Back in Turkey I had been very open about my sexuality, working in events, and I saw no reason to be any different in this job. Being a contractor I, of course, was not entitled to the same employment rights as employees but I had no other option. All the staff in this part of the company were Turkish and my immediate line manager was a Turkish woman. An element of the Turkish work culture is presenteeism – being accountable for every minute of the working day. And this happened here, even though, as a contractor, I should have essentially been in charge of my own time-keeping. My line manager would make occasional digs about my homosexuality, like ‘I know you being gay you like to talk to people, but you talk too much with the other departments’, or one time when I complimented a male colleague on his trousers she asked me if I was ‘hitting on him’, but I could cope with that.
In the summer of 2016 I was diagnosed with HIV. Turkey is largely uninformed about HIV, indeed the different between HIV and AIDS is mostly unknown, so it is most often referred to as AIDS. There are high levels of infection rates, particularly amongst straight people, because there have been no awareness campaigns. Employers can ask questions about a future employee’s HIV status and anonymous testing clinics were only opened in 2015. It was in this culture that I shared the information about my HIV status with my line manager because I needed to take time off for hospital appointments and blood tests. Her response to me was that if I hadn’t moved to London I wouldn’t have got AIDS (I didn’t have AIDS; I was HIV+). After that she would keep on asking me questions like ‘who did you get it from?’, ‘who did you have sex with?’, ‘how did you do this to yourself?’ and so on.
My mental health was hard hit by my diagnosis and her questions. I had set an alarm on my phone to take my meds at 11am each day. My line manager had told me not tell anybody else about my status, so I couldn’t tell people why my alarm would ring at that time. If I was in a meeting when the alarm went off I would have to excuse myself to go and take my tablets. I felt very vulnerable: gay, HIV+ and an immigrant. Again, in Turkey, mental health is not recognised as an issue. I couldn’t quit my work. I only took one day off sick. I tried to cope as best as I could. I had been promoted twice and there were those at work who were envious of my success. The Turkish workplace is very hierarchical and some clearly felt threatened by my accomplishments. It was then that I approached Terrence Higgins Trust for some support.
And then my line manager started telling others about my status without my consent. I saw their approach to me change. People avoided me. Avoided conversations with me. Gossip is a part of Turkish culture and my line manager was clearly very good at it. I know my social media was being monitored by my workplace and I would be asked about who I was meeting, what I was doing during my free time.
In March 2018 I was accused of poor performance and was told that for ‘personal reasons’ my contract was being terminated with immediate effect. Although my contract stipulated two months’ notice they asked me to vacate the office that day, paid me the two months’ salary and paid me holiday leave I was owed. My line manager told me that she couldn’t ‘keep me there anymore’. Although it wasn’t said, I knew that it was because of my HIV status.
I couldn’t find another job for a long time, mostly because of my visa status. I wasn’t used to not working. I was angry at being kicked out of a job and scared at the thought of perhaps having to go back to Turkey. But I used the time to educate myself about HIV and about legislation surrounding the condition in the UK.
And then in December 2018 I was interviewed for a job at the Law Society. During the interview, I was asked about what I knew about the law and I explained what had happened to me in my previous job and why I had spent my time out of work informing myself about the protections offered to HIV+ people in the UK. I got the job and when I told my new manager about my status his response was ‘so what’. The Law Society were very keen to use my experiences to learn from and I delivered talks to staff about living with HIV that were well received and were very empowering. In 2020 I persuaded the Law Society to select PositivelyUK (where I now work) as their Charity of the Year.
After my contract with the Law Society ended I went back to work with another Turkish company. I was referred to them by a Turkish friend who told me not to share my HIV status with them. Six months into the contract I was asked to come into the office. This was during lockdown when everybody was working from home. I told my employers that I couldn’t leave home as I was on the vulnerable sheltering list and did not feel safe travelling to the office or indeed being in the office. They asked me why I was on the list and when I told them I was HIV+ they ended my contract.
There is clearly still a great deal of work to be done and that is why I am always happy to speak up and speak out about what it is like to be living with HIV.