By Tom Rasmussen
Originally performed by Tom Rasmussen
This monologue explores the relationship between the power of imagination and the stigma which surrounds HIV and AIDS today. In tackling the seemingly straightforward task of getting tested, the piece takes a personal look at the mind's ability to construct damaging opinions and patterns, based on rumour, poor health education, and fear. Although anecdotal in style, the writing develops from a self-reflective story to a political discussion.
I’ve been asked to write this monologue for tonight. When I started thinking about what I was going to fill the page with I really tried to avoid any stereotypical theatre tropes, like opening the whole thing with...
(Startled) ‘Oh I didn’t see you there’
‘Well it all started...’
‘Way back in the 80s things were different, you know..’
This was all with a desperation to not look like a twat in front of people I know, and those I don’t too, I guess. After about two hours of what I am now labeling anxious vanity, I am a Virgo after all, which is of course incredibly important, I escaped onto Beyonce’s tumblr, and this new really cool page called Surfboardt where you can play soundbites from her album, which of course is all over my facebook wall. Then I naturally moved over to facebook and spent ages reading about Lily Allen saying that she thinks feminism shouldn’t exist – I reposted an article about this because it pissed me off and people should know that she’s really quite the douchebag...
So, yeah, a really productive session of making people aware of my political views, as well as deepening my own knowledge of popular culture (which these days I’m calling pop-feminism, just so you guys know, because that’s the pop culture I’m really engaged with right now).
Then I opened this email from our director. Incredibly long, blah, incredibly informative, lots of links and a really lovely tone which was beautifully true to form. After skimming the first and last word of each sentence, I remember glancing at the time and thinking that I had about 24 minutes until Haggerston Espresso Room closed, and so I shut my laptop, bought an Almond Croissant and a flat white and had some much needed time out – it was Friday and my first day off of the week so I am entitled to that.
I hung out with my friends, and had an ale which really took them by surprise because I don’t ever drink ale.
I strolled to the Haggerston overground station with a gay friend of a friend who is lovely. I was talking about how funny the North of England is, because it’s just gross, and how I think the trans movement is incredibly isolating because it’s far too academic and extremely complex, when the root of it is so basic.
Train came, and I left him at the platform. I sat down reading the Evening Standard, which you’ll be interested to know I have a few problems with – especially the fashion section.
And I’m doing it again. Right now as I sit here typing this I’m doing what I did all day Friday. Genuinely it’s unintentional, and I had vowed to write one paragraph about my inactivity, and then go hard with the AIDS thing. I’ve written nine.
You see, throughout this entire series of pointless, inactive, day-off events I knew what I was supposed to be doing. I had set out to research the viewpoint of a character for this HIV monologue night. I put it off and put it off and now my deadline is tomorrow and I have nothing really. Well, not nothing but I guess not a dramatized piece about the turmoil of a character who has had HIV since childhood, or someone who has just found out their sister is a bisexual and has HIV/AIDS. I mean these viewpoints are so so much more valid to showcase than mine.
Although it has only been through a thought process I was not going through that I realised I do have a standpoint about HIV/AIDS to share... I think.
You know the first thing I ever thought about gay men is that they all get AIDS and die. This made eventually realising that I like a dick in the arse somewhat harder, and so I then persuaded myself that if you were gay and got AIDS it was because you are stupid, and I would never be, so obviously AIDS (which again, at the time, I thought was the same thing as HIV) would never even come into contact with the outer most peripheries of my life. And so I was fine.
When I lost my virginity I had just turned fifteen, and I had no clue what I was doing. Both of us, on Star Wars sheets, thought that using lube would be way too messy so we just went on ahead with me dry as a bone. He had never had sex, neither had I, so we both decided not to bother with a condom because of the chance of his parents finding it in the bin by the sink in the toilet.
About four months later I met a baker in Tesco, who was cute and gave me a free croissant which I obviously took as total love. Because I love croissant, and that’s literally how easy I was. We had sex that week, and he was 32 and I was sixteen I think. We were totally safe everytime, except once, where the condom broke through no one’s fault. He came inside me. I have never shared this with anyone.
We talked about it, and he decided it was fine. I left his house to walk home, and on the way I sent him a BBM telling him I never wanted to see him again. I don’t know at all why, I remember absolutely shitting myself. Three weeks on and I got a call from a friend of his saying ‘Mark’s best friend from Blackpool has just died of AIDS’. I don’t even know what that means, do you know what that means? To die of AIDS?
I completely lost my mind. It was like a fight between a fairy and an ogre: the fairy being the optimistic self-persuasion that in no way could I get HIV, I’m just not that guy. The Ogre being the petrifying huge shadow which was ebbing throughout my whole body – AKA the realisation that I was probably going to die, right now, at this minute, of HIV/AIDS. What?
This battle continued, silently like shadows on the wallpaper of my brain, for three months. In this time I had decided that it was pointless to get a test because I had to wait three months. I had decided that I had HIV. I had decided, more disturbingly so, that I probably deserved it because I had been stupid, and wreckless and, I guess, dirty. God it sounds so GCSE Drama, I guess that was also happening at the time: I played the Professor in Ionesco’s ‘the Lesson’ and gave a stellar performance. Although I still can’t talk about toothache without wanting to kill everyone.
I had a test. I thought the skin on my chest was about to rupture from the speed of my heartbeat. Turns out I was ‘clean’ as they call it, entirely ‘clean’.
From then I have always thought about the seriousness of the imagination when it comes to HIV/AIDS. In the space between genuinely doing not a thing wrong, to the day I got a phone call, I had convinced myself that I had an HIV cross to bear, and may as well give up on life. I am genuinely not exaggerating in any way.
And that is the problem with HIV/AIDS education and awareness. The words ‘clean’ and ‘diesease’ and ‘pandemic’ and ‘HIV’ are cripplingly loaded. They are petrifying, to the point where I find it difficult to think about HIV without almost completely freezing, being sick, or deciding again that I have it.
Through the process of writing this monologue, I have been entirely forced to confront my fear of confronting HIV/AIDS and its potential risks to everyone, not just to gay men or sub-Saharan Africans. I am ashamed of myself for my lack of education, I am ashamed of myself for my ability to distance myself from a disease which I am incredibly likely to be exposed to at some point in my life. I am ashamed at how easy I find it to other those who have HIV into the categories of ‘dirty’ or ‘far-away’.
This may change your view of me, this has changed my view of me – so I guess I didn’t have to worry about ticking the box of monologue writer/performer cliché because it doesn’t fucking matter.
I realise how incredibly easy it is to be prejudiced, even though I don’t want to be, and work hard every day not to be.
We hear, all the time, that ‘you can live a normal life if you get HIV’. Well that’s fine then, totally fine because bless those people who have it and can live normally. ‘Yeah right’ is literally always my go to inner monologue thought before I smile and say ‘it’s really great how medicine has advanced’.
But I have forced, forced and forced myself, to think about how life would change if I was diagnosed with HIV since starting this process. And you know what, it wouldn’t be fine, but it would have to be fine. Because the crux is that the disease itself is fucking shit, it is just so shit and unfair and bullshit and that is true. But the difference I see now is that the person who carries the disease is not fucking shit, so shit, dirty, stupid, gay, a sub-Saharan African, or a slut, or someone to stay away from, or a heroin junkie, or a weirdo.
It has been amazing to realise this. I do truly feel this now, and I hate myself for ever thinking otherwise, even though I’m sure thoughts of fear, and the prejudice it drags with it, will crop up again. Standardly these inner beliefs came from utter fear of getting HIV/AIDS. And it is this fear which will stop us educating ourselves, and it is this fear that will maintain this social view of those who are HIV positive as something separate from ourselves.
I may be totally wrong, and may be the only person to have ever had these thoughts. For my sake I hope I am not. For the world’s sake I hope I am.
I am currently listening to a Woman’s Worth by Alicia Keys, and she is amazing. I have been so scared to share this with you. Thank you for listening to me.