Love stories: Living openly with HIV on Beirut's gay scene
Elie Ballan from Beirut has been living with HIV for 11 years. In March, he’ll celebrate his first year anniversary with boyfriend Mohammed, but his journey to this current relationship has been a complex one.
For Valentine’s Day he talks about sex, love and living openly with HIV on Beirut’s gay scene.
“I met my boyfriend Mohammed last year, we have a friend in common who introduced us in a club. A few days later we met up and it all went upward from there.
It was the day after our first date when I told him about my status. We were texting about where to eat that night and I just casually threw it in, like ‘oh yeah I’m HIV positive, and what are we having for dinner tonight?’ He didn’t show any discrimination. He is not living with HIV but he was completely supportive. It’s so rewarding and very different from the experiences I’ve had before.
“I’m 31 now but I was diagnosed with HIV when I was 20. There weren’t a lot of people in Beirut who were living with HIV then, or at least that I’d heard of. Back then, to tell someone you had HIV was really a shocker. HIV prevention among the gay community was not well known. People didn’t consider you could have a relationship with someone with HIV."
Gossip and judgement
“When I was first diagnosed I felt I wanted to have a clear conscience and tell people, and at the beginning that really backfired because a lot of gossip went around. Within a year my status was general knowledge among the community. A lot of times that robbed me of the opportunity to actually decide if I liked someone or not when I met them before saying something.
“I experienced a lot of different reactions, mostly negative ones. People would reprimand me, calling me selfish, asking why I hadn’t told them. On social media, people I’d never met told me I should go and live in a monastery, others called me a criminal for spreading HIV. Some said I should just go and kill myself and make the community safer for everyone else.
“At that time I felt completely overwhelmed. There wasn’t a lot of support and I remember being very sad a lot of the time. I was depressed, and I didn’t know what the future would be."
Adventures in love
“In 2009, I met someone who was living with HIV. It was a relief. We instantly kicked things off and it was nice, we’d go to the same doctor together, it was really supportive. But after a few months I realised we were together because we were the only two people living with HIV who knew about each other. Just having HIV does not make two people compatible.
“I became single again and continued to experience lots of different reactions. Some people would say ‘I’m sorry, maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t do this.’ I understood people like that more and wouldn’t judge them. At least they were being honest. More difficult would be when someone created an excuse but you’d learn later that it was actually about HIV. That was really frustrating: I can take a no better than I can take a lie.
“I also got some crazy reactions. Some people would start crying, some people would be really scared. I remember this one guy, he kept trying not to use a condom but I was insistent. He asked me why and when I told him my status he started running around the room, screaming. Then he ran out, down the street, still screaming, trying to find the nearest hospital.
“I ran into him in a club two years later and he apologised, saying he knew he had behaved terribly. It gave me a lot of strength because it showed me that people can improve; their attitudes can change."
Peace and power
“In the end I started caring less about what people in the community thought. I found some support amongst my friends and started to be at peace with my status.
“Around 4-years-ago, I began to see a lot of new infections in the community [for more information on rising rates, click here]. Because a lot of people are now getting HIV and sharing their status, the culture around it has changed.
Around this time, education about HIV also started to increase. I met guys who knew that if I was undetectable I wouldn’t be able to transmit the virus. That really made me feel good – that these people knew their information and were fine with it. They weren’t running down the streets screaming.
“Now on Facebook I get messages from lots of guys from different places, asking for help because they’ve just been diagnosed with HIV. Sometimes it feels odd – I mean, I’m not the guru of HIV! – but when I was in their shoes I didn’t have that kind of support, so I never turn anyone down.
“A few times people who reacted very negatively when they learnt I had HIV have asked for help. That still bothers me; that they didn’t want to have contact before but now they want my support. But I just move on and help them as much as I can, telling them where they can find doctors, how to keep themselves and others safe.
“If I hold a grudge or keep any kind of resentment it’s only going to be on me. I’ve come to be at peace with this, and I’m enjoying the peace that I have and the happiness I’ve found. Nothing can really get to that.”
Elie is the director of M-Coalition, a sexual health and advocacy network for gay men and other men who have sex with men in the Middle East and North Africa. He is also HIV prevention director at a community centre in Beirut for young men who have sex with men.
M-Coalition is supported by the Alliance through the Strengthening High Impact Interventions for an AIDS-free Generation (AIDSFree) Project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, with support from the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and is implemented by JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc.