Total Eclipse of the Heart
by David Waggoner

Stigma persists. Just look at what rapper DaBaby said at a Miami music festival in late July. Along with crass remarks about women and gay men, he also said disparaging and inaccurate things about people living with HIV/AIDS: “If you didn’t show up today with HIV, AIDS, any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that’ll make you die in two or three weeks, put your cellphone light in the air.”

Luckily, many called out his stigma on social media and elsewhere. He defended himself at first, claiming those not in attendance could not understand the context of his speech. Even so, he still circled back to an us/them mindset, proclaiming his gay fans weren’t “nasty” but “classy.” As in, only some gay men acquire HIV or participate in activities (like public sex) that he considers unacceptable. DaBaby issued not one, but two apologies.

DaBaby is twenty-nine years old, born in 1991, the same year Magic Johnson told the world that he was living with HIV. Magic and others have worked tirelessly to educate the public about what it is like to live with HIV/AIDS and to dispel the misinformation and fear that often drives HIV-related stigma and discrimination. Yet DaBaby talks as if he has time-traveled from 1983, when mainstream society had a collective total eclipse of the heart.
The rapper is not alone. Many people are still perpetuating the same stigmatizing ideas about people living with HIV/AIDS. And so we still must counter their fiction with fact.

In this month’s cover story, writer Steven Reigns talks to Managing Editor Chael Needle about HIV-related stigma, which forms the core of his new book-length poem, A Quilt for David. Thirty-plus years ago, based on unsubstantiated claims, Kimberly Bergalis and others accused their dentist, Dr. David Acer, of transmitting HIV to them. Acer had died by the time Bergalis went public, and many of the patients, the media and others decided Acer was a villain. They foisted their animus upon the gay man living with HIV even in death. During the course of the interview for the cover story, beautifully photographed by Tommy Wu, Reigns discusses stigma then and now: “HIV transmission education has helped dismantle stigma but hasn’t eradicated it….Sadly, most modes of HIV transmission have religious or societal judgment such as anal sex or IV drug use. COVID does not have this since transmission happens from breathing. I think a component to the stigma might also be discomfort around illness which is ultimately a fear of death. Everyone you know will die, you will die, it is the one thing we can be sure of yet it’s rarely talked about. Seeing people sick or in the dying process can remind one of the inconvenient and uncomfortable fact that it will be us too. Distancing by othering or blaming the sick can be a defense mechanism against facing our own mortality.”

We have our work cut out for us. As Senior Editor Hank Trout found out in his interview with activist Micheal Ighodaro, stigma is rampant in his homeland of Nigeria and policy makers have created laws to criminalize gay sexuality. Ighodaro fights to make sure human rights are the rule, not the exception. David Munar, interviewed by Editor at Large Chip Alfred, leads Howard Brown Health toward greater and greater health equity, providing support to vulnerable populations in part to counter stigma. And Dr. Jack O’Brien, interviewed by Dann Dulin, takes every opportunity to promote the fact that people living with HIV/AIDS can lead empowered lives.

It may seem challenging to keep up our anti-stigma campaigns, but speaking out—something David Acer could not do—and uniting our voices will go a long way in helping people make the choice to love rather than loathe.

David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U: Art & Understanding, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.