Shamal Waraich, 34, was born in Manchester and grew up in a religious British-Pakistani household. He was diagnosed with HIV in 2013, and now educates people about what it’s like to be gay, Muslim and living with HIV.
“To this day, I have never come across someone like me and it’s incredibly lonely,” says Shamal Waraich. “Now I have got to the point in my life where I’m proud to say who I am: I’m British-Pakistani, Muslim, gay and living with HIV. I just want to say to someone, ‘You understand, right? How difficult it is as a Muslim and being HIV positive?'”
Waraich was diagnosed with HIV in October 2013. He had a hard time reconciling being Muslim and gay and this affected how he received his diagnosis.
“I felt so much shame and guilt around it,” he says. “HIV is seen as a gay man’s disease. In the Asian community, there is this perception that this is a sinful thing. I internalised that homophobia, and thought, ‘I deserved that – this is probably my destiny, I’m going to die young and go to hell.'”
He remembers the day he got his diagnosis at a sexual health clinic in East London.
“I had gone in to get tested for something else. That’s when it came back that I had HIV and my world just fell apart,” says Waraich.
The health advisor at the clinic spoke to him for 40 minutes, but he couldn’t absorb any of it.
“I don’t even remember what he said, I was scared to face the reality of it. I just wanted the ground to swallow me up.”
Waraich kept his diagnosis to himself for two years.
“I isolated myself. I didn’t tell anyone – only my doctor and a counsellor knew. Having this secret took me to some dark places, and I almost contemplated ending my life.”
Now Waraich works in sexual health education, as an outreach worker for the Terrence Higgins Trust. He feels it is important to speak out.
“I never saw stories of people of colour who had contracted HIV,” he says.
Recently, Waraich decided to tell his parents about his HIV status. He had been worried about telling them for years.
“My mum was really supportive. She said, in Urdu, ‘I love you as my son, whatever you bring to my doorstep, I will support you regardless.’
“It was such a relief to tell her. I was expecting her to ask me questions, like if I was going to die, but she was just very loving.”
His older brother and his sister-in-law, Saier and Rabia, have also been supportive.
“Rabia has always been able to sense when things are a bit iffy with my mental health. When I told them about the HIV diagnosis, she said, ‘Why didn’t you just tell us? We could have been there for you.'”
But at the time, he says no-one could have helped him because he was not ready. It has taken him five years to accept the support he was offered and be confident to talk about it.
Waraich says he was “freaking out” about coming out as gay to his parents a few years ago.
“I actually told my dad in the hardware store,” he says. “We were looking at drill bits and I was plucking up the courage. I thought, ‘I have to do it here, it’s a really manly place.’
“I wanted to do it in that moment because we were in public. I was thinking, ‘OK, he probably won’t shout at me or get angry at me here – or maybe he will and pick up a hammer and smash me on the head!’ All of these surreal thoughts were going through my mind. But he was so great, my Dad was so supportive.”
His mother, he says, was more shocked by his tattoos than by his coming out.
“I was wearing a vest in the summer – rookie mistake. Mum started shouting, ‘You know that is haram [forbidden] in our religion, you’re going to be burnt in Jahannam [hell] for that!’
Not everyone in his family has been understanding – recently he came out as gay to a cousin. Her reaction was, “Oh that’s wrong.”
“I wasn’t really upset by her reaction,” says Waraich. “I just said, ‘I’m going to teach you because you don’t know any better – I didn’t choose to be gay. I was born this way.'”
Most of the time, Waraich will tell people about his sexuality but withhold his HIV status.
“Coming out again and again is painful and emotional. I’ve come out so much in my life, and now I have to come out about my HIV status.
“I’ve learned to not be defensive, but to go into educational mode. But it puts the onus on me. I find myself having to comfort someone else who is finding it hard to deal with – ‘Oh my God, you’re HIV positive, I’m really sorry,’ and then I have to comfort them.”
Now that Waraich has told everyone in his personal life, he’s on a mission to educate others in the South Asian community.
“Sexual health clinics do amazing work, but for Asians it’s a struggle to get through the door,” he says.
He knows this from experience. Despite living as an openly gay man after moving to London in 2010, and being well-informed about HIV, he found it hard to overcome the stigma.
“Most gay men are quite clocked on, going to get tested regularly. In my experience, people of colour are like, ‘What if my mum sees that? What if it comes up on my Internet history?’ People are still very nervous about talking about those things.
“I could have protected myself. I knew about HIV, but I was so ashamed of going to the clinic, I buried my head in the sand.”
- One in eight gay, bisexual and men who have sex with men (MSM) being seen for HIV care in the UK were from black, Asian or other minority ethnic (BAME) groups
- BAME MSM are more likely than white MSM to test HIV-positive or to ever have had a sexually transmitted infection
- UK black MSM were more likely to have been tested for HIV, but less likely to have heard of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention than white MSM
It’s still very difficult for Asians to talk to each other about sex, says Waraich – partly because they lack the right language.
“In Urdu for instance, we don’t have a word for sex or sexuality or LGBT even though these cultures exist in Pakistan. If there is a word, it’s derogatory and I don’t want to be known as that.”
And with conversations not being had about sex, there are even fewer conversations about sexual health.
Waraich is aware that South Asian patients might be hesitant to speak to him.
“They might feel judged, or think that I might know their auntie or something. Sometimes they don’t want to share things but I tell them, ‘This is your health, we want YOU to know where you are so you’re not affecting anyone else.’
Waraich now knows what it takes to look after himself and remain healthy.
“A lot of people don’t know that you can be on treatment and that it’s not a death sentence. People have normal lives. It’s just two pills a day. I set an alarm on my phone and it has just become part of my routine. I am ‘undetectable’ which means that I cannot pass it to a partner – but not everyone is able to grasp that concept.”
Despite everything, he still occasionally struggles to reconcile his identity with his religious upbringing.
“I’m going to follow my religion on my own terms. God is going to judge me and that’s going to be between us.”
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