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The HIV activist sits down with Vada to reflect on decades spent advocating for people living with HIV and the work that is still to be done.
One of the first things Matthew Hodson’s mother said to him after he came out as gay to her, was that she hoped he wouldn’t die from AIDS. It was a different time, Hodson tells me, with her comments coming from a place of fear. Whilst the fear, stigma and shame that surrounded HIV grew, Hodson was coming to terms with his own HIV diagnosis and hiding it from his mother. Today, his openness about living with HIV has helped save the lives of others, with Hodson’s activism forging a path for discussion, education and treatment of a virus that continues to impact the lives of many across the globe.
It’s half ten on a Sunday morning and Hodson is telling photographer Giorgia Natella and I about his recent trip to New York. He has just returned from the Big Apple, where he was there to watch ‘Here We Are’, the final musical from Stephen Sondheim at The Shed’s Griffin Theater. Apart from the jetlag, Hodson is also shaking off the smell of marijuana that now wafts through the streets of Manhattan. “It’s about one in ten shops that sell grass now,” he tells us, sipping on a coffee in the lobby of The Hoxton, Holborn.
No stranger to changes to legislation, Hodson has dedicated his career to activism, having spent decades working on fighting against laws that discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community and people living with HIV. And whilst he has a laissez-faire approach to the legalisation of cannabis, the fact that he was even able to make the trip to New York is noteworthy in itself. “It wasn’t that long ago that people living with HIV weren’t even allowed to travel to the United States,” he says, a reminder that Hodson’s drive to educate others about HIV is always at the forefront of his mind.
As we ascend in the hotel’s lift, on our way to the room where today’s photoshoot is taking place, Hodson is keen to share some anecdotes from his years of being an activist. Not afraid to name-drop, his first story involves Elton John’s leather jacket, which Hodson thinks he has misplaced at some point. “It was gorgeous,” he tells me. “But it never did fit me.” Later on, between shots, he shares that he knew the footballer Justin Fashanu – the first professional footballer who spoke openly about being gay – and reflects on how few professional footballers feel able to come out even today. Lastly, when invited onto BBC Newsnight to talk about PrEP, the TV programme’s host Evan Davis criticised the name of Hodson’s charity just a few nerve-wracking seconds before going live on air. Hodson would later tell me that the charity is changing its name, although he assures me Davis’ comments had no part to play in that decision.
Even Hodson’s name has become one that can be dropped, especially within the HIV sector or LGBTQ+ community, with people sometimes stopping him to say how much he has helped them. The weight of responsibility is not lost on him. “I feel incredibly privileged that on a regular basis people get in touch with me to say that the work I’ve done through my personal life or advocacy has had a positive impact on their lives,” he says. “Whether it’s helping people who have just been diagnosed, or making somebody feel less shame or less dirty about living with HIV. It’s just incredible and such an honour.”
Currently the Executive Director of NAM aidsmap, Hodson joined the organisation in 2016, having previously held the reins at GMFA (Gay Men Fighting AIDS) as Chief Executive. He’s proud to work at NAM aidsmap, he says, because of its close links with the LGBTQ+ community and people living with HIV. With a mission of providing independent, accurate and accessible information about HIV, the charity was born out of a community-driven initiative. In the late eighties, London’s Lesbian and Gay Switchboard received a growing number of calls from people asking for information about HIV and AIDS.
“Volunteers at the Switchboard were completely overwhelmed by the number of calls they were getting about HIV and AIDS,” explains Hodson. “It became clear that there needed to be a resource for volunteers, which would allow them to pass on accurate information to callers who wanted to know more about resources and treatment options.” This folder of information was shared with other helplines across the country, becoming known as the National AIDS Manual, or NAM, which continues today as a charity on the same mission.
At the same time that the National AIDS Manual was being put together, Hodson was reading philosophy and sociology at the University of Leeds, before moving down to London, where he trained as an actor and performed in ‘Mouse Trap’ on the West End. It was a time in history that was filled with fun, yet also fear and misinformation. With the AIDS epidemic growing, he became increasingly aware of its presence. First as friends of friends began to die of AIDS, followed by his own friends.
This period of time was captured in the TV drama ‘It’s A Sin’, about a group of friends who move to London to embrace their sexuality and chase their dreams, yet they soon find themselves at the heart of an epidemic that most of the world is ignoring. When I ask Hodson about if he was able to watch the show, he tells me that he related most to the main character. “It’s a weird thing to me, but Ritchie’s character had also trained as an actor and was about four years older than I would have been at the time of the show,” explains Hodson. “So that would make him closer to the epicentre of AIDS deaths than I was, yet the fact that we both moved down to London and trained as actors… There were so many parallels between Ritchie’s life and mine, and how AIDS affected us both.” He credits the show’s writer, Russell T Davies, for accurately capturing the period. “I felt like I was watching a kind of fictionalised version of everything that I had been through,” adds Hodson.
Speaking of parallels, I bring up the notion that the show came out during the Covid-19 pandemic, at a time when the country was in lockdown. Hodson replies that it was almost as if people had forgotten about that time in our history. “People were talking about how Covid was ‘the first pandemic’ they’d lived through,” he replies. “Well, not for me!”
There was also a sense of frustration that Hodson felt about the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic and their decision-making. “As somebody who works in HIV prevention and who has lived through the HIV epidemic, I just wanted to scream at and shake vigorously some of the people who were involved in decisions and making laws,” he says. “There are lessons which we could have learned and we could have applied, but instead, they didn’t. You have to let communities lead, rather than telling people what you want them to do. You have to be honest.”
He brings up the fact that members of the government weren’t following their own lockdown rules. “That disconnect felt so personal,” he says. In addition, Hodson argues that the “white cisgendered, heterosexual, middle class, well educated men around the table” resulted in the government’s priorities being skewed. Whilst they were talking about whether people could go to football matches, as Hodson puts it, the government was ignoring the care of the elderly and people experiencing domestic violence. What does he think could have been done differently? “They needed to have women at the table as a minimum, but also gay men, people with disabilities, and racially minoritized communities. It’s clear that the Covid pandemic reminded us of the terrifying health inequalities experienced by different communities in this country.”
The lack of diversity around the decision-making table is something that Hodson argues also happened with HIV. “You had a group of people who were white and heterosexual, who perhaps didn’t approve of homosexuality,” he explains. “Therefore, for them, talking about sex was only about a disease, which is where they went wrong.”
Hodson recalls an advert for safer sex, with the tagline, “We don’t have safer sex, because it’s safer”, which he feels was completely ineffective. “No one who has ever had really good been sex would say that, because the reason for having safer sex is because it’s safer,” he says. “There is no other reason to have safer sex. You do it to prevent transmission of any infection. The idea that you would have safer sex because it’s more fun is copy that is written by someone who has not had good sex.” He says that the disconnect between this advert and the community it was supposed to serve, was just one example of money wasted on ineffective and homophobic public health campaigns at the time.
When I draw comparisons between these two pandemics, I remark that they both took place under Conservative governments. Does Hodson believe that had something to do with how they were handled? “I’ve lived through long periods of Conservative governments and I’ve not had enough other governments to really know what they’re like,” he reasons. In his view, the lack of diversity at the decision-making level was the main downfall.
“When people talk about diversity, I often hear people saying it’s something that they’re giving to minoritized communities,” adds Hodson. “It’s not something they’re giving to us, it’s something which they’re gaining from us. If the only people making decisions are people who are all educated at the same school or university, the range of their imagination, the range of their experiences, are not going to be greater. They’re going to come up with the same answers. And maybe that answer will be good, but the odds are, that answer will be incomplete.”
Looking to the future, Hodson is as driven as ever to advocate for people living with HIV, in addition to preventing the transmission of the virus. “We are now 27 years into the era of effective HIV treatment. We have now known for several years, with scientific certainty, that effective treatment prevents sexual transmission of HIV, which is still how the virus is most usually transmitted.”
That being said, he admits to being shocked and frustrated by the number of people still dying around the world, as a result of not being on effective treatment. And perhaps in places where people may not expect. “I find it staggering that the AIDS rates are so high in the United States,” he observes. “Arguably by some measures, one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. I find it absolutely heartbreaking for Russia, where people are diagnosed and then not put on treatment.” As for the countries with discriminatory attitudes and laws against homosexuality, drug use and sex work, Hodsons says people living there also face barriers to accessing life-saving treatment.
There is still work to be done and a weight of responsibility to help others. How does he manage this, I venture. Does he go to therapy? He laughs. “Well, I think some of my friends think I ought to go to therapy, but I don’t.” He used to run, until a knee injury meant that he is no longer able to run as much. Instead, he has taken up going to the gym and posting sweaty selfies in tank tops on Instagram. Hodson’s social media is now a mix of HIV activism and fitness posts.
When I ask Hodson about what he would like to do next, he takes a lengthy pause. As somebody who trained to be an actor, Hodson shares that he would like to go back to performing. “In more recent years, I got the opportunity to be in some theatre shows, like ‘Chemsex Monologues’ and ‘Queers’, both written by Patrick Cash. Just the sheer liberation and joy of playing queer characters and being in pieces of work that are reflective of my life and queer life, was an enormous amount of fun.”
He’s also thinking of writing more. A book, I ask. He has been approached to do some autobiographical work, yet he says he would struggle to find time to fit that into his busy schedule. “But I really hope that I will have the opportunity, whilst I still have the energy to get it down. As David Bowie says, ‘Write it down, and it won’t be forgotten.’”
Matthew Hodson is featured on Vada’s latest digital cover, photographed by Giorgia Natella. He is Executive Director of the HIV information charity, NAM aidsmap. Follow us on Instagram for more exclusive pictures from our cover shoot.