7 Oct 2008

Action equals life: Nicholas Snow

Bangkok-based entertainment writer and actor Nicholas Snow tested positive for the HIV virus just after New Year's Day this year. This week, he could well become the most outspoken HIV activist in Thailand. He tells Fridae his story in an exclusive interview ahead of his press conference to be held tomorrow.

As a self-appointed Global Ambassador for HIV/AIDS Awareness, Nicholas Snow has decided to tell his story about how he came to be infected and the need for HIV testing and early intervention, and increased adherence to safer sex practices as MSM communities across Asia and other parts of the world are seeing an increase of HIV infection rates.

This month sees the launch of ActionEqualsLife.com, a social networking web site created to promote HIV/AIDS awareness, champion "human rights for all" and support the worldwide fight for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. Its founder Snow will also publish his book Life Positive - A Journey from the Center of My Heart, which he had started to write since March, on the web site week by week until all 23 chapters have been published.

The 48-year-old American, who grew up in Arizona before heading to Hollywood, says the site which was conceived just six weeks ago is his "personal globally-focused community service project, and a focal point of (his) life moving forward."

Snows says with his experience as an activist since the 1980s and media person, he believes it is his "responsibility to tell my story as broadly as possible."

He was first involved in organising the first ever National Coming Out Day - an internationally-observed civil awareness day to discuss LGBT issues - in 1988 and later became known for producing the TV show Tinseltown's Queer which he describes as a "queen's version of Larry King" from 1993 to 1999. Based in Bangkok since 2006, he currently reports for several magazines and television programmes.

He told Fridae that while "everyone" in the local non-governmental organsation (NGO), men who have have sex with men (MSM) and LGBT communities he has met with have been very supportive of his efforts, no one was willing to participate in the press conference.

Expressing his disappointment, he said: "I imagine the social stigmas and cultural forces faced by the Thai community are immense. With my very Hollywood style, if I were one of these people, I think I might choose to watch from a distance for awhile as well."

"But ultimately I believe we will all be working together, and I look forward to it."

The press conference tomorrow will include Narumol Sriyanond, PhD, and Tim G Zajaros Jr, founder and co-founder respectively of Building for Life, a non-profit social activism group, currently producing a feature-length documentary about HIV/AIDS. Dr Narumol is also the director of Thai Women: Challenging AIDS, a 10-minute short documentary film that interweaves personal stories of Northern Thai women with HIV/AIDS who use their creative and spiritual strength to challenge the societal stigma of the disease.

In an exclusive interview, Snow tells Fridae about how and when he became infected, coming to terms with his positive status and the difference he hopes to make.

æ: What made you decide to go public about being HIV positive?

Nicholas: I came out in the media as a gay man in the early 1980s and by the end of that decade had made it my career to be an out gay person in the media because of the change all of us who are out have inspired, and continue to inspire in the world. Having served on staff of the first-ever National Coming Out Day in the US (the 20th Anniversary of which is Oct 11) and lost close friends in the 80s and 90s to HIV/AIDS, I was inspired to live many of my dreams, and express my truth to the best of my ability. In my TV show which I hosted in LA for seven years, I borrowed part of the ACT-UP mantra and concluded most every episode with: "Express the truth of your life to the people who you can influence, because Silence = Death and Action = Life."

With my background and my personal passion, I believe it is my responsibility to tell my story as broadly as possible. In the issue of Spice! Magazine coming out next week (the largest English-language in Thailand targeting gay men) I clarify my reasons a bit more: "In retrospect, it has occurred to me that a very high percentage of my conversations with my gay friends in Thailand have been about our sexual adventures, with very little discussion, even among those of us who have worked or do work professionally to prevent HIV/AIDS, about whether or not we were practicing safe sex - protecting ourselves and our partners. I also learned after becoming positive myself that I have a close friend who also became positive well into the epidemic, although he had never shared this information with me. I support and honour an HIV positive person's right to choose when, if and how to disclose their status, but I have often wondered, 'Would knowing his story have empowered me to take better care of myself?'

æ: Do you know the exact circumstances of how and when you became infected?

Nicholas: I was exposed in early August of 2007, by one of two men I met on the Internet. With one man, I was a receptive bottom with no condom in one sexual act. With the other man, I was an insertive top with no condom in two sexual acts.

I quote from Spice! again: "What!? Yes, decades into the AIDS pandemic, having been quite successful at remaining HIV negative for virtually my entire adult life, I experienced a lapse in safer sex practices because 1) I was depressed at the time and seeking solace in sex; 2) I wasn't aware of the high rate of HIV among MSM (men who have sex with men) in Bangkok (over 30 percent); 3) My sexual partner believed he was HIV negative and told me so; and 4) I had a false sense of security about remaining HIV negative because I had successfully done so for so long. None of these reasons are good reasons for not using a condom, but they are human reasons. I failed to practice safe sex and I am HIV positive as a result. I met my sexual partner over the internet and we had a sex date - no money involved. Unfortunately, this scenario is happening to thousands of MSM throughout the world at an alarming rate."

æ: Did you test routinely or did something happen that spurred you to get tested?

Nicholas: Within two weeks of the unsafe sex incidents I came down with a severe flu-like illness worse than anything I had experienced before. When it did not clear up, I saw a doctor and after a variety of conversations with different professionals, which included questions about my recent sexual activity, I was told that I my symptoms could be indicative of recent acute HIV infection. I did not have the money at the time (I was at a private hospital which was not affordable to me) to do a test so I simply went home and recovered.

It was in the back of my head that I might be HIV positive and since I had tested on a regular basis for decades, I wanted to enter 2008 knowing my current status. I went to the Silom Community Clinic between Christmas and New Year's in Bangkok but since they are funded by the US, they were closed that week. I returned on Jan 3 with two friends and tested positive that night.

æ: What were your initial thoughts then?

Nicholas: I was shocked. I really thought at some level that I was going in to get yet another negative test result which I had resolved I would use to reinforce a rigid return to safer sex practices. I also thought and stated, 'this is the one area of my life I will keep private.'

æ: Who was the first person you told?

Nicholas: I was with two friends that night, one who tested negative, and one who was positive but getting a CD4 (T-cell) count. The first person I told was my positive friend, as the other friend was still in one of the rooms. He came out negative. I was, and am, of course, positive. Later that night, one of my friends said something like, "Knowing you, it will be interesting to see what you do with this." Now we know!

æ: Do you see any benefits in coming out about your health?

Nicholas: Most definitely. By just making some minor changes in the way I live my professional life I have put myself in a position to in an ongoing fashion be a leader, a spokesperson, an inspirer, about these issues for the rest of my life (which could be a very long life!). In my anonymous outreach online I have inspired people to get tested, join me in an HIV support group, and at the very least, think about their behaviour.

To quote Spice! again, these are some important points: "I most want to tell you, right now, 1) learn your HIV status; 2) stay negative if you are negative; 3) follow the advice of medical experts if you are positive; 4) use condoms 100 % of the time. Remember, there are only two ways of learning you are HIV positive, the first of which is to get tested, and the second of which is to get sick. If you learn early-on after exposure that you are HIV positive and follow proper medical advice and protocols, your chances of living a normal lifespan are dramatically increased."

My CD4 count in January was 999 and in August, 1047 - it had gone up, which is great news. I am told that if I eat well, exercise, take good care of myself, avoid stress to the best of my ability, monitor my CD4 and viral load counts, and take medicine when indicated (which could be many years from now based upon my numbers), I have every possibility of living a normal lifespan. It is very important for people to know their status so they can take advantage of every opportunity to care for themselves and their partners. I have lost weight and am in great health!

æ: What's been your experience with stigma and/or discrimination, if any, in Bangkok?

Nicholas: I've lived in Bangkok since January 2006 but came here three times previously in my role as an entertainment and travel journalist, the first time of which was in January of 2004. I do consider Bangkok one place I would like to call home for the rest of my life (the other, Palm Springs, California, because of its very gay and HIV-friendly community and its proximity to Hollywood). As a self-employed person who can just leave Thailand if I need to, I do not face the same fears and challenges as a native Thai would.

I am taking this action so I can connect my past with my present, my personal life with my professional life, determine which doors will close, and march proudly through those that open or remain open. Sure, my acting career, my media career, may take a different path but I expect a world of abundant opportunities.

æ: Are you closely linked to the gay community in Bangkok? What has been their response so far?

Nicholas: I am perhaps the most visible openly gay westerner in Thailand, and I appear consistently in a variety of media and know people at every level of society here, and they know me. I have constantly stated that professionally, "I want to be the single greatest exporter of good news about Thailand," and this remains my goal.

HIV is happening everywhere, not just here, and there is no reason for this issue to take away from the multitude of reasons that Thailand is one of the most spectacular places in the world to live, work and vacation.

I am getting an outpouring of thanks and gratitude from people throughout the community and all over the world for the stand I am taking. It is overwhelming and encouraging.

æ: It has been reported that HIV infection among MSM in Asia are on the increase due to lack of prevention services, stigma, denial, criminalisation of same-sex sexual relations, among other factors. What is the role a HIV-positive person can play in HIV education? How do you hope for this campaign to speak to gay men?

Nicholas: This issue is very complex, but I am clearer than ever that there needs to be people who can step up and tell our stories. I worked for the bulk of two months to build coalitions with the professional HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ movers and shakers to join with me at the ActionEqualsLife.com press conference, and all along the way I asked for questions, comments, criticisms, etc. Absolutely no one said yes! This is particularly mystifying to me since I have also not received any direct constructive criticism, cautions, suggestions, etc.

What I know is that change comes when we tell the truth about our lives. I have the ability to tell the truth about mine on a grand scale, partially because I am a drama queen! But seriously, there are two things that motivated me to get into the media over two decades ago as an openly gay man: 1) The knowledge that I could and should make a difference with my life; and 2) a complete lack of self-esteem which manifested itself in a consistent quest for attention. Over the years I have come to love and accept myself (still sometimes a struggle) so the "making a difference" component of my work I hope greatly overshadows the "me-me-me!" component of my work.

I'm sort of living the Whitney Houston song, "One Moment in Time," and I feel like this is my gold medal round, and I welcome opportunities to be of service.

Ultimately I realised I was in a position to make a huge difference; that there are very few openly-HIV positive people in this part of the world; and that I would regret it terribly if I didn't do everything I could to make a difference for others who still have the ability to remain HIV negative, and to help inspire those who are HIV positive to find out and to care for themselves.

I also want to stress that in coming out as an HIV positive person to friends, family, people I want to date, etc., I have been embraced, nurtured and thanked. I still fully expect to meet the man of my dreams at some point and get married in the State of California! No on Proposition 8! [On Nov 4, Californians will vote on Proposition 8 which seeks to eliminate the right of same-sex couples to marry.]

In choosing to tell my story, thanks to the interest of Fridae.com and other media outlets, I will have reached tens of thousands of people by the end of this week alone with very important, life-saving messages, and will have provided a place for people to interact with each other about these issues.

The press conference will take place Wednesday, Oct 8, at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand, beginning promptly at 10 am (registration from 9.30 am). For more information, email action@actionequalslife.com.

Nicholas is appealing for info about where people can go for anonymous, affordable, accessible HIV testing and related pre- and post-test services in various cities, click here to contribute.