Going public with his HIV status has reaped many rewards for former Olympian Ji Wallace, writes Rachel Cook.
Earlier this year Olympic champion Ji Wallace was watching CNN and he saw Piers Morgan interviewing fellow Olympian Greg Louganis. Louganis had come out as being HIV positive. Sometime later Wallace read about high profile journalist Anderson Cooper coming out as gay. Cooper said that what prompted him to go public about his sexuality was the wave of suicides that had occurred. Cooper realised the impact his disclosure might have on young queer kids.
Not long after these incidents Wallace realised he too had a role to play, and so in August this year he came out as being HIV-positive. Three months later sees him as newly appointed ambassador to People Living with HIV/AIDS Victoria’s (PLWHA) Enuf campaign, designed to combat stigma around HIV.
“I was so impressed with Piers and his approach to that interview with Greg because it was really about Greg the person. I thought if he could do that then why can’t everybody else. On top of that I read about Anderson Cooper who came out as gay because he felt it was time to reveal his homosexuality to the world and to let everyone know that there is value in having a voice and being heard. I took all of that onboard.”
In September 2011, Wallace was alone and in Montreal and he had just been diagnosed as HIV Positive. And though he knew with drugs the virus can be managed, he was also aware of the impact it could have on life in regards to how people treated him.
“It was difficult. It felt like a bomb had gone off inside my head. I was overseas and by myself. I called my best mate in London and he came to Montreal to see me.
“I wasn’t concerned about dying but I was worried that I would be treated differently and how it would affect my future. And there’s a regime you must abide by for the rest of your life. You have to take precautions and it does change your life. Also I couldn’t tell my parents because I was overseas and I really felt the need to tell them face to face. It was hard talking to them on the phone as I had this huge piece of information I had to give them and I couldn’t.”
Back in Australia Wallace had the arduous task of telling his parents whose associations with HIV were the horrifying 80’s ad campaign the Grim Reaper. While Wallace lives in the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Sydney where attitudes towards HIV/AIDS have shifted due to progressive education campaigns aimed at the gay community, for people of Wallace’s parent’s generation his diagnosis was still seen as a death sentence.
“In other parts of Australia or the world, people are still scared,” Wallace says, “People still equate it with the Grim Reaper and the media hasn’t really followed all of the advances.”
Wallace invited his parents to come along with him to the doctor so that they could see he wasn’t ‘sugar-coating’ the information. His parents asked their own questions and Wallace said he could see the “worry and the fear actually drain out of their bodies.”
“It was a great idea to take them and it was the first time my parents had come together in ten years,” Wallace says.
“I also got some great advice from my father. He said stop worrying about falling in love or meeting someone, just get yourself happy and get yourself back on track and don’t worry about a man.”
Then in a scene out of a Hollywood film Wallace dropped his parents at the airport and feeling buoyed by his dad’s wise words headed down to the beach for a swim, and within minutes met his current boyfriend, Shaun.
“I went down to the beach and this guy came over and said, ‘hi I met you about eight years ago at a party and I’ve always wondered what you’ve been up to’ – it was absolutely electric,” Wallace says.
“We chatted for two hours and it felt like five minutes and then he dropped me at the gym and I thought my god I have to see this guy again and at the same time he texted me and said do you want to have dinner. It was at that point that I thought I have to tell him about being HIV positive right now.
“He came back to the gym and picked me up and I actually got into the car but left my bag outside and one foot outside, I was ready for his reaction to be no. However, he said, get in the car and don’t worry about that, we’ll deal with that, I want to get to know you.
“I thought I can’t not invest time in someone who says that, and we’ve been together ever since. He’s a backbone that allows me to go forward.”
Going forward for Wallace since disclosing his HIV status has been becoming an ambassador for People Living with HIV AIDS Victoria’s ENUF campaign. The campaign is aimed at dispelling HIV stigma and discrimination.
“Some people are very alone and I’ve had people write to me now and say that I am the first person who they have even told they are gay let alone HIV positive,” Wallace says.
“I’m such a small part of this, but some of the responses I’ve been getting have said things like, I was going to commit suicide, but I listened to your story and I haven’t.”
Wallace has made himself available to people via Facebook and Twitter and endeavours to respond to everyone who contacts him. He is also in the process of creating the Silver Lining Foundation, a foundation that will not only address the issues surrounding HIV but also cater to those in need.
“It will be HIV focussed but it’s not going to be just about HIV, there are opportunities to help gay kids in sport. It would be great to maybe help a kid get to the Olympics, who knows.”
Due to a major fall while Wallace was performing with Cirque Du Soleil, he won’t compete in trampolining again, but he still follows the sport and still has ‘big dreams’.
“There’s a lot I want to do and my mum inspires me a lot with her willingness to give without getting back. So the way I see the world is, the sun comes up and the sun goes down, and what you do in between is up to you. That’s the way I want to live my life.”