Prep for PrEP: An interview with Greg Owen, Co-founder of iwantPrEPnow

4 months ago — 15 min read — No Comments
By Blued

"It is only when people who are not like us stand next to us and join our cause and vice versa that real change happens."

(photo: Nuno Lopes)

Can you introduce yourself to our audience?

My name is Greg Owen. I am co-founder of iwantPrEPnow.co.uk, a website that raises awareness of PrEP and signposts where to purchase genuine generic PrEP online from trusted and reputable sellers. We also provide all of the information you need to get started on PrEP and what to do while taking PrEP.

(photo:  Souleyman Messalti)

Can you tell us about your project and how you came about doing it?

It was very much by accident. I had been thinking about starting PrEP in 2013/2014 as I had just come out of a 7 year relationship and I was aware that my sexual behaviour was putting me at an elevated risk of contracting HIV. But I wasn’t sure about it and it wasn’t available here in the UK even though it was approved for use in the United States since June 2012.

In August 2015, after being on PEP twice  (PEP is Post Exposure Prophylaxis – a month of treatment you can take after sex to help prevent HIV infection if you’ve been exposed) I finally decided to start taking PrEP. I just had to figure out how to get hold of it. There were only 2 options back then: go to a sexual health clinic and claim a false exposure to HIV and obtain PEP. One of the drugs used in PEP is Truvada. Truvada (or its generic equivalent) is what we use for PrEP. But I thought that was wasteful and a little unethical at the time. The only other option was to get the drugs from an HIV positive person using Truvada as treatment. As it happened, one of my friends had just changed his HIV medication and had 2 pots of Truvada left over that he offered to me for use as PrEP. So I went to Dean Street Express for an HIV test (I had tested HIV negative the summer before). My test result came back positive and so I was too late to start PrEP. Ironic right!? I finally decide to start PrEP. I finally manage to get hold of PrEP and I’m just a few months too late. So the very next day I announced my HIV status on stage to 150 people at an event I attend every month called Let’s Talk About Gay Sex and Drugs. After the event I posted it on social media and mentioned that I couldn’t start PrEP. It kind of went a bit viral and as a result people started asking me “What is this PrEP stuff? And why would it have kept you HIV negative”. Instantly I could see that there was interest and demand but no access. I saw a problem and I saw the solution. Earlier that year I had heard at a meeting somewhere that you could import 3 months worth of certain pharmaceutical drugs for personal use. PrEP was one of those drugs. So myself and iwantPrEPnow co-founder Alex Craddock set about doing some research. Six or seven weeks later we launched iwantPrEPnow.co.uk. Like I said, it was a total accident. All very unexpected and at times overwhelming.

(photo: Nic Feustel)

What were the challenges you encountered doing those videos?

Well!!! Funny you should ask that! lol Nuno from Vibrand who produced the clips with me did a full day shoot in the new Blued office space studio. Unfortunately the studio hadn’t been fully completed. The sound echoed really badly and we quickly discovered that we were overlooking the busiest railway ever! The whole day’s footage was unusable. I almost cried! Actually, that’s a lie – I did cry! So we had to reshoot all of the clips a week later at Stillpoint Spaces. I’m really pleased with how they have turned out. I guess another challenge was that I needed the clips to be perfect and while I talk about PrEP a lot on TV, radio and at live events…this was different. This had to be clean and clear and slick and so I spent a lot of time and attention on the language and delivery. Poor Nuno must have heard me swear and scream “cut” and “action” a thousand times over the 2 days! Then he had to suffer it all over again while editing the clips. Luckily we have some history and he tolerates me well!

Who should take PrEP and why? 

Anyone who is at risk of contracting HIV might want to consider using PrEP but that’s very broad as anyone can contract HIV so we tend to look at ‘risk level’ and ‘at-risk groups’ but I hate that. I hate immediately linking sex to risk. This is problematic and I think as gay men that’s all we’ve heard about in regards to our sex and our relationships and our love over the past 35 years in the shadow of the HIV/AIDS epidemic: risk, infection and death. We have a chance to change that now. If you are accessing PrEP through a healthcare system or trial the clinical eligibility criteria will be tailored to identify those most at-risk and who would qualify for PrEP. To be fair, the eligibility criteria for the upcoming PrEP IMPACT trial is quite open. What we’ve facilitated though with iwantPrEPnow and self-sourcing is we have given the control and the choice to the person directly, providing they can afford to and are able to self-source, which we know not everyone can.

I mention in the clips that PrEP is about much more than the sex. It’s about your head and your heart too. Relieving the stress and anxiety that sometimes surrounds sex and HIV is a huge part of it too, above and beyond the biomedical component.

So I guess my final comment on the question is anyone who wants PrEP needs to have access to it and ideally free access through a proper provision on our NHS.

(photo:  Souleyman Messalti)

What are the main problems you have noticed about people and PrEP? 

The main problems are perhaps not what you would expect. It’s been a very interesting learning curve for me and quite a unique insight on a community wide level.

The initial bump in the road is always slut shaming which is never helpful.

Then there’s the “does this stuff actually work?” and I get that one! I really do! I was that person. The person who thought: hold on…there’s a pill that can prevent HIV? A pill that offers almost 100% protection from HIV? Nah! No way! I don’t believe that. That sounds too good to be true and if it is true why the hell are we all not using this? Why are governments and global organisation not screaming this from the roof tops and fast tracking access?

The unexpected thing for me was what happened next… I ran a virtual clinic from our IWPN inbox since we launched and a lot of the advice I was giving when we first launched was nuts and bolts stuff, literally how to start PrEP and what to do while taking PrEP. Then a strange thing happened. Several people who had been in touch for support commencing PrEP then popped up a few months later with a totally different set of questions and need for support. These discussions were intense at times but so rich and insightful as to the real life issues that people were navigating. Instead of focusing on risk, infection and HIV these discussions started to explore the why and the what. A lot of PrEP users I interacted with began thinking about their sex and their behaviours in ways they never had previously. Asking why am I having this specific kind of sex? What kind of sex do I actually want to have? What do I want from my sex and what do I want in terms of intimacy and love outside of the act of sex itself? There is clearly a need for us as individuals and as a community to have these kind of conversations and if PrEP is a gateway to that then it makes me love PrEP a little bit more than I already do. It’s also a clear indication that PrEP cannot sit in isolation. It must form part of a comprehensive and fit for purpose wrap around service – specific to the needs of gay men and other communities. This can only happen if PrEP sits within our NHS and associated services are culturally appropriate. There is work to be done to create this but it must happen. We must create this.

The framing of PrEP as a gay man’s lifestyle drug was and still is a huge problem. PrEP has benefits for many more people other than gay men. Admittedly, in the UK half of new HIV diagnoses each year are in MSM (men who have sex with men) but we only make up about 3% – 5% of the population – we disproportionately shoulder a lot of new HIV infections. That is also changing! Last year we saw a 40% reduction in new HIV diagnoses in London and a drop of a third in MSM in England as a whole.

The final thing I have to say is this: condoms, the contraceptive pill and PrEP all do exactly the same thing! They help prevent unwanted outcomes from sex. Simples. Once we start moralising and judging who uses what and why – that’s when we have a problem. That must stop.

(photo: ORFEINS)

We’ve heard a lot of comments from guys saying that now they are on PrEP, they can go have bareback sex. What would you say to them?

I have a newsflash! People were and already are having condomless sex! In fact all of our parents did! Otherwise most of us wouldn’t be here. Condoms can help prevent some other STIs. That is personal choice and everyone’s personal choice needs to be respected and supported. One person’s choice to wear a condom is not more valid than another’s not to wear a condom. The great thing with PrEP is that we have full STI screens every 3 months and in fact regardless if you are on PrEP or not, if you have an active sex life I’d encourage you to test regularly, every 3 months if possible. Test every month if you’re a lucky boy and busier. This is recommended as part of 56 Dean Street’s PRIME service which recently announced a 54% reduction in STIs and a huge fall in HIV risk for PRIME service users. It’s all about the testing baby! Test, test, test.

My goal and our goal is to help people have the best sex they can with the least amount of unwanted outcomes.

Apart from your project, how do you think we should educate our community on PrEP? 

We have some great resources out there. Our sibling site PrEPster  is incredible. You will find everything you need there and more! You can also watch our PrEP17 film.

But it really comes down to this. Talk and listen. Ask questions. Learn the new facts. Share them with your friends. Be kind and be supportive. The rest will follow. iwantPrEPnow and PrEPster are always here to help.

Anyone who needs to speak to someone about PrEP or PEP or their general sexual wellbeing can contact THT Direct on 0808 802 1221 or info@tht.org.uk

(photo: ORFEINS)

What’s next in the pipelines for you now? Any other projects? 

We had some fantastic  news in June! iwantPrEPnow and PrEPster jointly won the Life Ball Plus award for outstanding contribution to HIV prevention. Part of that award was the allocation of funding. We received 150,000€ from Life Ball and a further 100,00€ from Elton John AIDS Foundation to fund our core costs and develop existing and new projects. We are incredibly grateful for this support and we have some really exciting things in the pipeline! Look out for seriously cool, radical and sexy health stuff coming soon!

iwantPrEPnow will also be delivering some events and projects as part of our Light House funding from Terrence Higgins Trust.

We have just begun work on an iwantPrEPnow website redesign. Our slick new site should be live by the end of August.

Can you tell us about your coming out?

Oh it was kind of hideous! It was the 90s in Belfast! It was so not cool to be gay back then. I’d been going out on the gay scene in Belfast since I was 16 (1996) and I finally came out to my mum just before my 18th birthday. In a very matter of fact way. I came home from work, asked her to join me in the sitting room and said “OK, the thing is I’m gay. That’s just the way it is, you’re going to have to get used to it. I understand that you’ll have to process this and you’ll probably have some questions so think about it and we’ll talk later” then I picked up my flares, platforms, tank top and mullet wig and headed off to the nightclub where I was performing in a 70’s dance show! Lol – camp right!? It all went downhill from there and the reaction was brutal and painful but thankfully I can say we worked through it and are a very close family today. I have a gay brother too! Holler to Sean!

(photo:  Souleyman Messalti)

Have you ever felt discriminated against by your peers within our community? 

No, I don’t think I have. But I have an enormous amount of privilege right! I am a cis born, white gay man who is socially mobile and information savvy. I had every opportunity in education and employment and ‘scene wise’ I was considered cute and a gym bunny. I have appeared in almost every gay publication in various states of undress and on numerous front covers. I fitted the mould. But that is not the lived experience of most of our community and that is just plain wrong! I’m acutely aware of my privilege. I am also intensely aware that I have been (accidently) afforded a very visible platform and there is responsibility that comes with that. It starts with the acknowledgement of my own privilege. The unfairness of it. The inequity, the disparities between me and the members of our community not like me. This needs to change. So I’ll take this opportunity to state that. I don’t want to come over all ‘white saviour’ – that’s not my thing. It’s about helping create platforms that don’t currently exist. Not to stand on those platforms or on top of people but to support from the wings. It’s called community. It is only when people who are not like us stand next to us and join our cause and vice versa that real change happens. I think we, the mainstream white gay male community sometimes forget how lucky some of us are. We can’t ever pay that back to those who came before us but we can certainly pay it forward.

If you could change one thing in the LGBTQ community, what would it be? 

If I could change one thing it would be the ‘need’ for it. I want to change the type of need. I’d love to see a day when we don’t need community for protection or survival but instead seek it out for all of the beautiful and wonderful things that it gives life to. But don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t ever want to be anything other than what I am and who I am. I care a lot about siblinghood, belonging and supporting. Sure, our community has some stuff it needs to work through but together we are greater than the sum of our components.

Finally, can you tell us something you’ve never told anyone else?

This is the hardest question ever! I live my life so excessively transparently on social media that it is hard for me to think of something I haven’t overshared – and probably in too much detail! Lol. I guess if I’m being honest…I’m a little bit frightened of falling in love again. It hasn’t panned out so good in previous escapades! And as much as I love my job and PrEP and the bonkers, exciting life I’m living at the moment, sometimes I get lonely and sometimes I miss quiet times. I’m actually quite boring! lol

The iwantPrEPnow video project will be available to view on Blued in EXCLUSIVITY for a week, commencing 19/07/17! Tune in to Blued and follow @GrEG_Owen on Blued to be notified of the launch!

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