HIV Stigma

The Stigma as Avoidance Behavior

People tend to avoid what makes them uncomfortable or fearful, what spikes their anxieties, going so far as to bar scenarios, places, and people from their daily existence.  I’m sure most of you avoid what triggers your fears and anxieties. Some fears result from a random incident such as a big dog scaring you as a child, or some traumatic occurrence when up high led to a fear of heights. But what if your aversion is housed or reflected in a person? One could argue that a fear taking this shape translates to discrimination of one sort or another, and I’m likely to agree. But I think it’s best to take a step back and understand why someone is afraid of a trait or aspect of a person before condemning them with a strong label. I spoke before on the fear of contracting an STD or STI as a form of slut-shaming, and in this piece, I want to discuss the sympathizing with those who stigmatize people living with HIV.

While it is unfortunate that there is a stigma around people living with HIV that makes a sexual and romantic life exceedingly difficult, I have sympathy for those who are scared of contracting it and thus fearful of dating an HIV positive person. This may come off as a contradiction considering my post regarding anxiety over STDs and STIs, but HIV is an incurable class on top of the cultural shame around it. I understand that a fear translating to barring someone from your life or society is discrimination and I agree that it is wrong to do so, but you have to consider the marketing campaigns many of us grew up with. HIV was paraded as the worst thing you can catch, a painful and deadly disease transmitted by a dirty godless whore or faggot. I remember when I was younger, my doctor forced me to look at people dying of AIDS and extreme cases of syphilis in order to scare me off from having sex — especially sex with men. The fear campaign used to jump-start a new culture of condom use had the side effect of marginalizing individuals who had contracted the virus. They were obviously irresponsible whores who deserved what they got, branded with a scarlet plus sign.

 

The HIV Fear Campaign

Remember that we didn’t have the information then that we have now. Just last year a study was published that confirmed those who are HIV undetectable cannot transmit the virus to an HIV negative partner. Now there are drugs far safer and less physically destructive than AZT in the 90s and we better understand how to protect ourselves, thus lessening the fear and stigmatization. Human beings are not reasonable animals; we only have the capacity to be. When a culture spends over twenty years instilling a fear into its masses, it will take some time to undo it. Magazines like POZ are doing wonderful work to do just that as well as the scientists and doctors researching HIV itself. But this work takes time, and to simply accuse someone of being an asshole for fearing a relationship with an HIV-positive person does not solve any problem. It’s the equivalent of just telling someone to get over depression; they know there is nothing to be sad about in most cases, but that doesn’t help them feel better.

You can judge someone without being a dick about it. If someone refuses to date or sleep with someone because of their HIV status you can think they’re uninformed, stupid, irrational, etc. But to accuse them of just being a piece of shit who is an evil discriminator is just as uninformed, stupid, or irrational as pushing someone up against a window on the 50th floor knowing they’re afraid of heights. No one will be heard while slurs are being hurdled each way and everyone’s opinion will only be further solidified. If you feel that it isn’t your duty to educate I agree that it isn’t — no one has to change the minds of others if they don’t want to or know they can’t, just say “Ok, see ya” and block. Ah, the beautiful block button- bless your simplicity.

Gay men were once so terrified of HIV that a culture built up around just getting over the fear of contracting it. Many Gay men in the late 80’s and 90’s were so convinced that they were going to get HIV and that it was only a matter of time before they do that scores of men decided to just get it over with rather than living in fear. This movement was referred to as Gift-giving and Bugchasing, a subculture within gay life that is mostly extinct. Fear can make human beings do terrible and stupid things, but this is what the stigma boils down to. Someone is afraid of contracting a disease that is unfortunately linked to gay life, being a slut, and “deserving” it.

 

Your Education is Your Responsibility

No one is obligated to change another’s mind but, you are responsible for your own and we’re all confronted with the opportunity to remove our own fear and stigma about people with HIV daily. I once started dating a guy who was smart, ambitious, and sexy as hell. I was really excited about him because he has the same dad humor and love of awful jokes that I do. After a few dates and we were getting more and more sexual he sat me down and said: “Before we have sex I need to tell you that I have HIV and I’m undetectable.” It caught me off guard and in my head, I was angry that it was nowhere on his profile when we first started messaging on Adam4Adam. But then I reasoned with myself — he did the responsible thing in telling me so I can make an informed decision about safer sex, and his medical history is not the business of strangers. So, I gave him a kiss and told him thank you, that I was nervous and wanted to settle down my anxiety before having sex. Then we continued with non-penetrative sex.

Several of my friends are living with HIV and I talked with them as well as their HIV negative partners about how they have stayed safe and healthy, how they dealt with living with the stigma and medical reality. The best thing I was told was “You wear condoms because you’re never sure of someone else’s status, what is the difference now?” It was a huge “DUH!” The guy and I ultimately didn’t work out for reasons separate from our mixed status, but it was an education that I’m happy to have had, and because I learned to ease my role in stigmatizing men living with HIV, I’ve had better romantic relationships with wonderful men.

 

A New World with No Excuse

With the new research and the availability of PrEP/Truvada, there is little excuse to hold onto the fear of contracting HIV to the point you’d exclude HIV Positive men from your sexual or romantic life. At this point, it really is just judging someone on how you think they contracted the virus. When you find yourself with those thoughts in your head, remember that maybe you haven’t worn a condom every time and condoms do break, that hookups do lie and boyfriends do cheat. Sometimes shit just happens. Even if someone contracted a disease through their own mistake or misjudgment, we’ve all made those decisions and some were just unlucky. You’re not better for lucking out, so don’t act like it and start passing out scarlet H’s. Everyone has a choice regarding their sexual health and that requires education. You can make the decision to not sleep with someone who has HIV, but you can no longer hide behind ignorance, only fear.

 

Remember my fellow Erotistists,
Keep your skirts up,
Your pants down,
and no matter who bends over,
Be not afraid.

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