When I was in 8th grade, my geography teacher gave a presentation about HIV/AIDS. He made sure to clarify that, “No, you do not get HIV from having sex with monkeys” and that, “No, HIV is not a ‘gay disease.’” The presentation seemed rehearsed, as if he was accustomed to making these clarifications – as if these clarifications were necessary. But I could not understand why he was making these clarifications; to me, they made absolutely zero sense. They sounded ridiculous. How could someone actually believe these outlandish statements?
Like most other kids my age, I was already familiar with HIV/AIDS. Although wrong, it was common for middle-schoolers to joke about getting AIDS when someone scraped their knee or got a cut and needed a band-aid. Despite these insensitive jokes, HIV was simply another STI to us—no different than the other STIs we learned about in health class. I was unaware of any particular stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
Still confused by my teacher’s statements, I went home that night and asked my parents about the presentation. I asked them if people associated HIV/AIDS with homosexuality, and I asked them why. They were surprised I had never been exposed to this stereotype, yet they were also strangely pleased. To them, my obliviousness to the HIV/AIDS stereotypes meant that our population was finally overcoming them. It meant that the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS may no longer exist.
It has not taken me long in New Orleans to realize how far this was from the truth. During my short time at CrescentCare, I have been exposed to the impact HIV still has on our communities, our nation, and our world. And I have been exposed to the stigma and misconceptions that still exist and prolong the epidemic that has already spanned over three decades.
CrescentCare began as a single HIV hotline. The agency wanted to offer a reliable resource that people infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS could call to get the answers they needed. While the calls are much less frequent today, the hotline still exists. During my first week at CrescentCare, we received a call from an extremely distraught woman. She had recently discovered that her partner of seven years was HIV positive. He was the father of her three children and had apparently been living with HIV throughout their entire relationship. She felt angry, confused, betrayed, and scared. … Scared. … Scared that she would contract HIV. … Scared that her kids would contract HIV. … She explained she no longer wanted her kids to spend time with or to even touch their dad. This concerned me. Although her partner probably should have informed her about his HIV status much earlier, her solution to prohibit interaction between her kids and their father was not fair nor justified. It is impossible for her children to contract HIV by touching their father – scientists have proven that HIV can only be transmitted through blood, breast milk, semen, or vaginal fluids. It is completely unwarranted and unethical to isolate people living with HIV from the rest of society. I wonder if this man and other people like him hesitate to share their status for fear of the negative reaction they would receive in return.
More recently, I heard another story that further revealed the extent of the stigma against HIV still present in our society. I learned the story of a lesbian woman who died of cancer. Although she was not HIV positive, people often assumed she was because she identified as a lesbian woman. They wrongly attributed her cancer to HIV. And during the final stages of her life, her family—who never accepted her sexuality—refused to give her pain medications. They believed she needed to atone for her “sins” as a lesbian woman by suffering through the pain of her last days. They also prohibited her long-time partner from being with her at the hospital. Clearly, the stigma consumed this woman’s family. They saw her illness solely as God’s punishment for her and believed she needed to suffer through it until the end. This heart-wrenching story illustrates the immense negative impact that stigma can have on people. I am still struggling to come to terms with this story. I cannot understand how a person’s family can promote and spread the stigma and stereotypes against HIV that cause such severe anguish.
These stories and my experience at CrescentCare have opened my eyes to the burden that HIV still places on the world and to the stigma that contributes greatly to that burden. At Duke, we are rarely exposed to this truth as HIV is not something with which we are confronted regularly. However, I now realize how important it is for us all to be informed about HIV, so we are equipped to combat the stigma that can cause such harm.
I no longer think of HIV as simply another STI, and I definitely no longer make “AIDS jokes.” Rather, I recognize HIV as a virus that affects us all; a virus we all must fight against.