Germany, with a population of 82,670,000, is the most populous country in Western and Central Europe.
Latest figures show 85,000 people living with HIV (PLHIV), of whom 72,000 know they are HIV-positive and 60,700 are getting Antiretroviral therapy (ART), which has been available in the country for more than 20 years. Among Germany’s 3900 new HIV infections per year, about two thirds are men who have sex with men (MSM), about a quarter from heterosexual sex, and less than 8% people who inject drugs (PWID). Although the figures fluctuate a little in recent years, they remain roughly stable.
HIV treatment is readily available, and most people living with HIV (PLHIV) get it. Germany’s highly developed system of health care is supported by government health insurance with mandatory membership for people with lower incomes. It is generally difficult to reach recent immigrants and asylum seekers with HIV information, but the attempt is being made.
Although Germany is not free of stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV (PLHIV), it enjoys a robust infrastructure of government and NGO sources of information and support for them.
(Figures from the Robert Koch Institute, 2015)
Gay man are by far the dominant group within the HIV community. That’s why we made a photo documentary of Thomas, a gay man living in Berlin. For decades Thomas has been a member of the leather scene; a subculture which has been hit hard by HIV and AIDS.
Thomas, a leatherman
The leather scene and HIV
In the early 80’s, at the start of the epidemic, gay men made up a large majority of the entire HIV population in Western Europe. This has hardly changed in the last 35 years.
Data from the Robert Koch Institute show that in Germany in 2015 homosexual men make up about 65 per cent of all HIV infected. This percentage will not decrease rapidly over the next few years as in 2014 gay men made up nearly 70 percent of all newly registered HIV infections.
A subculture in the gay community which has possibly been the worst hit by HIV and AIDS, is what we commonly call the ‘leather scene’. The men in this scene wear striking tough looking leather outfits. The men are proud of their fetish and their lifestyle in which sexuality plays an important role. In cities like Amsterdam, Berlin and San Francisco the ‘leather scene’ grew and flourished in the 80’s into a distinctive culture with its own bars, parties and conventions. There was plenty of experimenting with various forms of sexuality and in general these were not limited to one single sexual partner.
This organised world in which the men met, coupled with liberal sexual morals contributed to the rapid spread of HIV and AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s. The lack of effective medication against HIV led, at that time, to the death of many friends. Losing them was hard and painful but it also created a great sense of community in the scene. The men took care of each other even in difficult times
Where in 2015 in some cities like Amsterdam and London the ‘ leather scene ‘ seems to be losing its importance, in Berlin this subculture is blooming as never before. There are more pubs, clubs and venues than ever. Men from all over Europe come to Berlin to enjoy and exuberantly celebrate life with like-minded people. The highlight every year is FOLSOM BERLIN, a street festival in which the ‘leather scene’ shows itself in all its exuberance and extravagance to residents and visitors to the city.
Liberal sexual morality is still an important aspect of this subculture, as is, unfortunately, the large number of men infected with HIV. Some of them, like Thomas, were infected in the 90’s, but there are also men who have only been carriers of the virus for a short time. The improved HIV medication which is nowadays available to all in Germany, ensures that it is, in most cases, easier to live with HIV than before. But it seems that the HIV virus will remain strongly connected to the “leather scene” for the years to come.