Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines stigma as this:
“plural stig·ma·ta \stig-ˈmä-tə, ˈstig-mə-tə\ or stig·mas
Full Definition of STIGMA
a archaic : a scar left by a hot iron : brand
b : a mark of shame or discredit : stain <bore the stigma of cowardice>
c : an identifying mark or characteristic; specifically : a specific diagnostic sign of a disease”
In a previous blog post, I remarked how HIV stigma can only exist within our minds should we allow it. Truth is, it exists and is very real within the gay community ever more so today. Sad but true that this is even more so than when the virus made its entry unto the world stage more than 30 years ago. As long as this stigma exists, then we as a culture or group of individuals will never achieve the greatest potential that we desire and in some cases demand.
For gay people, shame and guilt made itself known when we first discovered that we were different. We discovered that our sexual preferences were not of what some people called “normal” by any count. The older I get the less I think that anything is normal. But that is another blog post. As we made our way up and out into the world we harbored this shame and guilt from countless ways society told us we were wrong. For me this shame started at a very early age when Anita Bryant led a campaign with her strong opposition to homosexuality and for her 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign to repeal a local ordinance in Dade County, Florida, that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I can remember back to those days as a small child, not quite knowing that I was gay or even understanding it. I just remember it with significance because I just felt that something was different about me.
As I grew up this shame and guilt became more pronounced. Finally one day it was lessened as I made my way out of the closet and into the welcoming and open arms of the gay community. This is a milestone in most gay people’s lives as they make their entrance into a world unknown to them and discover that there are other people just like them. It’s like all that shame seemed so trivial and we now find a true home within a gay community all to eager to get to know you as you are now what is referred to as “new meat.” Hey..it’s my blog. I can put what I want.
It was 1986 that I was navigating the ins and out and the ups and downs of coming out of the closet. It was also during the height of the AIDS epidemic where a lot of fear was rampant about the disease. For me all I remember from my mentors and suitors was them telling me to play safe and be careful. I also remember that the entire gay community was rallying together as they began to fight the battle known as the AIDS crisis. In those early days, when there wasn’t a test for the virus, we all thought that no one was immune so we all stuck together.
As time went on and the crisis continued, it became very evident as to what the AIDS virus actually did to individuals. As this continued, what came next was what we shamefully refer to as the HIV/AIDS stigma. It was within this stigma that gay people were now being shamed within their own community that had previously welcomed them with open arms as they came out of the closet. Now those with the HIV/AIDS virus were being put into categories of who had it and who didn’t. What made it more demeaning, is that some people within the gay community, mostly those HIV negative members, began to categorize those with the virus as being “un-clean.” This was being done mostly in their profiles on gay male dominated hook-up or dating sites with wording such as “HIV- UB2, or DDF Clean-UB2. DDF is short for drug and disease free.
My first incident of me being shamed came from a friend of mine at the time. We were out at a local pub having a fun Sunday. Otherwise known as Sunday Funday. I was having a conversation with my then friend as we perused the scenery. Upon one glance at a person across the bar, my friend said, “oh you don’t want him, he has the hivves.” Instantly I looked shocked and confused and asked him what specifically he meant. He said, “he has HIV.” It was at this moment that I discovered that with my new found status, I needed to be careful about who I told or didn’t tell for that regard. I never told this friend. Somehow though, our friendship dissolved as I continued on my path always remembering those words that were uttered on that evening.
As time went on, I ran across this intolerance many times as I attempted to make my way back in the dating world, time and time again being rejected by my suitor once they discovered that I was HIV+. Even though the times I was rejected was much less than the times I was accepted, I unfortunately focused on the former as opposed to the latter. I didn’t have the confidence and esteem back then that I now enjoy today.
Over the years this shame and guilt of being HIV+ would surface from time to time in more ways. This happened when I allowed myself to listen to the words or actions of those within the gay community as I was shamed back into the same closet that hid my sexuality. You see, coming out of the gay closet was so much easier than the HIV closet. It seemed that at least with the gay closet, I had a whole community willing and able to support me. Now this same community, or at least part of it, had not been enlightened enough in regards to the virus. Nor did many of them know about the great treatments that are out there or the recent study results that you have an almost zero percent chance of contracting HIV from someone HIV+ as long as they are on a consistent treatment regimen. In fact, most of the transmissions are coming from someone who does not know they are HIV+. Why is that?? Because they hear the constant messages that HIV is shameful and if you get tested and you are positive, your life is over. As long as this message is being sent by people within the gay community, then the gay community has no way of moving forward and allowing all of its members to stand up and out and be whole and complete no matter what their status is.
It’s 2015 gay community. It is time you show up and grow up. Get educated about HIV facts and know that just because someone is HIV+, that they should be excluded as a viable dating candidate. In fact, your denial and ignorance on HIV, makes you less of a potential candidate than my HIV does to me. One could say you are allowing me to pre-sort you out of my dating pool first before you can pre-sort me because of my status. I too was once you and remember the fears of HIV as I went to get my test results. I am not that way any longer. In fact, I am much more enlightened about things and because of HIV I have become a better person.
For those of you living with HIV, never let yourself be lessened by those that are ignorant. If someone asks if you are “clean” politely say “yes, in fact, I just took a shower this morning” If they still are clueless, don’t be afraid to share your status. By doing so, you take back your power. Even if they say they are not interested. Look at it this way. They saved you time, energy, effort and money. They showed you what type of person they are before you wasted any time.
Also, if you are living with HIV, stand up and be accounted for. Share your status up front. Put it out there. What others think of you is none of your business. Don’t harbor the shame and guilt of being HIV. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, you can hold it as a badge of honor as your soul is learning the lesson it has asked it to learn before showing up in this physical existence. Learn your lesson and share it with the world. Do it especially for the gay community. Because the more of us that do this, then we only help the entire community as a whole become stronger and more enlightened. Together we can all break down those closet walls that keep the gay community from moving forward and not backwards as HIV stigma does.
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