Wednesday 1 February 2017

Dealing with sexuality and HIV stigma

 Courtesy of The Stigma Project
In a perfect world
A few weeks ago, I saw this on a dating profile, “In a perfect world, the positive would be open and the negative would be open-minded.” The reference to positive and negative in that statement referred to HIV.
Unfortunately, there is very little knowledge of what HIV is and how it is different from AIDS. This ignorance then feeds into stigma and prejudice against people who happen to be HIV+ (HIV positive).
Yet, there is so much knowledge out there about HIV, AIDS and the treatments that give people opportunities for long productive normal lives, even if there are very few who show any interest in understanding this condition and how it is managed.
My work and my sexuality
In a conversation at work yesterday where many of my colleagues are well aware that I am gay and interact with me like any normal friendly person because I am not going to hit on people in lascivious abandon, just as people who are straight don’t lose their self-control and awareness just because they are attracted to other people, this inadvertently became a topic of conversation.
I had already shared the blog written by Funmi Iyanda about me with my closest colleagues, much of which was not news to them, the conversation is broad including what you might expect from both gay and straight relationships. For a long time in my working life, I have refused to pretend to enjoy homophobic jokes and giggle away with the punchline whilst concealing my sexuality, there is nothing to gain in accepting a situation where you are indirectly the object of abuse and you maintain your silence.
I do not go out of my way to inform people of my sexuality, I do not wear it on my sleeve, but if I am asked a direct question or enquiries are made of my domestic arrangements, I will truthfully tell people about who I am.
Knowledge and information
So, as we were chatting about the fluctuating weights of middle-aged men, I alluded to the fact that I lost a quarter of my weight when I had cancer. The next question was about what the cancer was and how it came about. The cancer was Kaposi’s Sarcoma and it was brought on by as then an untreated HIV infection.
This was divulged to two colleagues with whom I had never had this kind of conversation before, but we have a very good and friendly working relationship. In fact, I first was hesitant before I revealed this condition, the hesitancy borne of experiences with ignorant people who have balked, scooted, blackmailed or involved the law about my status, and I have been no threat to them.
What is even more surprising is when homosexuals and bisexuals who present a risk profile of sorts are completely oblivious of all the basic knowledge of HIV, AIDS, PrEP, ARVs, Viral load, Undetectable, CD4 counts and much else.
On stigma
As the conversation developed, I was taken aback by the interest of my colleagues in the detail of HIV, how it is managed, what life-expectancies are and the stigma that still accompanies being HIV+.
The sincerity and sanguinity they showed was a teaching moment for me that I returned this morning to thank them for their being open-minded and understanding.
On the matter of stigma, nowhere is it felt more than in the gay community when an encounter includes the anxious and atrocious question, “Are you clean?”, which by consequence suggests if you are HIV+, you’re dirty regardless of whether you are on treatment, have an undetectable viral load, are healthy and doing fine. Questions like this mean people do not discuss their status that freely.
The irony of this kind of conversation is the number of people who are in fact, HIV+, but have never tested, don’t know their status and assume there are HIV- and consequently, ‘CLEAN’. Apparently, 1-in-6 people in the UK do not know they are infected. Some of those people project that Clean/Dirty stigma. [Metro]
I say to them, “Clean is when you’ve had a shower and nothing else.” It should never be a euphemism for health status and thereby a vehicle for stigma.
Further Reading

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