Words are powerful little things. If you put them together in the wrong way, they can be extremely hurtful. Negative words, thoughts and attitudes about people living with HIV contribute to HIV stigma. Not only is HIV stigma rude and disturbing, it can have concrete and deeply damaging effects on people's health, well-being and rights, and sets us back in our efforts against the HIV epidemic.
If you encounter HIV stigma, here are some arguments you can use to make it clear that HIV stigma is not allowed in your airspace. We made sure to bring a large helping of side eye to this information picnic.
1. "I think it's so great that you are happy and can act as if nothing is wrong."
How You Can Crush That Stigma:
"Is something actually wrong? And is there a rule that says being happy and living with HIV are mutually exclusive? If anything, your attitude -- and the attitude of others like you -- is what makes living with HIV difficult. Do you know how fulfilling one's life can be after an HIV diagnosis? Due to advances in science and medicine, for many of us, living with HIV isn't as cumbersome as you think it is. However, what's reallycumbersome is your stigma. You should work on that and stop acting as if nothing is wrong with your line of thinking!"
2. "But you don't look sickly or weak. You look healthy to me."
How to Sweep That Stigma to the Side:
"So, all 1.2 million people living with HIV are sickly? You think you can tell whether people have HIV just by what they look like? There are some extremely sexy and buff people living with HIV -- Jack Mackenroth comes to mind here. However, as a general rule in life, don't try and glean anything about the personal life of people from the way they look. There are millions of people who are living with a disability or illness that is not visible. And, if and when they decide to tell you about their health status, consider it a privilege."
3. "You are wrong for not disclosing your status when having sex. That's pretty sneaky."
How to Show That Stigma the Door:
"First of all, if you're not living with HIV, then you have literally no idea what it means to carry the burden of disclosing your HIV status. Second, does being HIV positive mean that I'm now in charge of public health for everyone else? If two people are having consensual sex, both parties have ample opportunity to ask each other about their HIV status. If someone doesn't ask, perhaps knowing about HIV status may not be the most important thing in the world to that person. Third, maybe people living with HIV just want to feel some sexual pleasure -- something that is completely human -- without thinking about every single health ailment they have. And really, 'sneaky'? People living with HIV are not mice. There have been many instances of people being killed for disclosing their HIV status -- like Cicely Bolden. So, try to understand the many pressures involved when it comes to disclosure."
4. "I can't have sex with you. I'm going to get HIV."
How to Give That Stigma the Pink Slip:
"I hear you and I understand your concern. Many people live with trauma, shame and guilt around sex, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV. Goodness knows, you've probably been traumatized by misinformation about HIV in the media. However, you need to know that what you're expressing is extremely stigmatizing to people living with HIV. People living with HIV are not walking vectors, and if you reduce them to a disease, you take away their humanity. You should take it upon yourself to become educated abouttreatment as prevention, undetectability, the risk of transmitting HIV and the health risks associated with HIV as opposed to other easily communicable STIs, like HPV. There's also a whole slew of tools in the prevention toolbox -- besides whether I am undetectable. If getting HIV really scares you, then we can discuss condom use, or you can look into pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). If that doesn't help, you should ask yourself whether HIV will ever be safe enough for you."
5. "How did you get it?"
How to Send That Stigma Packing:
"Is that information necessary for you to continue living? Would you ask people with a different illness their entire life history and what presumed transgressions they must have committed to get it? Perhaps a better approach would be to offer support and make sure that, regardless of how I got HIV, I am doing well now, you know, like a compassionate human being."
6. "But you're such a smart person, how could you possibly get HIV?"
How to Get That Stigma on the First Bus Out of Town:
"Intellectual capacity has nothing to do with HIV status. Also, having HIV doesn't automatically make someone dumb. HIV can affect anyone, regardless of gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. There are plenty of brilliant people living with HIV. Meet David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W. -- he lives with HIV and is a social worker, a certified sex therapist and a clinical hypnotherapist. He uses his intellect to better the lives of people living with HIV, too. Brains and compassion, all in one package."
7. "How could a young gay guy in this day and age ever possibly get HIV?"
How to Send That Stigma Home Without Cab Fare:
"In every region of the world, two things are true: gay men are at increased risk for HIV, and so are young people. So young gay people are often put at high risk for HIV. No, not by their actions, but because they are at the nexus of a lot of societal and cultural forces. Instead of telling me what young gay men should know, why don't we talk about the many ways that we do wrong by young gay men, especially young gay men of color? Can we talk about shame, guilt, fear, education, access to services, access to income and other things that determine emotional and physical health? How about you just read this infographic?"
8. "Don't you feel it sends the wrong message to have sex with negative people? Even if you're undetectable, there's still a chance."
How to Tell That Stigma That You're Just Not That Into It:
"When it comes to sex and HIV, there are two forces at play: the rational and the irrational. You can talk about the tiny chance you'll get HIV from having sex with an undetectable person, or the small chance that you'll get HIV while on PrEP, while using condoms or while using any other prevention tool. However, if what you're saying is that positive people should only sleep with positive people and negative only with negative, then let's talk about a few things. Most cases of HIV transmission are probably from people who don't know they're positive and thus not on treatment and thus more likely to transmit HIV than someone on successful treatment. Also, serodiscordant relationships are normal and beautiful. If you're trying to police the way I have sex, remember -- your mother liked it bareback."
9. "What do you know about HIV prevention? You're HIV positive."
How to Tell That Stigma That It Has No Power Here:
"Many great HIV activists have been HIV positive, and many of them have been actively engaged in questions around prevention. For you to insinuate that someone who has HIV does not know how to educate others about the pathways through which HIV can be transmitted or the ways in which individuals can protect themselves is actually ludicrous. Some HIV-positive people, like Aaron Laxton, are some of the loudest voices in the fight for HIV prevention. In fact, sometimes people who are living with HIV -- many of whom were at one point failed by HIV prevention efforts -- may best know how to get prevention messaging across."
10. "What a pity you're suffering from AIDS."
How to Tell That Stigma to Sashay Away:
"Have you heard of the Denver Principles, perchance? First, there's no need to pity people living with HIV. You should pity people who perpetuate stigma -- they can be incapable of loving and openly embracing others. Second, 'suffering from AIDS'? The 80s called; it wants its bad phraseology back. You can say a 'person living with HIV.' Thanks."
11. "Oh my God, you had a kid! Why would you do that?"
How to Send That Stigma to Bed Without Supper:
"Yes, HIV-positive people -- male and female and transgender -- can have babies successfully. In fact, it's been happening for well over a decade. If you've heard anything different, it's a myth. People living with HIV have just as much a right to a fully-realized life -- including a family -- as anybody else."
12. "So, how do you have sex?"
How to Give That Stigma the Finger:
"Just like you, actually. Not in a hazmat suit."