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Opinion: Switching Fears (About HIV)

Tags: Opinion

This article first appeared in A&U Magazine on October 20, 2015.

With new treatments and medical advancements, HIV has now become a manageable and treatable chronic condition. From 30 pills a day, to 30 different pills including some “one-a-day” doses, researchers were able to reverse the course 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. This effect has helped cause a situation where people are more fearful of how they are viewed if they have HIV, than they are from actually contracting HIV.

But it wasn’t always that way.

During the 80s and 90s, the term HIV had become synonymous with the term “death sentence.” The contraction of 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 stigma that is still felt today. Rather than communities learning how to live in a society with those who were HIV-positive, they were shunned and turned into modern day lepers.

During that time, HIV prevention efforts and practices were at their peak. With the announcement of Magic Johnson coming out as HIV-positive, and several others of 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 of dollars on research, creating AZT cocktails with the hopes of one day creating a cure and short term goal of staving off death. Although the awareness and understanding of the virus was thorough, the stigma being built against those who were living with HIV 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 HIV or AIDS from kissing?

Can I get it from sharing a water fountain?

What if an HIV-positive person coughs, 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 80s and early 90s, especially in the black community. A 1990 episode of “A Different World” touched on that lack of knowledge when Tisha Campbell played the role of 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 contract HIV, who can get it 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 --  it affected all communities. This fear from how rapid the virus was spreading created horrible myths and stigmatization, and it helped perpetuate many of the beliefs around the virus that still exist today.

Fast forward to 2016, 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 condoms. 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 HIV 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” (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 HIV 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 those living in the positive community. 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?” while Black gay men represent only .2 percent of the U.S. population, 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 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.