A 14-year-old boy – skinny, cropped hair, in a crumpled school uniform – sits on a window ledge. He looks down at the pavement far below, calculating. He decides that this would be enough – high enough to make everything stop.
It is 1993, in a village called Cringleford, on the outskirts of Norwich. The boy’s name is Adrian. Every day they call him a poof, but he cannot tell anyone. His legs feel their way over the sill.
“I was lonely, I was ashamed,” says Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett, now 36. The words jar with the composed man gazing out the windows of BuzzFeed’s London office, assured and eloquent. He sits completely still, dressed in a loose grey suit, his new uniform suggesting the position he hopes to hold after the election: MP for Vauxhall.
Weeks earlier, I received a message in my Facebook account: “Would it be possible to have a very private conversation…” We met in a quiet coffee shop. “I want to reveal that I’m HIV positive,” Adrian said, with jittery determination, explaining that he had thought about it for a long time.
It would make him the first parliamentary candidate to disclose this publicly. Only one MP – Labour’s Chris Smith – has announced his HIV-positive status, and that was in 2005, when he was already leaving the Commons for the Lords. In the following decade, the stigma surrounding the condition persisted as transmission rates spiked and newspapers heralded cures that never come.
I thought I knew what Adrian’s story would entail. But it is only as he begins to describe the harrowing events that led up to his diagnosis that the reality emerges: Coming out about being HIV positive – an act of extraordinary courage – is only half the story.
Looking back to his schooldays, he says: “I tried to throw myself out of the window a couple of times.” It was only exceptional luck that saved him. “On both occasions my father interrupted me doing it, not realising what he’d interrupted. I was just out of the window, and he came up and wondered what on earth I was doing on the sill. I just said ‘I’m looking out the window’ and pretended nothing was happening.”
Adrian speaks quickly, so quickly that his words pile up with no time for their meaning to resonate. His father did not know about the taunts or that on one occasion an older pupil knocked him unconscious.
“He slammed a toilet door in my face. I blacked out. I came round on the floor of the toilet, got up, and walked to my next lesson, pretending nothing had happened. I didn’t want anyone to know why it had happened.”
Adrian pauses and looks down, readjusting his suit jacket: “It was the mental bullying that felt worse, though.”
Over the next two hours, as afternoon fades into evening, the consequences of this early persecution – a diabolical force rolling through his life – spill out.
From 7, Adrian knew there was something different about him – and knew he must keep it hidden. He was, he says, an easygoing, contented child: He loved football and he loved dressing up.
But by 10, other children sensed the difference, too. The bullying erupted; the contentment ended.
“I wasn’t seen as the big, strong lad at school, so the comments came: ‘gay’, ‘poof’, ‘bender’. I would cry in the toilets or somewhere there was no one around. I would try and not let it show in front of them, even though it hurt me intensely. I never had a close friend.”
He also started to realise that the hateful names were accurate. “I knew my parents and the people around me wouldn’t understand. I knew I couldn’t tell anyone. There was nowhere I could go; nowhere I could talk. I became depressed and anxious. With psychological bullying all you have is the words whirling around your head – comments thrown at you in the sports room, in the gym, walking home from school. My parents always picked me up and kids would shout jokes as I was walking down towards them.”
At 13, an older girl asked Adrian out. He started dating her, to have a cover. She helped quieten some of the bullies for a while.
“People thought, Oh, he’s got a girlfriend, he can’t be gay. I feel guilty because I never fancied her but that was the only way I got through school without committing suicide. She saved me.”
But knowing he was gay and having no way to inhabit his feelings, he turned inwards, forming an obsessive coping mechanism.
“I studied. I studied so hard I made myself very ill.” It was after his GCSE results arrived that Adrian began to break down physically. “My body started to falter and falter. My arms stopped working and then my legs. I couldn’t walk. I was terrified.”
A diagnosis came: fibromyalgia, a chronic inflammatory condition affecting the central nervous system. It is often entwined with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. Adrian spent the next school year at home, housebound and bedbound, in a storm of frustration and depression.
“I was not happy with who I was. I thought, What’s the point of living? That carried through to when I came to London and…subsequent events.”
Adrian recovered from fibromyalgia with the help of specialist psychotherapy, and went to the University of Kent to study French and Italian, where he had his first same-sex experience.
“I can remember walking home that evening thinking, This is me, I can be gay. It was the first time I felt comfortable with who I was.”
After graduating, he came to London in 2001 to work for a translation company. It could have been a time of emancipation, but the isolation of the big city engulfed him.
“I became incredibly lonely and thought, I don’t really want to be here. All the suicidal thoughts I had as a teenager returned.”
Adrian knew very few people and knew he had to venture out, but was intimidated by the gay scene, or at least its image: perfect bodies, invulnerable exuberance.
Instead, he started meeting men on the internet, exchanging messages first in chatrooms. Always a sports lover, he discovered the gay wrestling scene, and would arrange throw-around sessions that sometimes led further.
“It was a way of meeting guys without going to clubs – I was very shy, very reserved.” He began regularly seeing one wrestling enthusiast, who suggested that Adrian appear in a pornographic wrestling film.
“He said it’d be good fun. I said yes.” They made the film.
“I was hoping to please him enough so he’d want to be my boyfriend. I was going from one person to another trying to find someone to love me. Sometimes I’d find older people who I thought might look after me, or protect me, knowing that mentally I could quite easily go down the drain. I ended up doing all this because I was so lonely and my self-esteem was so low.”
The desperate people-pleasing, the depression, and the absence of self-worth eventually took on a terrible momentum, leading to a slalom into London’s darkest places.
Adrian remains still, his voice rarely wavering.
“It involved drugs,” he says. “I’ve done the whole A–Z of drugs and everything in between. Doing that and knowingly searching for ways to get rid of yourself was the worst possible combination.” He pauses and mentions a well-known suicide spot he went to a couple of times, but was unable to do it. By now it was 2004.
“I thought, What’s another way of doing it? Even though I knew people were surviving from HIV, I thought, Perhaps if I can make myself so ill, get the worst strain possible, that would be one way of getting rid of myself.”
HIV came to represent an answer, the pavement he never reached 20 years earlier.
“If you don’t care about yourself any longer you then do things that will harm you and think in a way that puts you in danger. This is what mental ill-health does. I was thinking, Who can I find who’s the most dangerous person to go to, who isn’t well, who could deliver that knockout blow?”
His quest led him to cruel men, the very worst of those caught up in the nexus of drugs and sex, where “slamming” (injecting) and “barebacking” (unprotected sex) dovetail in hours-long, sometimes days-long sessions of escapism. Men who, when Adrian said he could not swallow or inject any more drugs, would make him go further. Some wanted him to overdose. Some succeeded.
“On at least five occasions I overdosed. On a couple of those the people I was with knew exactly what they were doing – they were wilfully overdosing me, hoping it would mess me up so much I would go and do something stupid, or so that I would pass out to an extent that I wouldn’t have known what had happened.”
In order to take advantage of you sexually? He nods.
“You allow it to happen. You become a victim.”
Sometimes an overdose would leave him unconscious for five hours. Sometimes, when he woke up, the man he was with would be angry and ask him to leave. On one occasion, after being injected with a narcotic, he believes he was filmed.
It was amid this terrible plunge that he found the virus he hoped would end it all.
“I know the person who I’m 99% certain I became HIV positive from,” he says. They too met online, and agreed to have unprotected sex. “It was my own fault, I was looking for it.”
It is only after I probe further, to ascertain precisely what he means, that the underlying motive surfaces.
“I didn’t really want HIV,” he says, with a terrible sadness, as if realising this for the first time. “I wanted annihilation of me.”
Three weeks after they had sex, Adrian suffered flu symptoms – a relatively common response in the weeks following transmission, as the virus permeates the body. Expecting the diagnosis he thought he wanted, Adrian went to a sexual-health clinic.
“I had HIV.” He told the man he’d brought along, whom he had been casually dating. “He said, ‘OK, I’m going to go.’ He walked out of the building and I was left there.” They never spoke again. “I remember ringing up a female friend and saying, ‘I’m afraid to tell you I’m…’ and she burst into tears.”
We stop for a moment. His past is tumbling out with such speed that it would be remiss not to ask what his motivation is.
He explains that he became HIV positive “as a consequence of all these things – bullying, mental ill-health, low self-esteem… All those things could have been prevented. Yet all these things are still happening and no one is talking about it. I feel I owe it to the community to talk about it.
“There are enough people on the gay scene who are aware of the problems but there hasn’t been an open discussion at any level – political, governmental, or at a community level.”
The need for such a conversation is undeniable. Last year, one London HIV clinic asked its patients what worried them most. The top three concerns were not medical but social: stigma, isolation, and discrimination.
Britain has twice the number of new HIV infections as 20 years ago, bringing the total number of carriers to the 100,000 mark for the first time. Yet schools can still opt out of sex and relationship education, and homophobic bullying remains pervasive. Research by Stonewall in 2012 found that 96% of lesbian, bisexual, and gay pupils hear anti-gay language at school, 16% are physically assaulted, and only 10% say their teachers challenge such bullying.
Successive studies have also found that LGBT people have higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies. Despite the advancements in legal equality, society is, some fear, still cultivating many more Adrians – adults built on the early foundations of isolation and denigration, washing up in HIV clinics, injecting at private parties for days on end, collapsing in clubs, self-harming, and worse: some not making it to adulthood.
Few overcome such trauma so comprehensively as to be able to stand for public office. But despite the vastly improved modern treatments for HIV, Adrian’s problems did not stop in 2004 when he was diagnosed.
The man who gave him the virus, it transpired, passed on resistances to an array of modern anti-retroviral treatments. When carriers fail to take the pills daily, tolerance can build up, rendering the drugs impotent, and allowing the virus to resurge. When that happens, they are moved on to a new combination of pills – but if they fail to take them regularly, the virus can build up resistance to those drugs, too.
As a result, Adrian is left to rely on AZT, the notorious drug that in the 1980s was rushed on to the market in doses so high as to cause terrible, toxic side-effects. At the moment, his particular combination of medication is working, suppressing the virus to undetectable levels and making him effectively uninfectious. But over time, HIV can become resistant to AZT, too. If this happens, there will be, he says, no alternatives.
Elsewhere, however, Adrian’s life has begun to improve. He forged a steady career as a recruitment consultant, and after years as a Liberal Democrat activist, and having led the party’s LGBT group, he was selected as its candidate for Vauxhall (a seat currently held by Labour’s Kate Hoey). The area is so associated with bacchanalian gay nightlife that Adrian’s call for frank discussion of substance use and STIs will reverberate widely.
In late 2013, Adrian met someone new: It was a “complete whirlwind – it wasn’t expected”. He does not want to discuss him here, but adds, “It is a special love you cannot put words to – he understands who I am and what I’ve been through.” Last weekend, on the first anniversary of same-sex marriage in England and Wales, they married.
The change in Adrian’s personal life has emboldened him in his determination to change policy on these issues, and to challenge the stigma that stifles conversations about HIV and mental health.
“There needs to be joined-up thinking across government departments to implement preventative measures,” he says. “Starting off in schools with sex – and same-sex – education from a young age, compulsory in all schools. Homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying needs to be tackled properly, too.
“We need much more education in schools and the workplace around HIV, to reduce stigma, but more than that: There used to be television campaigns about it, but there hasn’t been anything in recent years. Young people are often completely unaware because of a lack of education.”
There is, for example, concern among doctors and among many parts of the LGBT community about an apparent rise in unsafe sex.
“I’ve done it myself and I don’t think it’s right that people judge others,” Adrian says. “Straight people have sex without condoms all the time. It’s an element to one particular part of the [gay] scene, and some people have gone there because of their mentality and feelings about life.”
He also supports the decriminalisation of drugs, an issue that intersects sexual health at several points.
“It all links together – making drugs a health issue not a criminal one so that people might talk about it and get help for it. There is so much more we need to address: Body image among gay men, hate crime, and mental health generally has never been recognised on a par with physical health.”
Adrian would like to see a commission set up and funding specifically devoted to helping tackle the mental and sexual health of LGBT people. But on issues like HIV and drug abuse, how much can policy really change things?
“It requires politicians first of all to even talk about it. I don’t see anyone willing and open to talk about what we’ve been discussing.”
Adrian also says he knows of MPs who have HIV.
“It’s everyone’s personal choice whether they speak publicly,” he adds. “I’ve come to a position in my own mind that it’s time someone talked about it. I couldn’t have done this five or six years ago.”
He hopes his disclosure will spark others. Courage, after all, is infectious.
Before Adrian leaves, I ask what he would say to a gay kid who is being bullied today. He stops and thinks for a moment, revisiting who he was then – the boy on the ledge.
“Try and talk to someone,” he says, gently. “Be strong and be brave.”
To contact the Samaritans, call 08457 90 90 90 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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