“The battle against HIV is made harder when there’s stigma against the community,” says Alex Kalomparis from Gilead. He talks to Louise Sinnerton from myGwork about how destigmatising HIV and the LGBTQ+ community go hand in hand.
When Alex was progressing through his career, there were no openly gay people in senior positions.
He felt he had no one to look up to, no role models, and no one he could go to for mentoring. “I always go back to my younger self, and looking around there was just no one.”
Now he works in an open and supportive company where the LGBTQ+ community is strongly represented - he works at the home of innovative medicine: Gilead.
Alex is now in his mid-40s and works in public affairs to increase awareness, prevention and testing of diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C.
As a gay man, Alex feels proud and fortunate that he can be passionate about his work every day.
“I feel I’m the luckiest person in the world. Before I worked at Gilead, I was aware of their medicines, but not of the organisation.
"I was headhunted and as soon as I learnt more about them, I knew I had to get the role. I fought really hard to make sure I would get the job offer.
"Now I’m here it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like I joined the fight against HIV and hepatitis.”
As VP of public affairs for EMEA, Alex’s job is to engage with communities like the HIV patient community. “We realised early on that one of the biggest obstacles to fighting HIV and hepatitis C is stigma and discrimination.
"In addition to working with patient groups, we also needed to partner with the communities that are most at risk.
"We are so fortunate now, versus the previous decades, that there are innovative medicines to treat these diseases but that won’t benefit someone who is afraid to get tested because they are self-stigmatising or their community is stigmatising them.
"There is no room for judgement or discrimination, and it feels amazing to work somewhere like Gilead, where our values are truly about inclusion.”
And that work is personal. Alex moved to London when he was 18 years old from his native Greece, where he had a girlfriend during a time when he was trying to fit in as a teenager. He felt liberated when he arrived.
“As an 18 year old gay Greek boy coming to London, suddenly this whole world opened up," he says.
"It was the 80s and 90s, and HIV was fairly prolific in London at the time, so although I was so elated that I’d discovered this world, at the same time it was evident that I had to be careful and look after my health.
"Being in London helped me to come out, but then very quickly the impact of HIV on the community shook me. Some of my friends became ill, some were diagnosed with AIDS, and some passed away.”
At this time, one of Alex’s closest friends was diagnosed with HIV and he took time out to be his carer.
The HIV journey has always been personal for Alex, who tells me how proud he is to work for a company that has helped to make it a long term manageable condition, rather than being the death sentence it was in the 90s.
That personal experience and passion to change things drives Alex in his work.
“I would love to see stigma and discrimination decrease across Europe, as it’s not where it should be," he says.
"I have seen first-hand people going to HIV clinics in some parts of Europe and the Middle East where they would rather give any other reason as the cause of their status rather than say that they are gay men.”
And this optimism and drive is apparent when I ask Alex what he’d like to see in the future.
He tells me, “Well for starters, we are working towards a cure, and I would love to see that become a reality. Whether that’s from Gilead or not, it would be incredible.
"Also, imagine a world where our community is not stigmatised. Not only would that be wonderful in and of itself, but it would have a direct impact on the fight against HIV and hepatitis C.”
Gilead is a partner of myGwork, the LGBT+ Business community.