Tricki Roderick: the face of #GiveItTheV – Interview

Alex Mitchell

Political observer and current affairs addict. Northumbria University graduate. Opinionated, my aim is to fuel debate. My favourite questions in life are Why? How? And What? My Favourite answers tend to start with It depends or Yes & No.

The #GiveItTheV campaign, fronted by the gorgeous Tricki Roderick, aims to support charities break down stigma related to living with HIV. The project sees everyday people tweeting and sharing selfies where they flick the V sign to stigma, in order to raise awareness of HIV and kick prejudice to the kerb.

We caught up with Tricki, a talented dancer and keen spokesperson, to find out more.

Hi Tricki. Thanks for talking with us. So why don’t you start by introducing the #GiveItTheV campaign. What is it all about? How did you get involved?

#GiveItTheV was set up by Mark Leeming, who wanted to do something to support the efforts of George House Trust to be informative and to end stigma related to HIV. We hope to educate and also re-educate those that are not aware or have preconceptions about living with HIV in a simple but hopefully fun way. With social media we are able to do this in a more accessible way that is available to everyone, no matter their lifestyle. 

What’s your link to this campaign?

I have been a supporter of reducing the stigma associated with HIV and trying to educate others for some time now. I’ve been active on my own Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, so when I first saw what Mark was trying to achieve, I supported it completely. Mark thankfully asked me to be part of the project and as time passed I became the poster boy and ambassador for the group. I truly can’t thank Mark enough for asking me to be involved in something so worthwhile.

My involvement in HIV awareness started when a very close friend of mine told me they were getting tested. I straight away made sure I was at all the hospital appointments – and then he was diagnosed. As I sat in the room, thoughts rushed through my mind. Despite how I felt on hearing the diagnosis, I didn’t want to judge my friend. Although I was upset, I didn’t want to ask why, when or how. I didn’t want to shout, and although I felt like I wanted answers, I knew it wasn’t my place to ask these things from him.

These were all the first things that came into my mind, and are the things many people think when they are first told of a diagnosis. They come from shock and concern, but they also come from ignorance.

I made the decision to sit there, hold his hand, support him and tell him it was all going to be okay. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I realised the initial reaction I had was due to my own misconceptions and my own lack of education on the subject. Determined not to let my own ignorance get in the way of my friendship, I researched the subject. I spoke to people who were living with HIV and re-educated myself. The thoughts of where, how or why became and should be irrelevant. I wouldn’t ask that if it was cancer or any other illness, and so I never have. People who are living with HIV aren’t different from anyone else – but the stigma put upon them creates differences. 

What do you think fuels the stigma around HIV?

I feel the stigma is fuelled by the main fact that it is normally contracted by sexual intercourse. It’s assumed it’s a gay man’s disease. People assume that men who are diagnosed are promiscuous or salacious and don’t respect themselves or others. It’s assumed they are sex workers, strippers and go-go dancers like myself – and so on. People think they took a risk and brought it on themselves.

All these things are assumptions, not fact. Women can be infected. You can get it whether straight, gay or bi. HIV affects doctors, hairdressers, hospitality workers and people from all walks of life. Add to that the shocking advertisements of the 80s – such as the one from Australia where the Grim Reaper bowled down people attached to HIV because they have unprotected sex – and you can see where the ignorance comes from. People aren’t educated and they’re often scared.

It’s seen as ‘better not to talk about it’, which is why the education is lost and the stigma increases. People discriminate against those with HIV but HIV does not discriminate against those it infects. 

How can it be tackled, in your view?

Education is the key. I think one of the main areas in need of change is the way HIV is sometimes projected to the public. It pretty much stays out of schools, and even in colleges and universities it’s only sometimes touched upon. People are becoming more ignorant and alienated about HIV, as they are not educated at a younger age.

We hope to educate those who have not had the chance to learn about it through social media, fundraising events, infomercials and one to one sharing experiences in a safe and, if needed, confidential environment. #GiveItTheV is not about just text and stats and a ‘leaflet through your door’. It aims to be much more hands on – more alive and more personal.

You say education is the key to reducing stigma. Were you taught anything about it in school?

Unfortunately I don’t recall being taught anything about HIV at school in great detail. I remember it being mentioned and the importance of protection with relation to heterosexual sex and sex in general, but nothing specifically about the risks, causes, prevention and medication of HIV.

I feel educators should be speaking more about HIV in sex education classes – not only the sexual aspect of it but also the emotional aspects, as contracting HIV can have just as much of a mental effect on the individual. There has been an increase in new diagnoses between people aged 18-24 and 45-60, respectively. I think the younger bracket shows there is still a lack of knowledge among those of a younger age. The age for sex ed classes keeps being made younger, so in my opinion more information should be given, therefore reducing risk and also stigma.

In the early years of the disease epidemic, the death rate from late-stage HIV (then called AIDS) was extremely high. But today, antiretroviral drugs allow HIV-positive people to live much longer and have normal, productive lives. Antiretroviral drugs are improving and extending the lives of many people who are HIV-positive. However, many of these drugs are expensive for the state and produce serious side effects. None yet provides a cure.

Can you tell us a few things not widely known about HIV or answers to the common misconceptions?

There are many myths about HIV and I’m going to cover three of the main ones.

Is it a gay illness? Well, most men do become HIV-positive through sexual contact with other men. However, about 16% of men and 78% of women become HIV-positive through heterosexual contact.

Can I catch HIV without having sex? The evidence shows that HIV is not spread through touch, tears, sweat, or saliva. You cannot catch HIV by breathing the same air as someone who is HIV-positive; by touching a toilet seat or doorknob; by drinking from a water fountain; by hugging, kissing, or shaking hands; by sharing eating utensils; or even by using exercise equipment at a gym. You can get it from infected blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or mother’s milk.

If I’m on medication can I have unprotected sex? When classed as ‘undetectable’ you can still pass on the virus. When HIV treatments work well, they can reduce the amount of virus in your blood to a level so low that it doesn’t show up in blood tests. Research shows, however, that the virus is still ‘hiding’ in other areas of the body. It is still essential to practice safe sex so you won’t make someone else become HIV-positive.

What do you make of some governmental attitudes? Recently California was brought into the spotlight after it banned a gay man from using hook-up sites, as he had been going around sleeping with men and ignored the legal requirement to disclose his status before sex.

I feel this is a very sensitive question that many can have conflicting opinions on. Having spoken to my HIV-positive friends, it seems similar answers kept being given. Being positive sometimes makes it harder to date due to the stigma, and ‘guys tend to run a mile when you tell them’. This is something many people find upsetting, deflating and hurtful. I believe that reaction is due to lack of knowledge and understanding.

From friends I’ve spoken to, they say that when the person gets to know them and not their HIV status, everything happens the same as other couples who date. So I do understand the reasons some may find it ‘easier’ not to disclose their status. I understand it makes dating more difficult and I understand the thought process of not wanting to put yourself through that with multiple partners.

There is often a time when it’s right to have that conversation. Although it’s difficult and can create upset, the choice to put another’s life at risk without allowing them to make a decision is not yours. Likewise, we should all be responsible for our own health. We should all take the time to ask any sexual partners about their HIV status and wear a condom.

With #GiveItTheV we are trying to reduce the difficulty of having these conversations with education, fundraising events and speaking more freely. Our aim is that in the future it should be easier for people to disclose their status without the stigma.

On a personal level, how often do you get tested as part of the ‘know your status’ campaign?

Personally I get tested every six months, or before any new relationship. But mainly I advise the use of protection at all times. I understand when you are in a relationship some people tend to prefer not to use a condom – and let’s face it none of us like to use a condom – but even if you feel you are in committed relationship, that doesn’t mean that mistakes can’t happen.

You can be HIV-positive and not have any symptoms for years. The only way for you or your partner to know if you’re HIV-positive is to get tested. I know that sounds very cynical, and obviously it depends on your personal relationship and your individual choice, but this is only my opinion. I believe we all have a responsibility to protect each other from HIV – whether negative or positive.

As a go-go dancer, do you feel people judge you before even saying hello?

Judgments towards dancers like myself vary depending on which country you’re in. But because my performances are highly sexualised there are certain perceptions of my personal lifestyle, morals and sexual exploits. I understand that goes hand in hand with the role that I play as a go-go dancer or boy burlesque performer – it’s a fantasy, it’s a titillation and it aims to tease. But ultimately it’s a character – maybe one that I have got too good at playing. Perhaps this causes people to assume I am promiscuous – but I know that people’s thoughts are no reflection of me, but a reflection of the individual. This is what happens when someone judges another person because they live with HIV. Someone’s opinion is no reflection on you – although this is always a struggle for the person being judged to understand.

I also would like to say, I have been accused many times of using #GiveItTheV as self-promotion. I just want to clarify, that i have been lucky enough to grow in my chosen fields and to be able to use that platform and to use the image that’s been created with that to promote something I believe in. Maybe once, just once, someone can do something just to try and help. I get messages from people everyday asking for advice and help, or thank yous, and that to me is worth more than people watching me on stage in a thong or knowing my name!

How can we get involved with the #GiveItTheV campaign?

Anyone and everyone is welcome to get involved with #GiveItTheV. They can post their V selfie on our official Instagram page, start following our Facebook and Twitter @giveitthev. We often update it with new info, new ‘V’ers and informative facts too.

We will also have numerous events you are all invited to show your support at. These include Drag Out Your Draws (November), Give HIV Some Heart (worldwide in early December), and the official fundraiser on 7 December in Manchester, with performances from our very own Mz Abby Synthe, Sheela Blige and – flying over for one night only from Paris – me! I can’t think of a better way to kick off December.

You can also visit the website giveitthev.co.uk, so get your V fingers at the ready and let’s make a change together.

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