Let’s Talk HIV: Struggling with Stigma
One of my over-arching goals in writing this blog has always been to debunk the myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes associated with being HIV-positive, which in my humble opinion must be discarded from our collective thinking as useless and harmful baggage.
Most of the problems I have faced and continue to wrestle with, I now realize can be attributed to a woefully ignorant society and HIV stigmatization, rather than the day-to-day difficulties living with HIV. In relating my "struggle," I am telling my personal experience; I also hope to help others dealing with similar issues and situations.
For several years after learning that I was HIV-positive, I lived in shame and fear of what the consequences of disclosure might be. For in many ways, even though I was open and proud of being gay, I still was "closeted" about my HIV status. I found out firsthand how lonely, disorienting, and debilitating that closet could be.
Over several years, I kept this closet door locked tight with endless excuses: my family might reject me. My friends, neighbors, and peers might stop speaking to me. In my 20s, I had always dreaded deep in my soul that I might become HIV-positive. The decks seemed to be stacked against me: the anonymous sex, the drug use, etc.
Although this admission of this essential fear and the shame associated with HIV continued to tear me up inside, once my doctor shared the news of my HIV diagnosis in 2001, I must admit a brief moment of relief as I intuitively surmised that somehow, a destiny was now fulfilled.
I can’t tell you how many times in the first year of living with HIV that I felt an overwhelming sense of pity, guilt, hopelessness, and despair regarding my "predicament." So much so that on a few occasions, thoughts of suicide tantalizingly dangled in my mind. Sadly, I would learn to discover that depression and HIV are inextricably linked for many PWAs. Endless questions that never really had the "right" answers: how could this be happening to me? When am I going to become sick? Where do I go from here? And finally, why me????
Lord knows what might have happened if I did not have a close friend (who happened to be HIV-positive) to lean on, who was instrumental in better accepting HIV and all that that ultimately meant. Most probably, I’d be still living a lie, having to concoct stories, while keeping my inner truth locked deep away from those who cared most about me.
My friend helped me in so many immeasurable ways, and instilled in me new hopes that I never thought were possible. I will be eternally grateful to him for giving me the tools and inner strength to embrace my holistic self, irrespective of what society dictates I should be.
Living with HIV has changed me in many significant ways. Collectively, it has allowed me to better crystallize and understand more clearly my needs, wants, and desires. I am certainly now more open, and more free to share emotions and feelings in ways I never seemed to in the past. It took me a year or two to right myself, but living with HIV and thinking about future life possibilities eventually gave me the strength and courage to begin informing close friends and family about being HIV-positive.
I am not going to sugarcoat this process and say that it was easy. It certainly was not! However, I will say that when I initially "came out" about my HIV status for the first time, it made all the other "conversations" all the easier. To my surprise and relief, everyone of importance in my life thus far has been extremely supportive and understanding.
Nevertheless, I am sometimes paranoid about who knows, at times. My sensitivities are, even today, acutely aware of the limitations and "boxes" people put upon individuals who happen to be HIV-positive, and by some members of society who are ignorant of facts, that still view people like me as sexual deviants who only perform perverse acts with others.
This omnipresent fear of the unknown -- a vestige of every HIV person’s internalized stigmatization -- that is deeply rooted in the moralism that arises from the transmission of HIV will probably be with me for the rest of my life. Although the climate is better and more accepting, I also believe I am more able to deal with its destructive consequences today than I have ever been in my lifetime.
Overall, I am relieved that I am living my life openly. For too long, I was ruled by a paralyzing inadequacy and self-degradation about being HIV-positive, but I refuse to pay heed to society’s doctrinaire "rules" any longer. I am ready and willing to live my truth as I want, and if that means that some might shun me, so be it. My life experiences and happiness is too important to be needlessly hampered and/or curtailed by AIDS-phobia.
The struggle, of course, continues, but at least now I have the proper tools to effectively disarm and deflect ignorance and bigotry --- a clear and focused mind that will actively combat and dismantle all those institutions and challenge people who refuse to give me proper dignity and respect. Thus, I will continue to fight for visibility and truth for those who happen to be living with HIV, which I view as a non-negotiable acknowledgement of our collective humanity.