Born and raised in Stockport, England, Nathaniel Hall, 31, now lives in nearby Levenshulme, Manchester.
To coincide with World AIDS Day, he’s bringing his new one-man show, First Time, to the Waterside, Trafford. In the work – a mixture of performance, monologue and visuals – he looks back at his experience of becoming HIV and its impact on his life.
Hall contracted HIV in 2003 when he was 16. He met the man he acquired it from by chance.
‘This was the days before apps. I was sitting in a park in Stockport, waiting for my tuxedo for prom to be delivered, and he approached me. And he was really friendly. Really lovely. Slightly older than me, in his mid 20s. We just got talking.
‘Part of me kind of knew what I was doing was risky, in terms of exchanging numbers with him, but I was kind of just coming to terms with my sexuality. I was just coming out, and all of a sudden this visibly gay man was giving me attention.
‘It was an intoxicating experience … [to] get that recognition.’
First time sex
Hall and the man began to see each other.
‘When we went to have sex, which was the first time I’d ever had full sex with a man, he pulled out the safer sex pack you get at the bars from [Manchester’s] LGBT Foundation.
‘I thought, “Oh, that’s great,” because at that age, negotiating safe sex is not something you’ve got any experience in. So I thought, “That’s great.’ But he put the condoms to one side.’
His partner just wanted to use the sachet of lubricant.
‘I actually did ask, “Shouldn’t we use a condom?” and he said he’d been tested, and so I just trusted his word. And I knew of the risks of HIV. I’d had some sex education in it, but actually, Section 28 was repealed the same year.
Section 28 was a notorious piece of UK legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government that prohibited the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality. It led to LGBTI issues not being discussed in schools.
‘I never really dwelled upon that fact until recently, but when I thought about the sex education I had, it was poor for straight people. It was even poorer for gay people. There was no “how to respect yourself and how to respect your partners.” It wasn’t there.’
Hall says he and the other guy dated for ‘a while … just over one summer.’ But then his mum confronted him.
‘She was a teacher so she’s seen it a million times. She asked me if I was gay, and we had a chat about it.’
When his parents found out about his boyfriend, they immediately said, ‘He’s too old.’ Prompted by their disapproval, Hall decided to end the relationship.
‘I didn’t think anything of it until I got really sick when I was holiday with my family. When I came back, I went to the emergency doctors with my mum. And obviously I didn’t fit the profile because I was young, I wasn’t saying openly I was gay or anything, and the doctor didn’t see me as a risk for HIV. So the doctor said it was a water-borne virus.’
Hall fell ill approximately three months after having sex. It’s a common time-frame for people who acquire HIV to undergo a seroconversion illness. This is when the virus begins to wreak damage on the body’s immune system. For some people, it’s mild or barely noticeable. For others, seroconversion can be more debilitating
‘I had quite a horrific illness just before I started college,’ says Hall. ‘I started college in quite a bad way, really, with quite a bad seroconversion.’
He lost 14lbs in weight and found it difficult to eat or drink anything.
‘That eventually got better and I started college and that was a fresh start. But probably it was around the time I started college that I started to get other symptoms. That’s when I decided I had to see a specialist. So I took myself to the GUM clinic.
Diagnosed with HIV
Hall thought he might have a sexually transmitted infection, but didn’t think HIV was a possibility.
‘They offered me HIV testing but it was an opt-in test at that time, so I refused.’
He says he was in denial.
‘I’ve been doing some soul searching over this and it’s part of the concept of the play of “It couldn’t be me.” I was from a relatively stable, really lovely, very white, very middle class upbringing. There was a bit of, “this doesn’t happen to people like me,” which is obviously ridiculous.’
He says the clinic kept calling him back. ‘Because I think they knew and they were trying to encourage me to test.
‘Eventually I agreed and I found out two weeks after my 17th birthday [in November 2003]. I found out, and I kinda became a bit of a closed book.’
The emotional impact of his diagnosis
He says being told of his diagnosis felt like being knocked over.
‘The only other time I’ve experienced a feeling like that is one time when I found out a friend of mine had died a couple of years ago, very suddenly. It was very much a psychologically traumatic thing to hear at that age.
‘I think, as we all do with things like this, we try to minimize it. We say we’re coping with it, and there’s nothing we can do, so we just kind of get on with it. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.’
Hall says the clinic staff were also conscious of his age.
‘I was in that strange interim period, between 16 and 18. Legally, the age of consent is 16, but you’re not quite technically an adult. I think the nurses and health advisers were particularly aware of that.
‘The clinic was right at the end of the day, and they stayed with me for like two hours. They didn’t go home, which was a credit to them, because they obviously saw that I needed that support. I was fortunate in that sense.’
Deciding to keep his diagnosis from his family
Hall still lived at home with his parents. He says he called a friend, who came to sit with him at the clinic. Then he caught the bus home.
‘As I walked through the door, I had a decision. Either I could walk into the kitchen and tell my parents, or go upstairs. I chose the upstairs option. I went upstairs and closed the door.
‘As documented in the show, that led to a whole series of other issues and problems in my life, and led to what was a breakdown last year, which was the catalyst to making the show.’
Hall says he has told close friends and partners, but couldn’t face telling his family about his diagnosis.
Keeping this part of his life a secret took a toll. In fact, in recent years, he has even volunteered with Manchester’s George House Trust. Its ‘Positively Speaking’ program involves him talking about his HIV status with strangers. But he couldn’t bring himself to tell his family.
He says this culminated in an acute mental health episode in 2017.
‘It wasn’t so much the HIV status but the living in silence and the shame associated with that.’
He says he has met other HIV positive men through the Trust with similar stories.
‘There are three other positive speakers who went 15 years in silence. I had 14 years. It’s a common theme, actually, for people living with HIV, to feel self shame and stigma. It is often a lot greater than the actual shame and stigma you think people are going to throw at you, if that makes sense.
‘I compare it to coming out. The fear before it is actually bigger than what it needs to be, because it’s become internalized.’
Hall says keeping his HIV a secret, his feelings of self-shame, combined with other stresses and strains in his life, built up. Last year he experienced a breakdown. He knew something had to change. And that included telling his family.
Writing a letter to his family
‘I wrote them a letter,’ says Hall.‘I’ve got two brothers and a sister and my mum and dad, and I couldn’t face doing it four times in a row. I’d be an emotional wreck by the end of that. So I wrote a letter and gave myself no pressure to actually send it, but I’d write and see how I felt first.
‘But I wrote it and actually felt actually quite calm after I did it. So I immediately put the letters in the post so I couldn’t backtrack, because the longer you leave it the harder it gets.
‘To be honest, the response was quite underwhelming. It was just a few text messages to say, “We still love you and we understand.”
‘My mum came round the day after, and my brother came around, and we had a little chat and that was kind of it. It was business as usual, in a sense, which highlights the ridiculousness of the situation.
‘The reaction that we think we’re going to have is often completely not the reaction we’re going to get. There’s no reason for us to live in that fear.’
Stigma on apps
That said, Hall says he has experienced stigma.
‘Not as extreme as some people I know who have had problems at work, or been dismissed. Someone I know had fireworks put through their front door.’
‘But it’s particularly tough when you’re single.
‘I was in a relationship for eight years from the time I was diagnosed, but then to go to being single and back into the world of dating, that was tough. People blocking you on apps.
‘At first I had to work out what I was comfortable with and how much I wanted to share. Now I’m just completely open and I can’t describe how empowering that is, but it is hard. One person said I was dirty and disgusting, and no matter how thick your skin, that hurts. That really hurts.
‘It’s that kind of prevailing, underlying stigma that keeps people quiet.’
Reaching out to the man he acquired HIV from
Hall has been in a relationship for the past five years. What about the guy from whom he acquired HIV? Did he try to contact him?
‘Yeah… I’d not seen him for a while but I got in touch. A friend of his got back to me and said I was a silly little boy and making it up. He called me every name under the sun. Now, looking back, I was 16 and they were in their mid-20s. It was really awful.
‘I just wanted him to know because I’d not slept with anyone else. But they just kind of started kicking off, so I left them to it really. I just said, “Look, this is not about blame or anything like that, I just want you to know because a) I don’t want you to pass it on to anyone else, and b) If you are, you need to see a doctor, so you can get treated.
‘We kind of lost touch, but I saw him a number of years later, at the clinic, very briefly. I knew it was him and am almost certain he saw me, and he got called in to see the doctor and I waited outside, but he never came out.
‘I waited for an hour. So I presume he went out of another door.’
‘Do it in your own time when it feels right for you’
Hall says working on First Time has prompted much reflection on his part.
‘Some people look at it completely differently and say I was groomed. I was put into a situation that a 16-year-old doesn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with. And that’s been hard to reflect on and maybe work out where I stand on that. It’s 15 years ago and it’s hard to remember.
‘The show asks that question a little bit: Was it the first-time, whirlwind romance that I thought it was, or was it not? Why was someone in their mid-20s in a park looking… well, was he looking? Do you know what I mean? It’s raised a lot of questions in my mind that I don’t have an answer to. That’s life, I suppose.’
Does he have any words of advice for others diagnosed HIV positive, in regard to telling others?
‘I think it’s important to take your time,’ he says. ‘Do it in your own time when it feels right for you. And remember that you don’t have to tell other people if you don’t want to. You should never feel that pressure.
‘However, I can only speak from my experience. I’ve only ever felt empowered and I’ve only felt that that was a positive thing in my life, so I would encourage people to be open if they can, but certainly not to put pressure on themselves if they feel they can’t.’