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“I’m Positive…But Not HIV-positive.” When HIV Is Part of a Joke

When visiting Houston, Texas, for work this week I found some time to go out and relax while taking in the city. I met up with some friends at one of the local gay clubs to enjoy the first evening of what Houston Pride had to offer. The club was an indoor/outdoor facility, with the deck that surrounded the building filled with dozens of queer people of color. I enjoyed myself for about two hours before it was time to leave. As we were exciting, I asked the bouncer for directions to the next location we were going. That’s where the evening took an unfortunate turn.

The question was very simple: “How do we get to the Eagle from here?”

At first, it was cool. He began giving me the directions. “You are going to take two blocks up and then one block to the right.”

I stated, “Okay, cool.”

Then he stopped after he realized that he had given us the wrong directions and started again. “You are going to go up two blocks and then one block to the left.” I laughed and then looked at him and asked him, “Are you sure?”

His response was, “I’m positive. I’m positive…But not HIV-positive.” Then he giggled a little bit.

I stood there, stunned. It came out of his mouth so fast, it was as if he had done it before. And the face he made at me, it was like I was supposed to share in the joke with him or something, because, of course, laughing at people who are HIV-positive is the new thing, right? Unfortunately for him, I was not in a laughing mood.

I looked at him, placed my hand on his shoulder, and stated, “I’m HIV-positive, and that’s not funny.”

His entire face went blank with fear. He was unable to say anything. He didn’t offer an “I’m sorry.” Not a “My bad.” He was just blank. I’m sure the fear of a discrimination suit and possible loss of a job ran across his mind, too. Either way, he didn’t move and I stood my ground. Then I dispassionately giggled, rolled my eyes, and walked off.

I was there with a friend who asked if I was okay, to which I responded that I was. Years ago I would’ve likely been hurt by it. Unfortunately, being in the public eye with my work has made me grow a tougher skin around my status. I’ve been shamed publicly in every way that you possibly could be about my status, most often used as a weapon against me when someone disagrees with what I said.

The jokes around HIV are simply not funny. They are harmful, insensitive, and very dangerous to any progress needed in ending the epidemic in our community. To be at a Black gay venue, with Black and Brown queer people and have the responsibility of safety left in the arms of people who make HIV jokes means none of us are safe. The virus is most prevalent in our Black and Brown queer communities. If a person responsible for our safety doesn’t have the cultural competency to know that, can they really be responsible for our safety?

We are going on nearly 40 years of fighting against the actual virus, and we continue to have to waste time fighting against people who think that HIV is a joke. If someone made a cancer joke, it would be immediate cancellation—yet HIV jokes continue to be used with minimal repercussions because of the perception of how it is acquired. People use stigma as a weapon, which makes the jokes more acceptable to others around who hear them.

Most importantly I think about if the person that the joke was said to wasn’t someone out about their status as I am. Would that person have shut down and felt ashamed to ever return to the venue? If the person that it was said to was someone afraid to get tested, would that joke have further pushed them away from taking care of themselves and finding out their status?

HIV jokes have much greater implications on how we move the needle against discrimination and criminalization. There is truly no place to make jokes about a community that continues to die at the hands of a virus that has already taken millions of lives. HIV-positive people are not the butt of your terrible jokes. That is something I am positive about.