Surviving AIDS and making it count, Michael Stevens
Michael Stevens joins Purposely to share his founder story developing and launching the
Michael’s mission was to support the rainbow community in a tangible way, helping the community to gain acceptance and inclusion in the workplace and he had seen similar initiatives abroad.
It was about positively impacting people’s mental health and about accepting and valuing people in the workplace, embracing the diversity of sexual and gender identities.’
The first programme of its kind in New Zealand, organisations undertake an accreditation process carried out by an independent assessor receiving the Rainbow Tick a visible sign that business embraces all genders and sexual identities.
As a gay man, Michael knew from personal experience how important this initiative would be for future generations. Michael initially struggled to accept his own sexual identity and had to deal with a school culture that wasn’t fully inclusive or accepting.
In 1988 Michael was diagnosed as HIV+, he was 27 years old and living in Istanbul, Turkey. The following years were filled with anger, sadness, sickness and acceptance, as he believed he had only a few years to live.
That was nearly 30 years ago. Now, he’s in his 60’s.
‘I spent so long thinking about and planning my own death during those years, although it didn’t happen’
In 1988, the HIV/Aids epidemic was sweeping the world. many of his gay friends began to talk about it, and when his flatmate in Istanbul tested positive he decided he should get tested too.
Michael travelled to London to receive his test. The doctor at the clinic told him he had HIV, and advised him to go home to New Zealand and prepare to die within the next two years.
‘I felt absolutely devastated and I went into a deep depression, but I decided I wasn’t ready to go home, so I returned to Istanbul.’
‘When I told my family, they were upset for me of course, but fully supportive. I know a lot of people were cut off, but luckily for me this wasn’t the case.’
In the next few years, Michael said he didn’t feel too bad, but in 1993, he received the news one of his closest friends who was diagnosed around the same time as him, had died.
‘I figured if he'd now died from it, I probably didn’t have much time left. So I decided to go home for his funeral and prepare for my own.”
The next year, Stevens became sick. He contracted tuberculosis and Pneumocystis pneumonia, a type of pneumonia often associated with a weakened immune system caused by HIV.
He lost a large amount of weight in a short span of time and was constantly tired. He could no longer walk up the stairs at work without getting out of breath.
It was at this stage he was told his HIV had progressed to its final stage, known as AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Michael was in his thirties at this point.
Michael was admitted to the ‘AIDS ward’ of Auckland Hospital but later released to Herne Bay House, a residential centre and hospice dedicated to caring for people diagnosed with HIV. Michael believed this is where he was going die.
“I had been very angry and bitter about the situation up until this point. My attitude almost got me thrown out of the hospice, but eventually, I came more to terms with it and began to plan my death”
Today he describes how the stigma has really decreased around having HIV, it has become much less pronounced as many people have a better understanding of it.
“A lot of it was just fear really, people were afraid, and they didn’t understand why it was happening”
“If you think of the friends you make in your late teens and early 20s, they’re often the friends that are with you for life.
“Nearly all of my gay friends had HIV, and so many died. So many gay men from my youth are not here to turn 60 with me”
Michael currently works as a relationship manager for Be.Lab a New Zealand based organisation which helps businesses and organisations to be more accessible.
Prior to this he has was part of the Sociology Department at the University of Auckland and he was Chair of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation (now the Burnett Foundation).