Adrian Tyler speaks on living life after his HIV diagnosis and his advocacy work in educating queer young men about HIV/AIDS
On a late evening five years ago, Adrian walked out of the Action for AIDS Singapore (AfA) clinic and felt his world collapsing around him.
He had just taken a HIV test; his results came back positive.
The bus journey home that day felt like the longest ride he had ever taken. At home, the silence from his sleeping family weighed heavily on him as he peered down from his window. “I was having suicidal thoughts,” he recalls. “I had one leg out the window.”
What happened next was a timely intervention: his phone buzzed with a text from a friend. As they talked, Adrian’s friend told him what he needed to hear at the time: that he was a strong person, that there was support out there, and—most importantly—that he was not alone.
Now, years later, Adrian is grateful for that perfectly-timed call—the first of many instances of peer support that would be critical in his journey to finding peace with his diagnosis.
Life with HIV
Five years after his HIV test, Adrian has found a comfortable rhythm to daily life.
Confined indoors by the pandemic, he watches K-dramas on Netflix and practices meditation. Whenever he can, he goes for runs. Video calls have also become a regular staple as he stays connected with his support network, many of whom are close friends from work.
With the help of medication that he takes daily, Adrian is able to lead a normal life.
Currently, he works at the same organization where he was tested for HIV: Action for AIDS Singapore (AfA), an NGO that is dedicated to fighting AIDS/HIV infection in Singapore. AfA also provides support to newly-diagnosed individuals who may otherwise have to figure things out on their own.
AfA has played a crucial role in helping Adrian come to terms with his diagnosis. He received peer counseling and participated in support groups run by AfA, where he connected with other people living with HIV. “It was nice to not feel alone in dealing with the diagnosis,” he says.
Working at AfA, Adrian finds tremendous meaning in what he does. He is passionate about being of service to people, and dreams of ultimately becoming a youth social worker. “I consider myself to be relatively privileged,” he shares, “and want to use my experience to guide others whenever I can.”
Righting misconceptions about HIV
At AfA, Adrian’s job involves raising awareness on what HIV is. Does he feel that there are still misconceptions about HIV?
“Definitely. I was once ignorant about it too,” Adrian says.
One of the most common misconceptions, he says, is that HIV is a “gay disease”.
In fact, people of any sexual orientation can be HIV-positive. HIV can transmit through unprotected sex with an infected partner, regardless of the gender of either partner. HIV can also be transmitted from sharing needles, blood transfusions, and from mother to child—all of which can affect anyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
When he was diagnosed five years ago, Adrian had to grapple with many of these misconceptions about HIV and how it can be transmitted. For instance, after he came out to his family about his diagnosis, his stepfather requested him to separate his cutleries and toothbrush from those of his siblings, fearing the transmission of HIV.
In fact, HIV cannot be transmitted through water, air, or saliva. This means that it is perfectly safe to share bathrooms—and food and drinks—with a person living with HIV.
Adrian has tried small ways to educate his family on HIV, such as leaving a booklet out for his mom to read. They’ve also taken the initiative to find out more about HIV on their own. Over time, his family has become more accepting of his condition, for which Adrian is grateful.
“They’re happy to see me healthy and standing strong,” he smiles. Occasionally, his mom reminds him to take his medication, but they know he’s doing okay.
Dating as a person living with HIV
For Adrian, living with HIV has made one aspect of life more difficult—dating.
Like many, Adrian has tried to meet new people on dating apps, but the experience has been disappointing. On the app, Adrian makes sure to be clear about his HIV status, though this often emboldens app users to speak their mind.
“People say a lot of nasty stuff,” Adrian observes. “They often fear dating someone who is living with HIV.”
He attributes it to the lack of knowledge about what it means to live with HIV.
The prevalent misconception is that it is not possible to have intimacy—and by extension, a relationship—with someone who is HIV-positive. This understanding is misguided: it is entirely possible to be safely intimate with a partner who is HIV-positive. As long as a person with HIV takes their medication as prescribed, they can maintain undetectable levels of HIV (also known as the viral load). At this stage, HIV cannot be passed on through sex.
“Many people don’t understand that there is no reason for a person to lie about their HIV-positive status,” he explains. In fact, the real danger is when a HIV-positive partner does not disclose—or perhaps, is not aware of—their status, and precautions for safe sex are not taken.
Righting these misconceptions is not an easy endeavor. Through his work at AfA, Adrian coordinates HIV/AIDS-awareness events and outreach programmes for gay, bisexual, and queer young men to raise awareness on the importance of safe sex.
However, some groups of audience are harder to reach than others. Because of this, when Adrian is on a dating app, he tries to make it a point to educate men who show a lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS.
“I think it’s important, as an advocate, to share information with people. Not everyone will have that patience to share on a dating app!” he laughs.
Support for people living with HIV
Apart from raising awareness on HIV/AIDS and providing anonymous testing services, AfA also provides peer support for individuals who are newly diagnosed with HIV.
What is the most crucial thing for a recently diagnosed person to know?
“First of all, they should never think that they are alone,” Adrian stresses.
When he was first diagnosed, meeting people living with HIV who are leading fulfilling lives helped him in finding peace with his diagnosis. Having support was crucial to his journey—be it from friends or from HIV support groups such as AfA. “Some individuals may not have encouragement from their family, so having the support from friends is important,” he adds.
For those who have a loved one living with HIV in their lives, it is important to be educated not just on how to provide support, but also on what to be careful of. He gives an example: when a person reveals their status to us, we should never ask them how they contracted HIV. Not only is their history highly personal, but they could also have contracted it through a traumatising event such as sexual assault.
There are many resources on how to provide assistance or encouragement to a loved one who’s living with HIV (some of which are linked to at the end of this article). While it may take a while to learn the best ways to support our loved one, the most important, Adrian shares, is to reassure them that we are there for them.
It has been a long journey from the day that Adrian walked out of the AfA clinic with his HIV test results. Since then, he has worked with AfA and SGRainbow, a non-profit community young gay and bisexual men. He’s been actively advocating for better awareness on HIV/AIDS and works to provide support for people who are living with HIV. He’s the fourth person in Singapore to come out as a HIV-positive gay man, and often speaks publicly about his experience living with HIV.
Adrian is also taking courses to get him closer to his dream of being a youth social worker—particularly in family service centers, where he can provide support to queer youths who may walk through the doors.
Having gone through his journey of coming out as a gay man and as a person living with HIV, what does he wish he could have told his younger self?
Adrian mulls over the question. “You are not alone,” he says. “There is support out there. The road is gonna be a little bumpy, but don’t give up.”