Fight the stigma of HIV to help get to zero

Posted: December 14th, 2012 | Columns, Featured, Political Spectrum | No Comments

Allan Acevedo | Political Spectrum

As the world came together to acknowledge Word AIDS Day on Dec.1, I was left feeling out of place and out of mind. The official theme of World AIDS Day was “Getting to Zero: zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS related deaths.”

Allan Acevedo

I reflected on this the other day when I noticed a red mark on my chest. Instantly I thought it was a lesion; a sign I was sick and likely to die. No I’m no hypochondriac, but I am HIV positive. When I was first diagnosed, I thought of Tom Hanks’ face as Andrew Beckett in the 1993 film “Philadelphia.”

Kaposi’s sarcoma, that’s what those red looking blisters are you see in movies and documentaries about people with AIDS. Of course that’s not what was on my chest, but the specter of the once-called Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID) lives with us to this day.

The typical discourse of World AIDS Day revolves around three prevalent images of HIV and AIDS. We remember the dead who lost their lives before there was proper medication, we see the elderly in need of charity, and we see community figures encouraging HIV testing and safer sex.

What is lacking is the mainstream narrative of HIV-positive youth who are affected by the virus in an entirely different way. At 23 years old, I have been HIV positive for nearly two years. When I was first diagnosed, I had been sick for weeks, only receiving medicine for a cold and strep throat from a county clinic. I lost weight and really did start to look like those images of AIDS patients from the 1980s.

Once I got tested, I learned why I had been so sick and, more importantly, what I could do about it. The first thing they tell you is that you’re not going to die; it’s not a death sentence. As reassuring as this can sound, it’s hard to embrace the veracity of that statement when you rarely see any portrayals of young, healthy and successful HIV-positive people in our media, history or on television.

As much as we want to fight for a cure, the HIV-positive community is still dealing with an institutionalized stigma that is prevalent even within the LGBT community. As far as we have come in developing empathy – not fear – for people with AIDS, we have yet to develop a neutral perspective for people living with HIV who are on medication that, with proper adherence and according to many research studies, has made them nearly unable to transmit the virus to others.

Once on medication, most people get better and even go back to normal. Besides at 10 p.m., when I have my alarm set to take my three pills, I often forget I have HIV. With today’s advancements, living with HIV is often times more manageable than living with diabetes.

We live in a world of outdated impressions and ideas about HIV. Stigma has been described to me as the single worst symptom of HIV. And this is a reality I live with every day. Questions asking how I could have been so stupid or implications that I must have made a poor decision are the rule and not the exception.

To stop the spread of HIV we have to remove that stigma. We have to give a new face to a virus that could be eradicated in our generation. But we will only live up to our potential if we begin to look beyond value judgments and look at those infected with HIV differently.

Only 39.5 percent of Americans ages 18 and older have received an HIV test at some point in their lives according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health care providers believe the way to fix this is to de-stigmatize HIV testing, making it part of a routine checkup or easily available.

This already exists, though. We live in a world where you can download an application and find myriad places for HIV testing, often times for free.

People still don’t do it. Not because of a stigma around getting tested, but because of stigma for testing positive and having to tell others. Treatment is available, but it is the fear of repudiation that leads some to prefer ignorance over rejection.

To change this, those who are HIV positive and those who are not must work together. We must dismantle outdated perceptions about HIV infection and emphasize the reality of the experience today. For those who are HIV positive, it means we have to come out. We have to be more open and honest about our status, even with people we may never be sexually intimate.

Changing perceptions requires courage. It’s the courage that Harvey Milk spoke about in San Francisco when he advocated for gays and lesbians to come out. If they know one of us, they’ll understand it better and understand the reality of our lives.

This is how we’ll fight AIDS and really get down to zero.

—Allan Acevedo is co-founder and president emeritus of Stonewall Young Democrats of San Diego. He has worked on multiple political campaigns and served on numerous boards including the San Diego Democratic Club, California Young Democrats, Gay-Straight Alliant Network and Equality California PAC. Follow @allanacevedo on Twitter.

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