A teenage Nathaniel Hall at about the time of his HIV diagnosis
The first time Nathaniel Hall had sex, he contracted HIV. He was 16 years old and had only recently come out as gay. Fear, shame and self-loathing caused him to keep his diagnosis a secret from his family for the next 14 years.
He “came out” for the second time in his life last year and took back control by writing a play about his experience. Nathaniel, a 32-year-old theatre practitioner and drag artist from Manchester, hopes his one-man show will spark a conversation about representations of HIV in popular culture.
Nathaniel explains how he coped with learning he was HIV positive while he was still a child.
“He told me that he had been tested and that he had a clean bill of health… at 16 you don’t really have the capacity to challenge that”
The ‘summer romance’ with an older man
I knew I was gay from around 13 or 14 but in 2003 it was a very different time. It wasn’t even an option in school. It was all secret… to sort of find out who else was gay.
And then this guy… I was 16 he was older than me in his early to mid-20s. All of a sudden this older gay man gave me some attention and almost validated me – it was very intoxicating. So we started seeing each other.
That relationship didn’t last long; it was only a couple of months, really. It all happened in the summer – between school and college – a summer romance, as it were. And then we kind of went our separate ways.
When I told him [about the HIV diagnosis], I got messages from his friends – bearing in mind they were older than me – saying I was just a silly little boy and I was making it up and worse than that.
So I just really wanted him to get tested and get the treatment required so that he wouldn’t pass it on, because most infections come from people who don’t know they have the virus.
But I never found out whether he knew. He told me that he had been tested and that he had a clean bill of health… at 16 you don’t really have the capacity to challenge that.
“I was told the prognosis was around 37 years”
‘It felt like being hit by a bus’
I had just turned 17 when I got the diagnosis. I remember them being very, very kind to me in the clinic and I don’t really remember much else, other than getting the news. Then going back home and having to make this decision… I made the snap decision to go into my bedroom and close the door, instead of going and saying what had happened.
It felt like being hit by bus… because when I try and recall it, it’s almost a physical sensation of being hit quite hard. I remember crying. What I was told was very different to what you get told today.
It certainly wasn’t the era of the Aids epidemic… medication was around and they were good and improving, but I was told the prognosis was around 37 years. So to actually have a figure put on that at that age was quite a heavy thing to deal with.
I did have counselling through my college and did have support and I kind of thought I was OK until late last year when I had a bit of a breakdown.
“At school the only sex education we had about a gay relationship was a video…in which a gay man was dying from Aids”
‘I think that shame really controlled me’
I think shame is the big one… it’s really the only disease where there is a moral judgement attached to it and even – to a certain degree – a self-judgement.
I was gay… but you grow up in a straight world. You hear that you are morally wrong, or what you do is dirty and you should be ashamed of it. So I was becoming really acutely aware of that.
Then you hear those kind of warnings – “oh, you are going to be punished”. So it was kind of like those prophecies were coming true, right at that moment, and it was a very powerful – and that was the shame that I put on to myself.
When I was at school the only sex education we had about a gay relationship was a video that we watched in which a gay man was dying from Aids.
It was completely out of date and so these messages that I was getting – that I was somehow secondary or that what I was doing was wrong or immoral or whatever – they weren’t coming from my family but they were coming from all around me.
They sink in over time and then all of a sudden, I kind of became that stereotype. So I think that shame really, really controlled me.
‘I didn’t recognise who I was’
I think the key moment was when I was still up two days after a party and I had not really slept at all. I looked at myself in the mirror and I didn’t recognise who that person was.
I realised at that point that drugs and alcohol had… not necessarily taken over my life… but I had abused them in a way that was not good for me any more.
It was in no way a heavy addiction or anything like that but I was self-medicating through alcohol. I was just trying to get rid of this low-level anxiety and stress that had built up over the years.
I realised that if I didn’t do something about it then, it could escalate into a real and serious problem. Something had to change.
Nathaniel in the First Time
‘They were sorry I felt I had to keep it secret’
I needed to tell my family. I had tried many, many times before but it never happened and never came out. So I started on the journey of making the play and I started to write stuff and make sense of things through my writing. Then I decided to write a letter to my parents and brothers and sisters.
I gave myself an afternoon to write everything down that I wanted to say. I told myself that I didn’t necessarily need to send it, I just needed to get it written down and then see how I felt about it.
But after writing it, I actually felt quite calm so I just put them in envelopes straight away and got them posted before I could change my mind.
I did it that way because I had tried so many times to say it and I couldn’t. And I also didn’t think I could do it four times in a row without just being an emotional wreck by the end of it.
Nathaniel Hall is now in long-term relationship and feeling “liberated” after telling his loved ones about his HIV
The response was quite underwhelming, to be honest! It was a little bit like how I know a lot of gay people feel before they come out. This fear of what might happen but… everyone sent me text messages and called me and they were absolutely fine. They were just sorry that I felt I had to keep it secret for this long.
My mum came over the next day and we had a chat. My big thing was that they would be upset that I had not told them and kept this really big thing from them. But my mum said: “I’m just upset my son was struggling with this for so long on his own.”
It was the fear. There was some internalised homophobia that lots of gay men have and then this other layer of shame and the fear builds on top of that, and all of that is really powerful. Even if you have a really loving family, you struggle to tell them.
‘I used to wake up every morning with a knot in my heart’
It’s not like all of a sudden everything is fixed. But writing and working on the show has taken me to some difficult places and that’s been hard.
But I have felt a lot lighter and a lot more able to deal with things and some of the anxiety that had built up. I used to wake up every morning with a knot in my heart, in my chest.
I never used to think that it had affected me but after I told my family it released a little a bit and I thought, “oh my gosh, you lived with this almost crippling anxiety”. Every morning, the first thing I felt was fear in my chest, tightness – and I can feel it now as I’m talking about it.
But since I’ve gone on that journey, admitting about that breakdown and some of the bad choices I have made and making peace with that, I don’t need to be the perfect person I was trying to be – and that was very freeing and very liberating.
Told through a series of personal letters, poems, confessions and Nathaniel’s drag alter-ego, Sue, First Time is about growing up gay and HIV positive.
The play is part of a series of events at Waterside Arts, Sale to mark 30 years since the first World Aids Day.
Held in conjunction with the Greater Manchester PaSH Partnership (Passionate about Sexual Health), the weekend will also feature creative workshops, a gallery exhibition, free HIV testing and a “coming out” party to raise money for HIV charities.
As told to Paul Keaveny