Vulnerable no more: how being open about HIV made FARDAD DADVAND a stronger person

Go ahead, call him a ‘bare pozz slut whore’ if you have to. “I can never again be hurt by remarks like that.”

Words by Caspar Pisters, photos by Martijn Gijsbertsen

Six years after being stranded here in the Netherlands – we’re sitting outside of a coffee bar in Amsterdam – Fardad Dadvand (32) finally received his Dutch passport. He can travel again he says with a smile, wherever he wants. Back to Iran even, the country he escaped from in 2015.

That visit does not have much priority.

He can’t go into details about why he had to leave so urgently at the time, Fardad says. But, he states: “I never felt like I belonged there. Because of the government – they can imprison and kill you for being gay. And that often happens. But also because of the people. They are not open-minded. For the first 25 years of my life, I lived as if I were someone else.”

Escaping from Iran was so hard. Fifteen people on my boat died. When I found out I am HIV positive, I thought I would die after all.”

His mother and several other relatives by now also live in the Netherlands. For the time being it removed the last incentive to re-visit his homeland. Fardad: “Only my father is still in Iran. When he found out that I’m gay, he tried to prevent my mother from contacting me ever again. His threats were the reason the rest of my family got asylum in the Netherlands too. It was no longer safe for them.”

How can I expect others to be cool with me being positive when I’m not cool with it myself?”

How did your coming out go?

“In Iran, I was not really out of the closet. My mother realized I’m gay when she found my HIV medication here in the Netherlands. She googled what it was and I saw her face. She was destroyed. ‘Are you sick? Do you have aids? Are you going to die?’ I told her to let me explain. How the medication works, and what undetectable is. It took her a while to believe me.”

Her reflex was: HIV = AIDS = dying.

“Mine too, initially. In Iran there is no information, nobody talks about these things. I received the results of my HIV test three months after I arrived in the Netherlands. The HIV specialist explained to me how the treatment works. Little by little I accepted it.”

How did you feel when you heard that you are positive?

“I was shocked. I thought HIV only occurred in African countries, I was that ignorant. For a few weeks, I was very sad. Then, on dating apps, I had conversations with some guys who were undetectable. They explained to me how normal their lives are. It helped me to start adopting the situation and accepting it. It took me three years to be open about it. Dating was terrible every time, I felt very insecure. What if I tell my status and they don’t want me anymore? I struggled with that a lot.”

Have you ever been rejected?

“No. Not because of my HIV. But I was afraid of it for three years.”

What made the fear go away?

“My now ex-boyfriend – with his big mouth – told his new roommate about my status. We had a huge fight about it. Why would you tell something so personal to a new housemate? Then I started thinking: this secret makes me vulnerable. How can I expect others to be cool with me being positive when I’m not cool with it myself? I decided it had to change. I started talking openly about it with everyone I know. In every situation, at every gathering, in clubs, at parties. And I became stronger because of it. No one can hurt me with this now. And I feel a responsibility towards the community that I’m part of to keep talking about it. I want to break the stigma. Actually, I’ve hardly had any negative reactions. A few times from people who were uneducated, like me at the time: ‘Dirty person, slut’. Well, I take slut as a compliment, haha. But that wasn’t their intention.”

Fardad scrolls through his phone looking for a photo. Laughing, he shows a screenshot of a message he received on Grindr: ‘Bare pozz whore slut you are.’

That would make a great t-shirt.

“Haha yes.”

How do you deal with these kinds of reactions?

“I start by explaining that I’d rather not have HIV and that I didn’t get it through slutty behavior. I got it from my partner, and he didn’t know he had it, so I never blamed him. Because nobody wants to get HIV, and nobody wants to give HIV to another person. I send some links about how the medication works, and about u=u. It stands for undetectable = untransmittable. Hiv medication makes the virus undetectable so you can’t pass it on anymore. It happened twice that they apologized for their behavior.”

And when they call you a ‘bare pozz whore’?

“That doesn’t bother me at all. Being open about my HIV was precisely meant to never make me feel hurt by things like this.”

Story continues

I know a lot of guys from the Middle East who don’t accept their HIV status, they feel bad about themselves.”

You were diagnosed a few days before you heard that you can stay in the Netherlands?

“I was confused and shocked. The journey here was so very hard. The boat from Turkey to Greece capsized, fifteen people were killed. On December 22, 2015, at night. For three hours I tried to survive, swimming. Finally, I’m safe and I get HIV. What the fuck? I thought I was going to die after all.”

But what a heavy refuge story…

“It was. There were thirty people on that boat, seven of them children. All the children and eight others died. We had life jackets but they didn’t work well. We had to swim. Some of us couldn’t. With six boys, we tried to hold on to each other. There was a two-month-old baby with us. We took turns holding her, with one hand above the water because we needed to swim with the other. She died in our hands. The moment we had to let her go in the water, it was so heavy and sad. We were not far from the shore but the waves were huge. If I had been alone I could have made it because I’m a good swimmer. But I was with my ex-boyfriend. He couldn’t swim and I couldn’t leave him alone. After three hours, the Greek navy found us. Just when I had started to give up I saw the light of the boat.”

How do you feel when you talk about these moments?

“I don’t feel anything. It happened. I’m sad about what happened to those other people but I’m not traumatized or depressed. It was my decision to take that journey. If I could go back in time I would do it again. I am very happy with my life here, with the person I am here. And that I can be myself, with the people I love, in a society I love, and where I feel I belong. It was worth it.”

Did you find out your status in the Netherlands, or did you contract HIV here?

“I got it here. It was a new infection. I went in for something else, the doctor recommended doing an HIV test as well. I didn’t have any symptoms. I found out almost by coincidence.”

Did you have a sex life in Iran?

“I was in a relationship for three years before I came here, it was my only gay relationship in Iran. Before I knew myself and started accepting myself as a gay person, I had girlfriends.”

Here in Europe, HIV is – wrongfully – considered a gay disease. How was that in Iran?

“They don’t talk about homosexuality. So gay diseases don’t exist either. It’s supposedly mostly people that are addicted to drugs that get HIV when they share needles.”

It regularly happens that queer refugees contract HIV after arriving in the Netherlands. How can that be prevented?

“The most important thing is education about PrEP, and to have it available for free and without a waiting list. A friend of mine – not a refugee – became positive while he was on the waiting list for PrEP. It’s so unnecessary.”

How can this group be better reached?

“Gays who come here from the Middle East are usually still in the closet. Many of them deal with trauma. They have a difficult past. It is not easy for them to go to meetings and open up. You need to create an environment where they feel safe to talk about their issues. I know a lot of guys who don’t accept their HIV status, they feel bad about themselves. Sometimes they open up to me after I disclose my status to them. Each of us has a responsibility to be open and break the stigma, and provide others with as much information as possible.”

What would need to happen for them to also be comfortable with their HIV status?

“The existing organizations can play a role, by providing a space that feels safe to them. They are doing well, but they can do more. Ultimately, these people themselves need to make peace and accept. Their fear is to be judged by others. That’s the only reason people are not openly talking about it. But, really, it doesn’t matter what people think about you. At this stage of my life, I don’t care. I know who I am, and what I did in my life. I’m hurting nobody, I am not giving anyone problems, so their opinion is not important. First, get this power to not care about how people judge you. Because, whatever you do, say, eat, wear, people judge in the end. Do I want to be limited by other people’s judgments? No. We live once, I really don’t want to waste my time with this.”

You’re sitting here today with pink nails and glittery accessories: queer Fardad, when did that start to happen?

“An ex of mine organized big gay parties. I made a dress for each edition and started putting on makeup. Some Iranian friends said it makes me feminine and girly. I don’t give a fuck about that. In my daily behavior, I am more masculine than all of them. (laughs) And when it comes to clothing, I don’t believe in gender anymore. Nail polish, high heels, makeup, in history it was there for men. Like in China and parts of the Middle East. I don’t care what other people think.”

Story continues

If I die tomorrow, would I regret the decisions I make today? That is the question I constantly ask myself.”

We talk about his plans to set up a webshop for the fashion pieces he makes, as a self-taught designer. Initially, he set out to be a petroleum engineer. He entered an education that allows in only forty students per year, but he dismissed it after two years.

You could have been a rich bitch.

Laughs: “Exactly. It was my mentality at the time. And it’s what people around me applauded. But I didn’t find intrinsic motivation. I tried two more studies until I realized school is just not for me. I was accepted into a fashion academy here in Amsterdam but I decided not to do it. I want to be free and learn by myself. I have a job to sustain myself and I experiment with my own designs. I enjoy it.”

He adds: “I had a huge breakdown in Iran before coming here. I tried to commit suicide because of my sexuality. I had no one to talk to at a time when I desperately needed it. I was scared and afraid of being abandoned. I was in a coma for one night. When I woke up, I felt reborn. I decided to enjoy every moment from then on. Of course, I also have my bad days but even when things make me sad, I try not to get stuck in the negative for too long. If I die tomorrow, would I regret the decisions I make today? That is the question I constantly ask myself and on which I base all my choices and friendships. Being open about my HIV status was the most important step to being completely open about who I am. I love my life more than before.”

A few days after our conversation, Fardad sends a message on WhatsApp: ‘I ordered it‘. Pictured is a black shirt. On it, printed in a distinguished Grindr-blue and including all the metadata: Tue, Jun 28. Bare pozz whore slut u are. 23:25 Double Tap to Like.

Yes dear, Fardad very much made that fabulous red dress himself. | A shorter version of this story was first printed in Hello Gorgeous, magazine for and by people with HIV. | And think of the talented Martijn Gijsbertsen next time you are looking to have a portrait taken.

Fardad, back in Iran, age 24/25

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