago he was approached by a playwright to take a role in a production as a Sexual Health Worker. Feeling that the role was a little to close to his real life, he auditioned for another that was not so close to home and therefore more of a challenge as an actor. One of his most recent productions had him taking a role in the stage hit, The Chemsex Monologues, which shines light on the recent phenomenon of Britain’s urban gay men gathering in private homes for drug-fueled sex parties. It’s brought up issues of consent, increased HIV and STI rates, as well as taken lives through alarming rates of drug overdoses. It’s a play that hits close to home as first he would hear of gay men dying, then it would be someone familiar, and then even close friends. The play was a critical and commercial success and played in some of London’s top venues as well as going on tour as far away as Australia. Matthew couldn’t go on the road with the play, but he is justly proud that it’s message has reached so many.
The acting roles didn’t stop there, Mathew has continued to take on projects that convey messages he is passionate about. He described it for me in detail when we spoke. “Because acting is now just one thing that I do, I get to pick and choose what I’m involved with. Unsurprisingly, the stuff that resonates with me, that I get passionate about, often relates to the sexual and emotional health of LGBT people. But if someone asked me to be in a show about another cause that’s close to my heart, tackling climate change for example, I’d leap at the chance.” Working full-time hours running NAM and pursuing acting projects on the side, especially the quotidian life of a stage production, takes stamina and Matthew’s approach has concentrated on his physical health and staying in shape. He’s been particularly excited to take on recent roles in filmed work, which requires a different skill set that his work on the stage. Last year he took on a supporting role in a popular web series concerning gay sexual heath called The Grass is Always Grindr, which has begun filming a second season this year.
The battle is far from over but, in Britain, and London in particular, there has been remarkable progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS. It isn’t down to one person’s efforts, as Matthew is the first to admit. But with key players like him in the fight there is even more light shining at the end of the proverbial tunnel. It’s a remarkable thing to be able to do, to have your livelihood and success tied so closely to a cause about which you’re so rightly passionate.
Follow Simon J. Webb on Twitter @simonjwebb1.
John Francis Leonard interviewed advocate Joe Ede for the June issue.