Positive Life NSW Blog

Serophobia, HIV stigma, discrimination and the serocloset

Posted by on in Advocacy and Policy

People with HIV have a personal potential and responsibility to step up and play an important and vital role in addressing HIV-related stigma and discrimination.

This year, Positive Life NSW had an entry in the Mardi Gras parade.

Wearing the Choose Treatment campaign T-shirts and carrying campaign placards, a group of 20 staff, board and volunteers walked Oxford Street to spread the message and encourage people with HIV to choose treatment, and to play an active and vital role in preventing HIV transmission.

My partner Geoff Honnor observed that it might have been better if we had organised HIV–positive people to walk in the parade and openly declare their status in a 'me too' moment of defiance against HIV stigma. He was challenging the fact that HIV in 2014 is largely invisible and he has a point! HIV/AIDS wasting syndrome and Kaposi's sarcoma are rarely seen these days and HIV is considered to be a chronic condition where HIV-positive people take a few pills each day and get-on with their lives. This reality has permitted many people with HIV to silently slide into the HIV serocloset – a place where disclosure is optional or viewed as unnecessary, and where the individual and their personal ethics dominate the discourse.

So who can blame them, you might ask? Well, HIV-related stigma is alive and well and unfortunately encountered far too frequently. We still inhabit a world where an HIV-negative gay man will bareback with someone who tells him they're HIV-negative at the last test (a dubious and doubtful HIV prevention strategy) and shuns someone who bravely discloses they're HIV-positive (when there's a good chance they are on treatment and have and undetectable viral load). We hear stories where the jilted boyfriend goes to the police after finding out the jilter had HIV and didn't disclose to him, despite the fact that condoms were always used. And, we experience an online environment where gay men who disclose their HIV status are abused and marginalised. There's not much you can do about stupidity, prejudice and serophobia, but it begs the question; why would you want to associate with these people, much less have sex and intimacy with them? Move on!

Of course the elephant in the room that's not acknowledged is - you can live well with HIV and it's no longer the boogie man! While it might be a fact that very few people want to be infected, if they are, it's something that they'll probably deal with and get over. They'll adjust to the diagnosis, take effective treatments and go on to live a near normal life span. Getting HIV in 2014 isn't the horror story that it once was, despite the fact that some sections of the HIV health care service sector continue to pathologise and dramatise the impact of a diagnosis. Heterosexuals who get HIV have a far more difficult time. They deal with the presumption of being gay, or an injecting drug user, or sex worker. This happens to them within a general cultural environment that is a lot less forgiving. So, one has to wonder why more HIV-positive gay men don't come out of the serocloset. Sexual and emotional rejection are a part of life. HIV-negative gay men are rejected all the time on the basis of unattractiveness, poor social skills, inadequate equipment and taste. To blame serostatus for rejection is to ignore the many underlying factors that influence personal choice. And, let's face it; 'hot' will usually trump serostatus just about every time!

One of the most effective ways to combat the issue is to be open about your HIV status. HIV-related stigma and discrimination can only flourish in an environment where people with HIV are silent and hide. It's a virus after all. So, find some of that condition du jour (resilience), and come out of that serocloset. Exercise some personal power and agency to combat HIV-related stigma and discrimination. Don't let ignorance and stupidity go unchallenged and remember that most educated and civilised HIV-negative gay men will treat you with dignity and respect. As for the others; well I'll leave that to your imaginations and powers of rejection?

Also published at 12 March 2014

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