Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Importance of HIV and AIDS Discussions: Tearing Down Ignorance

It's here: World AIDS Day 2013. I hope everyone has a chance to get out and get tested today. In honor of WAD2013, I would like to take a moment to blog about why this subject is so important to me and why I think it's so important for us to keep talking about it. Being a gay man, I can really only discuss this subject from that vantage point, so most of what I have to say is to other gay men, but being that HIV affects many more demographics, I equally encourage everyone to take this day seriously.

Over the past week, I've made sure to interject World AIDS Day into various conversations with my friends. I always make it a point to bring up AIDS and HIV when I can, if only to make sure that it's something people are thinking about. Occasionally, this will be met with glares and comments that say something to the effect of, "Why are you dragging everyone down?"

While I certainly understand that HIV and AIDS aren't the source of the most jovial of conversations, they're important to discuss. Too many times I've heard a friend or a peer say something ignorant about HIV and HIV+ people. An alarming number of these comments come from my gay peers, which is incredibly disheartening. Among these ignorant comments, I've heard:
  • What's the difference between AIDS and HIV?
  • I've only ever had sex with people who tested negative, so I don't have to worry.
  • Oh, I've never really thought about getting tested.
  • I would never be in a relationship with an HIV+ person.
  • Well, it's not my problem that other people weren't being responsible.
  • I don't understand why my new boyfriend won't have unprotected sex with me. That's a trust issue.
This is a small sampling of the sorts of comments that have left me perplexed and deeply concerned about people's education about HIV and AIDS. Just yesterday, a friend texted me about a conversation he was having with someone, where a gay man he was speaking with said that he only had unprotected sex with people who said they tested negative for HIV. Looking back on my sex life, I can recall only one person honestly disclosing their status to me, and it was someone that I really hadn't been planning on having sex with. Considering the number of partners I've had, I have no doubt that several of my sex partners lied about A) their actual status or B) even knowing their status. The truth is, there are a staggering number of gay men who just aren't getting tested. I recent statistic from the CDC, about 60% of young people with HIV don't even realize that they are infected. And seriously...who isn't going to say that they're negative if they want to get some booty? After all, if they haven't found out they're positive, doesn't that make them negative? No. It makes them incredibly irresponsible and representative of one of the insidious ways that HIV continues to spread. In fact, several people I know who are currently positive contracted HIV from someone that they trusted.

As unfair as it is to be lied to about someone's status, the burden isn't just on those who may have been infected to know and disclose. It's not smart to trust anyone about their HIV status, especially considering how many people out there aren't even getting tested. Over the course of my life, I've known several people who hadn't gotten tested until I practically dragged them to the clinic. It's not just that I think people should know their status. It's important to get into the habit of testing, so if there is a scare, people will at least have minimized the fear of the testing process. I remember the first time I got tested. I was in AID Atlanta. I was sitting in the closet-of-a-waiting-room, waiting for my number to be called. I didn't know what they were going to ask me to do. I was anxious, nervous. I was worried, fearful, and to make it even worse, I was sitting in the waiting room with another guy, who was balling his eyes out (I assumed only because he was worried about his pending results and possibly somewhat aware of the risk that he was at). Those first few tests weren't easy for me, so I can understand why people aren't eager to put themselves in that position. But those tests made other times where I was worried about exposure that much easier.

But as much as I like to stress the importance of testing and understanding one's status, I don't want to perpetuate a negative stigma about those who test positive. Testing positive for HIV is not the end of life...not even the end of a person's sex life. I have known plenty of HIV+/HIV- couples who have had long-term, sexually-active relationships without transmitting the disease. I was in a relationship with an HIV+ man for several years. We had an incredibly active sex life, but knowing his status and doing what I could to prevent transmission kept me HIV-. In fact, when approached about this relationship, people usually ask, "Weren't you afraid of the risk?" My response has always been, "With a one-night stand, there's a risk. Are they telling the truth? Are they lying? They could very well be positive. With an HIV+ person, I know the risk, and I take the steps necessary to ensure that I'm always safe." That said, I want to stress to HIV- people that knowing a person is HIV+ does not make them an untouchable, which is so commonly how people react to that notion. You can find plenty of stories from HIV+/HIV- couples to know that not contracting HIV is all about education, not just sexual contact.

To HIV+ people, I'd like to stress the same thing. There is a lot of ignorance in the world about HIV and AIDS. There are a lot of people who are eager to say, "You did something wrong. You deserved it. You were irresponsible." The truth is, though, I have friends who contracted HIV from less risky behavior than others who remain uninfected to this day. HIV doesn't choose victims. It doesn't dish out fair and just punishment. There is nothing fair about it. And just because a person has HIV, does not mean that their life or sex life is over. It does, however, mean that you'll be met with great ignorance and stigmatization. This is where the real enemy is, and I only hope that the world is moving in a direction to lessen this stigma.

So again, please. Get out, get tested. Get educated about HIV and AIDS. Talk with people about it. Tweet about it. Blog about it. Pin about it. Ignoring this problem isn't going to make it go away, but talking about it will make it easier for us to tear down those boundaries that do little more than hold up biases and stigmas.