Bryan Schimmel: HIV Today. Reconciling HIV awareness fantasy from reality

The brave revelation made by Charlie Sheen (“I am HIV positive”) on the 22 November 2015  took an interesting turn in the media world, where one would think that the progression of knowledge around the disease would curb the impulse of alienation. However, long after his admission, pending lawsuits and problematic headlines that almost exclusively identify Sheen as ‘HIV positive Charlie Sheen’, comes the realisation that the world community has yet to shake off the attitudes and myths surrounding people living with HIV.

Themba Interactive  had an insightful sit down with musical all-rounder and outspoken HIV positive activist Bryan Shimmel to talk about HIV/AIDS today, particularly  its intersectionality with issues of race, class and sexuality in the South African context and the fears surrounding getting tested and living with HIV today.

“Bryan Schimmel has positioned himself as one of the leading and most diverse Music Directors, Arrangers and Orchestrators in South Africa. He has worked in theatre, special events, recording and television across a full spectrum of music from rock bands to Big Bands, string quartets to symphony orchestras” – reads a description of Bryan on the homepage of his website. From this impressive résumé , you would be forgiven for thinking of a supercilious musical savant. However Bryan dispels any elitist dispositions with humour, insight and pronounced wisdom that comes with experience.

A short yet lean  figure approaches our office with zest and urgency, embossed in board shorts, high top sneakers and an array of impressive tattoos on his arms. At a quick glance Bryan can easily be identified as a Cape Town Clifton surfer, yet at 50 (yes, 50) Bryan is physically at the peak of his game. We sat down with Bryan to talk about HIV/AIDS in the nuances of the digital age and how stigmatisation and discrimination has merely warped into new forms. Additionally, Bryan voices his views on what he deems is the government’s inability to effectively educate people on the spread of HIV.

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Bryan launches into discussion without cue or script and charges into a peculiar interaction he had with a stranger on a social platform, which touches on a narrative of HIV/AIDS that is suppressed in our country’s response to the illness and the surprising stigma and discrimination that still exists.

“He contacted me on a gay social platform that is essentially a connecting site and on my profile, it’s very clear, I state very clearly that I’m HIV positive and he said ‘I have a wife and two kids. I would rather commit suicide than have the shame of my kids knowing what I did.’ He continues “And I wrote back to him very simply and I said think about this long term, I said would you rather let your kids lived with you having killed yourself and not knowing why, than actually manned up. I said your kids will have far more respect for you for manning up and saying this is what I did and he wrote back and he said ‘you’re absolutely right and I appreciate your advice but right now it is easier to live a lie than have to do myself in than to have the truth come out .

I didn’t push it, I had  already said what I needed to say and I think that speaks to a lot of the shame in the black communities, is a big one – shame. This is not a black guy this is a white guy but I think shame is a big one, it speaks to a stigma that we need to kind of debunk.”

It is from this anecdote  that Bryan reveals a prevailing stigma in the South African community around HIV/AIDS. Despite the country’s concerted  effort over the years to combat an epidemic that has claimed millions of lives, South Africa remains the worst  affected by HIV/AIDS, which according to Bryan is owed to a culture of ignorance which defers preventative HIV programmes from translating into preventative behaviour.

Prevention is at the heart of South Africa’s strategic effort, implemented in prevention programmes to impede the increase of HIV infections in the community. Initially the HIV prevention programmes focused primarily on preventing HIV infections through sexual transmission and behavioural change, however over the years it became evident that complex underlying issues of socio-cultural, economic, political and other contextual factors need to be taken into account.

Bryan concedes to this, by introspectively evaluating, his position on the contextual scale and additionally attempts to explain the lack of cultural information that exists in many social spaces despite the ubiquity of information.

Asked about whether he thinks the stigma and discrimination vary  along the lines of race, class and sexuality, Bryan draws on an important intersection of HIV and the above discourses.

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“It does vary along the continuum. I think if I was still white and gay and working in a very high end corporate environment, being as open as I am might be a little more difficult, because it is my understanding that the corporate environment is still not as tolerant, whether you’re black or white, gay, straight or whatever. The fact that my profession is one of music and entertainment, I’m working in an industry that is very comfortable with [it], because by its nature it’s full of strange and very weird artistic and outrageous people and I fit all four of those descriptions.” He chortles loudly at his self-portrayal.

Along the sexual divide however, he divulges an interesting perspective that foils the LGBTI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, intersex etc.) community’s addressing  of HIV, without being morally suggestive.

“Across the sexual divide I think certainly, I think it’s certainly easier for gay people to be open about it, I think that’s how pertinent [this] interaction, speaks to how many straight people who are married especially, live in fear of their partner finding out, because I think in the straight world, there will be all sorts of questions asked on how and when and why and with who and was there cheating involved and all kinds of stuff and think that comes up automatically.” He continues “I say this not with any opinion but I think there is an accepted degree of promiscuity in the general gay community worldwide, so when it happens it’s not much of a shock to find out compared to the straight community.”

This perspective is a compelling response, which suggests a shift from the problematic rhetoric of the LGBTI’s susceptibility to the virus. According to Avert.org during the 1980s in the USA (a while after the virus was discovered), people associated HIV as a gay disease, ignorantly based on a few reported cases among gay men.

As it seems, the veil of ignorance has transcended space and time, in the remaining stigma and discrimination that exists in different contextual spaces. Bryan explains the disjuncture between governmental effort and behavioural change on the ground, on the government’s inefficiency in disseminatin g the necessary information. South Africa is said to have the largest antiretroviral treatment programme, which has  been government funded, where the country has invested in more than $1 billion annually to run its HIV and AIDS programmes in around communities. However, HIV prevalence remains high at  19.1% (as of 2013) among the general population.

“The government has failed to educate on multiple levels and that’s nothing new. The state restricts and doesn’t want people to know. The access to any information is there, but what one needs to do  in order to  close that gap, if not give people that information is guide people to find that information.” He goes on to say that “by making access to HIV awareness as available and as impactful that’s what it needs, by making it available, you also start to destigmatise it, because you’re not making it something that’s wrong., therefore you shouldn’t know about it.”

In consolation to an out of reach systemic problem, Bryan concedes an opportunity for change in the digital age and the millennial generation’s openness and ability to navigate the digital space for vital information and re-encoding an older messages of awareness to consciousness that will lead to behavioural and perceptual change.

“The youth are probably more open to it because of their hunger, it is the older generations who would be stuck in a certain headspace. The issue of generation comes back into the continuum, you can’t force people to accept information that has already made them scared. When you have an environment where people have experienced HIV as being shameful and negative, a death sentence and embarrassing and you can’t talk about it.”

Asked about how the government could engage people in a more captivating way, Bryan  eases into his natural ability of relating the complexities of this discussion into contemporary examples. His response goes into a reminiscent narrative of Nazi Germany doctrine  and its parallel nature to Julius Malema, to explain the need for a charismatic communicative element to surge an interest towards a new dialogue of living with HIV today in attempt to displace inaccurate HIV perceptions of moral indignation and inaccurate information.

From Bryan’s encounter we understand an underlying problem that still exists even in the most progressive of spaces. American actor Charlie Sheen –  a heterosexual, white male at a crossroads with fame, money and irresponsible behaviour –  still felt the need to hide his HIV status for three years and even upon his admission has revealed feelings of shame, guilt and fear of alienation.

Perhaps, much like Sheen, Bryan’s admission and acceptance of his status to himself is an attempt to bear testament to  how one can be HIV positive and live life abundantly.

Appropriately, Bryan ends our exchange with a motivational piece; “My advice to people is, when you find out, it’s not going away and no amount of ignoring it and denying it will help; so as long as you’re doing that it has the power and it is owning you. The moment you own it, then you have all the power back.”

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