Interview: Philip Christopher Baldwin, LGBT and HIV activist

02 December 2016

‘I think Jesus would be at the front of every gay-rights march’

At the moment, with World AIDS Day [1 December], I’m incredibly busy. I write about my own journey with HIV, as well as other groups impacted by HIV.

 

This includes women: there are approximately 35,000 women living with HIV in the UK, and they are in lots of ways the silent face of HIV. In May, I hosted an event in Parliament with Positively UK on the topic of women and HIV. I work quite closely with Stonewall, the Terrence Higgins Trust, Positive East, and the Albert Kennedy Trust.

 

I’m very lucky to have so much variety in my life. It’s unusual for one day to be the same as the next. My ideal day would be spent tucked away in a nice café, restaurant, or hotel, concentrating on my writing. I spent my twenties working as a lawyer in financial services in the City; so I can do what I’m really passionate about now.

 

I focus on HIV testing, awareness, and stigma, HIV and Hep C co-infection, LGBT bullying in schools, and LGBT issues for the faith community. I also have columns in Gay Times, The Huffington Post, and Hep Magazine; and I’ve contributed a chapter to a book called The Power of My Faith. I really enjoy being busy. The great circle of people I have around me, and my Christianity, are really empowering me.

 

I’m also a role-model for Stonewall, the UK’s main LBGT charity. We go into schools, normally to sixth forms, trying to normalise LGBT identity. Stonewall has a whole range of people from the military, medicine, and trans communities. We’re trying to find more role-models from faith back­grounds, because a quarter of young homeless people are LGBT who have been rejected by their families, very often because of their family’s strong religious beliefs.

 

I talk to them about my coming-out experiences, my HIV, and Christianity. I point out that I attend a very inclusive church, and tell them that the Church of England is trying to be increasingly wel­coming. If I’m asked to speak anywhere, I always try to take at least two or three minutes to speak about Christianity.

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I’d love to interest more LGBT people in Christianity. It’s had an amazing impact on my life, nour­ishing me, driving me forwards, empowering me daily. I know that Jesus loves me. One of the main goals of my activism is to break down barriers between LGBT and faith communities.

 

In the UK we have a very secularised society, and that’s quite sad. My experience of the Church of England is that there are some incredible priests — mine are a massive support in my life — and it would be a great thing if some of these young people had faith in their lives. Adolescence is a difficult time, when people really need role-models.

 

I think the Church of England is actually doing quite well, though there’s still some work to do. After leaving the EU, it will be more important than ever to show that we are a tolerant, accepting, inclusive country — and having a Church which is inclusive is an important part of that.

 

There still remain huge variances in attitudes to LGBT people. Whether it’s in our schools, or on our football pitches, there is still a lot of homo­phobia out there.

 

To combat prejudice effectively, we must stand united at national and global level. I’d like to see Christians globally advocating for the rights of LGBT people. I think Jesus would have been at the front of every human-rights march, including every gay-rights march. Jesus’s message of love was radically inclusive, and, as Christians, we should seek to include the excluded.

 

I think sometimes it can be hardest to tell the people you love the most [that you are gay]. I didn’t have the courage to come out at school till I was 16, when I told a very close friend. I didn’t come out more broadly till I started at university.

 

No one should feel under any pressure to come out. They need to feel confident and have support networks before they do. It’s a terrible thing when someone is outed. I had to come to terms with my own sexuality before I felt comfortable telling other people. The press have become a little more sensitive regarding that, with people who have a public profile, unlike ten or 15 years ago. One caveat, I’d say, is that when Nicholas Chamberlain [the Bishop of Grantham] came out as gay, it meant so much to me, and to the LGBT community. The circumstances were sad, but, on the other hand, having an openly gay bishop has really inspired many people, and it has demonstrated that the Church of England is really more accepting.

 

In 2010, I was diagnosed as HIV-positive. I was 24. This came as a massive shock. I’d just started working for one of the world’s largest law firms, and I felt confident as an out and proud gay man. It seemed like everything that I had worked so hard for might be taken away from me. I told a few close friends, who supported and en­­couraged me. But it took me a number of years to come to terms with my HIV diagnosis. Looking back, I must have caught it in late 2009, when I was completing my law conversion and had very few sexual partners. I must have been quite unlucky — but HIV doesn’t discriminate between people.

 

I finally told my employer and my parents [about my HIV diagnosis] at the end of 2012. They were accepting and supportive, but they hadn’t come across anyone with HIV status before. It was like a second coming out. My mum was really frightened for me; so I was pleased that I’d taken time to come to terms with my diagnosis. We’ve got a really great NHS, and my specialist really helped her. My dad just turned around and said: “I love you any­way.”

 

Ultimately, the diagnosis has empowered me. For many years, I’d been an atheist or an agnostic. But in 2014, I found St John’s, Waterloo, where the Vicar is Canon Giles Goddard. I was confirmed the day after my 30th birthday. I couldn’t be the successful HIV and LGBT Christian activist that I am today without the church’s support.

 

In 2013, I was encouraged to work with a publicist, to speak more about my HIV. There are few people working in financial services who are open about their HIV status. I don’t think we can overestimate how effective Norman Fowler’s hard-hitting tombstone campaign was in the 1980s, because we have half the number of people with HIV than Germany or France. But it left a legacy of stigma.

 

There’s still a huge amount of stigma for people living with HIV. We need high-quality and consistent Sex and Relationships Education that informs young people about HIV. Approximately 6000 people are diagnosed as HIV-positive every year in the UK, but we need to get more people testing for HIV. Two-fifths of HIV-positive people in the UK are diagnosed late. I’ve been campaign­ing for pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a course of treatment that is taken by HIV-negative people; if taken correctly, daily, it is nearly 100 per cent effective in preventing the transmission of HIV.

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There was a shift in the 1990s with the emergence of antiretroviral drugs, which prevent HIV de­vel­oping into AIDS. HIV-positive people on medication now have a normal lifespan. The medication that I take has no physical side effects. I’m healthy, happy, and positive.

 

A week after my initial diagnosis as HIV-positive, I was diagnosed as Hep C positive. Again, this came as a huge shock. Hep C is a blood-borne virus, which causes inflam­mation of the liver, affecting 160,000 people in the UK. Over the past five years there have been great advances in Hep C treatment, and it’s now possible to cure it; so I hope I’ll start the treatment soon.

 

God has always permeated my life, but it took me a while to realise this. My most profound religious experi­ence took place in 2014, at the shrine to Reformation martyrs in Smithfield. As I reached through the wrought iron grille, to touch the granite surface of the monument, I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of piety. This impacted me, wave after wave. It’s the closest I’ve come to a Damascene moment.

 

I considered becoming a priest, but I think God wants me to advocate for the rights of LGBT people from the congregation. I would still love to learn more about the Bible, theo­logy, and ecclesiastical history.

 

God created us capable of sexual expression. He wants us to fall in love. I’d like to fall in love with another man. It would be amazing if he was a Christian and we could celebrate Jesus’s love together. My dream is to get married in a church. I’d love to see the Church of England endorse same-sex marriage.

 

I’m inspired by Jeffrey John’s The Meaning in the Miracles, Giles Goddard’s Space for Grace, and Jayne Ozanne’s Journeys in Grace and Truth. My favourite novels are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Evelyn Waugh’s Brides­head Revisited.

 

It’s quite unusual for me to get angry — I try to work constructively to improve what I dislike. Home­lessness, particularly youth home­lessness, makes me angry.

 

I’m happiest in church, with friends, or writing. I’m an optim­istic person and am pleased with how my life is developing.

 

Sir Ian McKellen and Peter Tatchell are two of my heroes. I listen to the advice of my priests. My tutors at Oxford and Cambridge helped to shape my values.

 

I would choose to be locked in a church with Jayne Ozanne, who is an inspirational Evangelical. She’s a beautiful woman, with a beautiful soul.

 

Philip Christopher Baldwin was talk­ing to Terence Handley-MacMath.

www.philipchristopherbaldwin.com

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