Out and Proud Drag star Enda McGrattan says revealing HIV status has brought him nothing but happiness
Better known as drag queen Veda, Dubliner Enda McGrattan reveals how his only regret is not doing it sooner, as he urges others to get tested
The 'P' in Enda McGrattan's eye-catching HIVIP T-shirt stands for 'podcast', but not a lot of people know that.
The Dublin drag star and now podcaster jokes: "It stands for 'Very Important Podcast', but it looks very aggressive, and that's what I like about it, y'know.
"When we first got them, I felt a little self-conscious, not that people would know I was HIV positive - I have no problem with that - but that people might think that I was looking for clout based on my HIV status, and not understand that I was promoting a podcast. Like I just want to skip the queue!
"Now I wear it to the gym, so I don't really care anymore. I feel if it sparks conversation, and it often does, it's a good conversation to have."
Better known as Irish drag icon Veda, Enda and fellow HIV activist Robbie Lawlor launched their stigma-shattering Poz Vibe Podcast during lockdown last May.
Now the Malahide man is hoping to share his message of self-acceptance with an even wider audience when he appears in new Irish film, How To Tell A Secret.
Premiering at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival on Monday, February 28, the powerful documentary, directed by Shaun Dunne and Anna Rodgers and produced by Zlata Filipovic, gives voice to the thousands of people living with HIV in Ireland, including the women so often left out of the conversation.
Speaking to Magazine+, Enda recalls the relief he felt when he decided to share the secret he himself had sheltered for 10 years in the song, I Came Out One Night, by Veda and Lady K, in November 2019.
"It really took me a long time to fully understand the damaging effect that keeping that secret was having on my self-esteem and my mental health," he says. "Once I started to realise that, then I thought I have to fight for myself.
"It was very scary, to be honest, because I had gotten so used to having my walls up, and I think that came at quite a cost with some of my relationships and friendships.
I also felt like I had let down the community, especially the HIV positive community, because I've been so vocal about other issues, but I had never come clean about my own HIV status.
"On the morning of posting the video on YouTube, I don't think I've ever had so much fear about anything in my life," continues the 49-year-old.
"I posted the video, got straight in a cab to the airport and I went to Vienna. When I was there, the song went to number 7 in the iTunes chart, and Twitter and everything else was kind of blowing up with it.
"Once it happened, I got a lot of love and support from the community and that changed everything for me. I became a lot happier and mentally a lot stronger.
"When we went into lockdown in early 2020, I was amazed at how well I was doing, and I knew it was because I had just dropped the mic right on time and that I was free. I wasn't living with a demon in my house. I wasn't locked in with a secret."
An estimated 6,000 men and women in Ireland are living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), a chronic but manageable health condition which can interfere with the body's ability to fight infections.
Recent breakthroughs in the battle against the global epidemic include the first-ever, long-acting injectable HIV prevention medication, or PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), currently more commonly taken as a daily tablet or as needed.
But getting tested is still the most powerful antidote of all, argues Enda, who now takes a daily antiviral tablet called Biktarvy to safeguard his health.
"I think just people living in fear of catching the virus from someone who is HIV positive," he says of the most common misconception he's encountered over the years. "So there's language used around that like, 'Are you clean?', that kind of implies that you've done something wrong.
"People now are starting to grasp more and more that a person who is HIV positive and on medication is the safest person you can have sex with, because someone else who doesn't know their status is more likely to give you some kind of infection.
"There's no real reason for people to risk themselves when there's so many great tools in the tool box that you can use; like condoms still work, lubricant's important, PrEP is great. To know your status is the most important thing because if you're positive and on medication you can't pass it on."
As part of the documentary, Enda pays homage to Thom McGinty, the legendary 1980s Dublin street character known as The Diceman, by carrying on his 'U=U' (undetectable equals untransmissible) message on Grafton Street. Today marks the 27th anniversary of the trail-blazing mime artist's death from AIDS in 1995.
Just like his hero, Enda - who's been performing as Veda at venues from the now-defunct Mr Pussy's Cafe de Luxe to The George for 23 years - says he's proud to be the poster boy for the movement.
"I'm so into it," he enthuses. "I had a conversation once with a friend, I just totally adore him, but he put the question to me, 'Do you want to be the HIV guy?' And I was like, 'Yeah, I do want to be the HIV guy', because I feel the stigma is still there and sadly the number of new cases is growing all the time.
"I used to feel so nervous and scared to talk about these things. I've learned a lot about HIV since then, and I've come to know and love a lot more people who are living with HIV. For those reasons, when I talk about it now, I don't feel fear or shame or even sadness. I feel a lot of pride, really.
"I do have a regret, it's hard to say that, but I wish I'd done it sooner."
In the process of learning to love himself, Enda also found love, with husband of eight years, Leo. Or rather he says: "Love found me, thank God!
"My husband started coming to see my show in The George and the rest is history. He's young, he's hot and he's Brazilian. He's every gay stereotype you can imagine, but he is not that person at all. He's a very kind, sensible, hard-working person.
"I was out looking for love all the time, and eventually love found me."
How To Tell A Secret premieres at the IFI, Dublin 2, on February 28, 2022. See diff.ie
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