Cut the Stigma: Fighting Against HIV Discrimination

Black AIDS Institute & Lambda Legal launch a campaign to combat HIV discrimination

by Hank Trout

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Cut the Stigma
Black AIDS Institute & Lambda Legal launch a campaign to combat discrimination
by Hank Trout

In October 2017, Nikko Briteramos walked into the King of Kuts barbershop in Leimert Park, California, to get a haircut, as he had done several times in the past. To his shock and dismay, the owner of the barbershop refused to cut Briteramos’s hair. He was further shocked to learn the reason for the refusal: another barber in the shop, who had known Briteramos for some time, revealed to the owner that Briteramos is HIV-positive.

Cut the Stigma campaign. Photo courtesy Lambda Legal

In a press release dated July 25, 2018, Nikko Briteramos, thirty-four, who has been living with HIV since he was nineteen, said, “My experience at the Leimert Park barbershop was not the first I have had with HIV discrimination. Today, I am speaking out because I would like it to be my last. I want everyone to hear my story so they can better understand how harmful these moments of discrimination can be to those living daily with HIV. The stigma is a result of misconceptions and it needs to end.”

“The facts of this case, as well as the legal claims, are pretty straight-forward: the owner of King of Kuts in Leimert Park refused to cut Nikko’s hair because he is living with HIV, in clear violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as the California Unruh Civil Rights Act,” said Scott Schoettes, Counsel and HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal.

Phill Wilson, CEO and Founder of the Black AIDS Institute (BAI), added, “Black people living with HIV are often confronted with discrimination connected to stigma and misinformation in public places of importance within our community. The barbershop is a sacred social space, where Black Americans debate social, cultural and political ideas. HIV discrimination destroys such safe spaces….In addition, as a Black organization, we have to be ever vigilant in confronting injustice. It is a part of our survival. We fight those injustices to survive—and this is a case about injustice.”

In addition to filing a Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief in the United States District Court, Central Division of California, Western Division on Briteramos’s behalf, Lambda Legal has joined forces with the Black AIDS Institute to launch Cut the Stigma, a public education campaign focused on Black communities developed to end such discrimination by dispelling misconceptions about the transmission of HIV, correcting misinformation about HIV, and reducing HIV stigma. The hope is to raise awareness in Black communities about the issues surrounding HIV discrimination, which disconnects Black PLHIV from their communities and relegates them to second-class citizenship within their communities. The campaign will attempt to engage Black barbers and barbershop owners across the country, as well as others in public places of importance to the Black community, to end HIV discrimination.

Lestian McNeal of the BAI told A&U, “By refusing to cut Nikko’s hair, and denying him service, this Black-owned barbershop in the heart of South L.A. perpetuated stigma against people living with HIV, labeling him as ‘other,’ dangerous, and undeserving of the same rights and courtesies that people living without HIV are afforded….Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by HIV and to change that we have to change…the way we talk about HIV within our community. It is our duty to protect the lives of all Black Americans, including in cases where Black Americans are being discriminated against by other Black people.”

Cut the Stigma campaign. Photo courtesy Lambda Legal

With the Cut the Stigma campaign, McNeal continued, “Our goal is to train advocates, educate communities and influence law makers so that in the future, zero people are convicted under an HIV criminalization statute in any state in the US and zero Black Americans living with HIV are discriminated against or stigmatized because of their HIV status. [We] will engage Black businesses and business owners, host a series of educational trainings with our BTAN chapters and BTAN affiliated organizations, host in person and on social media events to address the issues facing Black communities, and share stories from survivors of HIV criminalization and discrimination, in order to help Black communities and healthcare providers who serve Black communities learn more about HIV science and treatment (including PrEP and TasP), HIV stigma in Black communities, HIV criminalization laws, and how to protect themselves against these harmful laws.”


For more information abour Lambda Legal, log on to: www.lamdbalegal.org; for more information about the Black AIDS Institute, go to: www.blackaids.org.


Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.