Out of the Celluloid Closet

How to Tell a Secret Confronts the Legacy of HIV Stigma in Ireland

· Updated on October 4, 2023

Historically, for many people, being queer has been synonymous with secrecy. Heteronormative society has made it unmistakably challenging for many LGBTQ+ people to live authentically as themselves. The threat of violence, fear of abandonment and imposed shame have all played roles in queer people keeping their true sexuality or gender identity hidden. However, there’s more that some from this community have felt the need to hide. A positive HIV status is something that queer people may also wish to keep hidden. Although, it’s paramount to acknowledge that this isn’t just an issue that affects queer people: anyone can contract HIV, and the stigma for those living with a positive status remains rife. 

The new documentary How to Tell a Secret – based on Shaun Dunne’s play Rapids – examines this stigma for those living with HIV in contemporary Ireland. Adapted and directed by Anna Rodgers and Dunne, the film is a genre-bending production that combines documentary filmmaking with scripted performance. What is different about these sections of scripted performance is that they’re based on powerful real-life accounts of people who live with HIV but also wish, or need, to remain anonymous. Conversely, How to Tell a Secret also features a range of identifiable individuals who candidly share their experiences. This combination – including drag artists, migrant women, and queer activists – offers a rich portrayal of the variety of men and women living with HIV in Ireland.

In amplifying these stories, How to Tell a Secret raises a very valid concern regarding the country’s lack of HIV education. Simultaneously the film’s very existence helps combat this problem, as its content provides valuable education on the subject. Whilst it’s most certainly an informative piece of art, it also rightfully challenges why this kind of education seems to almost always be left to those living with HIV to deliver. Amongst its illuminating messaging is the vital explanation that Undetectable = Untransmittable, or U=U. The film explains that this simply means that those with an undetectable viral load cannot sexually transmit HIV to others. It’s one of the most crucial pieces of information when it comes to HIV education, and the film communicates this strongly.  

How to Tell a Secret is far from just a functional lesson on HIV, however, as it demonstrates a special creativity and artistry as well. It’s easy to appreciate its theatrical origins as actors deliver testimony from those with HIV who wish to remain anonymous. These moments have considerable power and are brought to life with noticeable consideration and flare. 

The reasoning behind the selection of using certain actors for different accounts – regardless of gender – is particularly effective in tackling the attached stigma and educating audiences about exactly who HIV can affect, which, of course, is anyone. There’s a practicality to this as well; allowing these important stories to be heard whilst also protecting the identities of the people they’re about is simply thoughtful filmmaking. The impact of this is felt throughout the production, and helps to create an environment that will encourage others to see that there is absolutely no shame in living with HIV.

There are numerous people in the film who do feel comfortable enough to openly discuss their positive HIV status. One of the most prominently featured is the activist and co-founder of Act Up Dublin, Robbie Lawlor. Through a range of methods including the use of interview segments, scripted performance and footage from TV appearances he shares his personal journey with HIV and how writer/director Dunne was personally connected to this as well. Their willingness to share so candidly enriches the film to no end and consistently reinforces the messages that it wishes to communicate. Their stories, as well as the many others featured, steer the film to a stirring conclusion that grounds the film in reality.

Thanks to this hopeful message being so clearly conveyed How to Tell a Secret becomes an educational, empowering watch. Its thoughtful work in showcasing the vast range of people living with HIV is another progressive step towards the associated stigma surrounding the virus being completely eradicated. Providing such cogent additions to this important conversation, the film contributes to the ongoing shift in dialogue when discussing a positive HIV status, one that’s moving away from it being framed as a “secret” needing to be disclosed and towards the more accurate description: a perfectly manageable health condition, completely free from shame.♦

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