The first time I knowingly had sex with someone with HIV, I had guessed his status weeks before he told me. I remember feeling relieved when he told me. He placed his trust in me and I was confident that sexual safety was not going to be something I needed to negotiate. We were safe and I wasn’t afraid, his HIV status wasn’t going to be a barrier for us and that felt great.
I still cannot believe that I’m still writing about stigma and HIV, but it feels that some of the care and compassion that we had, back when there was no effective treatment for HIV, has disappeared. HIV saw our gay communities come together, united to fight a threat that was decimating our numbers. Lesbians and trans people stood shoulder to shoulder, as did some cis-gendered heterosexuals to show care and compassion.
If you’re HIV +/- you’re unlikely to go long without encountering stigma in some form or another. It may be a careless comment by a friend or acquaintance, a blanket rejection on a dating app or some judgmental comment posted under an article that you’re reading.
Stigma flourishes despite the increasing number of our community who are living with HIV; it maintains its grasp despite the fact that with treatment we now have normal life expectancy.
When someone refuses to contemplate sex with someone who’s living with HIV it isn’t just a matter of personal preference, it’s a blow for ignorance over reality, for prejudice over equality. Stigmatising doesn’t help keep you or anyone free from HIV, rather stigma provides fertile ground for new HIV infections.
Stigmatising people with HIV discourages people from testing and accessing the treatment that can save their lives and make them less likely to transmit the virus to their sexual partners. Stigma discourages honest discussions about HIV status and past risk behaviour. This is why it’s so vital that we bring an end to HIV stigma by dispelling the ignorance and fear that still surrounds this virus.
It isn’t enough to not perpetuate stigma yourself. It is our responsibility, whatever our HIV status, to challenge prejudice when we encounter it. I believe that this is true for the racism that blights our gay scene, for the casual sexism that is too often promulgated, for rampant transphobia and for the all too frequent erasure of bisexual people’s lives. Combatting HIV stigma is also central to building a strong and inclusive community.