Switching Fears

Now people fear the stigma more than they fear the virus

by George M. Johnson

confused[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith new treatments, and advancements, HIV has now become a manageable and treatable chronic condition. From thirty pills a day, to thirty different pills including some once-a-day doses, they were able to reverse the stigma of HIV being a death sentence. A community that was once hidden is now thriving as people who are HIV-positive are living longer lives. The effect has helped cause a situation where some people are more fearful of the potential stigma of living with HIV than they are from actually contracting HIV.

It wasn’t always that way.

During the eighties and the nineties the word “HIV” had become synonymous with the term “death sentence.” Contracting HIV had become people’s newest fear as the nation’s biggest epidemic had no cure in sight. Many people succumbed to their fears around the virus’s mortality rates, which created a first wave of stigma that is still felt today. Rather than communities learning how to live in a society with those who were HIV-positive, they shunned individuals living with HIV/AIDS and turned them into modern-day lepers.

During that time, HIV prevention efforts and practices were at its peak. With Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was living with HIV, and several others’ influence and prominence in society, safer sex initiatives across the country were at an all-time high as a way to fight against the spread of the virus. Pharmaceutical companies continued to spend millions on research creating cocktails with the short-term goal of staving off death and the long-term goal of creating a cure. Although the awareness and understanding of the virus was thorough, the stigma being built against those who had contracted the virus would ultimately prove to be the hardest thing to eradicate.

Contracting HIV meant living the rest of your days in shame during those times. People were afraid to even be in the same room with a person who had the virus.

“Can I catch if from kissing?”

“Can I get it from sharing a water fountain?”

“What if they cough, will we all get infected?”

Questions like these were far too common, as education and knowledge around the virus was just not there during the eighties and early nineties especially in the black community. A 1990 episode of A Different World touched on the lack of knowledge, when Tisha Campbell played an HIV-positive student. The school went into a panic and students asked questions similar to those listed above. In addition to the lack of knowledge around how you get it, knowledge around “who” can contract HIV was also rapidly evolving. HIV changed from a “white man’s disease,” to “a gay man’s” disease, to an “all man’s disease.” The virus knew no race, gender, sex, education, wealth, health, as it affected all communities. This fear from how rapid the virus was spreading created horrible myths, stigmatization, and helped perpetuate many of the beliefs around the virus that still exist today.

Fast forward to 2015. Although the same stigmas and shames exist, fear of death has all but disappeared.

It has almost become a case of cognitive dissonance. You know the virus exists. You know what steps you can take to help prevent it. Then subconsciously you know that sex feels better without the “complications” of a condom. You know that you can contract an STI or HIV, but you are also knowledgeable enough to know that all of these things can now be treated. Do you still put on the condom?

This way of thinking has become one of the more frequent conversations I have when discussing barriers to prevention. Other barriers including bareback intercourse being preferred over protected intercourse. Trust in a partner being compromised if asked to use condoms. Lack of access to condoms, specifically lack of access to free “good condoms” (e.g., Magnums). We have created ways to validate choices that we know may have serious consequences. So where does this leave us?

This leaves us as HIV practitioners and advocates to have to find new ways to communicate the importance of not seroconverting. The addition of PrEP to prevention efforts is quickly becoming one of the better tools we have in fighting against the virus. Although the virus is manageable even much more than diabetes, it is still not something we want to continue to spread. The benefits of being HIV-negative still outweigh the effects of living with HIV. Yet the numbers still continue to rise in the more marginalized communities, in particular the Black LGBT community. For example, according to an amfAR February 2015 issue brief, “HIV and the Black Community: Do #Black(Gay) Lives Matter?” Black gay men represent only .2 percent of the U.S. population, yet they represent twenty-three percent of new infections in the U.S.

We must continue to practice safer sex, and be more willing to have the conversations around HIV and disclosure. It is okay to ask and talk about HIV status with sexual partners. It is okay to take the time to put a condom on. HIV is much more than the stigmas of yesteryear, but until they have been eradicated there is no need to acquire that burden.


George M. Johnson is an HIV advocate who works for Us Helping Us, People into Living located in Washington, D.C. He has written for Pride.com, Musedmagonline.com, Blavity.com, Rolereboot.org, and Ebony.com. Follow him on Twitter @IamGMJohnson.