Just*in Time: Navigating the HIV Closet

Just*in Time

by Justin B. Terry-Smith

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Photo by Jessica Bolton

What do you do when feeling rejected by family members when you come out of the HIV closet?

I thought about the month of August and how it is a big month for my family.

My father’s and mother’s birthdays are both in August, and, to celebrate those two dates, I always send them a little something in the mail. My father will tell me and my brother to only call or send him a card. I will usually send my mother her favorite flowers. Also my brother’s wedding anniversary is in August as well. He had an awesome wedding in Jamaica and married a beautiful woman that I am proud to call sister. August is also when I said “I do” to the most wonderful man in the world. So when I think of August, I think of my family, but not all of us are lucky enough to have a supportive family.

Coming out of the HIV closet is even harder without support of one’s family. Here are six points to remember as you consider having and/or navigating this discussion:

Reactions from family members
You’re going to get a whole spectrum of reactions. Some are going to be supportive and others will hurt you to your core. Keep the mindset that the family members that shun you are the ones with the problem. There is nothing wrong with you.

Searching out supportive family
You will need the strength of the supportive family members. Even though they are not infected themselves and will not know your struggle, you will still need someone in your family that is supportive and that will show you acceptance and love. Try not to lash out at them.

Put that negative energy elsewhere
The frustration of not being accepted by one’s family can tear you up inside. I understand. However, aggressive behavior on your part may come out in ways that are sometimes not healthy for others. Time to turn that energy into positive energy. Some examples include going to the gym, writing your feelings out on paper, going to the spa, etc.

Families can be chosen
This is especially true in the LGBTQ community, and there is strength in numbers. When your established family rejects you, you need to find a network and quickly. In a network of individuals living with HIV, there is a family and support. You will have a network to share similar stories, to find out what to do in case a specific problem arises, and help each other through thick and thin. Now that sounds like family to me.

Educate, educate, educate
My family members asked me a lot of questions when they found out I am HIV-positive. You have to keep in your mind that they might not know anything about being HIV-positive and their questions may seem insulting. For example, one of my family members asked, “How long did the doctor give you?” That was over thirteen years ago. Obviously, nobody knows when their last day on earth will be. But I didn’t lose my cool; instead I explained that not even he knows how long he has on this earth.

Do not let stigma in
Some of your family members might view you as “dirty” when you tell them you are HIV-positive. I had a family member tell me she was surprised that I was dating. She even went as far as to tell me, “Be careful because that’s how you got in trouble in the first place.” I thought to myself how insensitive she was being. I talked to her about how it hurt me to hear her say that because it perpetuates stigma.

Sometimes your family means well and they have no idea the detriment that they do. Over time sometimes family will apologize for their ignorance, as long as they understand what they have done. The worst part about this is sometimes it is too late to be regretful. We all need to understand that education is the key.


Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, DrPH, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].