What’s the T with HIV stigma?

WARNING: This article contains references to RuPaul’s Drag Race and drag culture. *tongue pop*

Ok henny, the time has come to talk HIV stigma. It’s a nasty reality that, somewhere along life’s fabulous path, we are going to come into contact with someone with out of date HIV knowledge or stigmatising views. So, much like a lip sync, we should do our best to prepare for such situations – you wouldn’t want to be caught out not knowing the right words. Okurrr?

For many guys, we didn’t have the benefit of growing up with an extensive network of gay friends to help educate us around sexual health and the stigma that often accompanies gay sex, so we may not necessarily understand what is or isn’t appropriate to say when it comes to HIV.

Firstly, a couple of quick definitions:

What’s the T? (expression, drag culture/gay);

A question usually used to ask ‘what’s the truth?’, ‘what’s up’ or ‘what’s the deal’.

Stigma (noun);

Negative and often unfair beliefs and attitudes that a society or group of people have towards something.

HIV stigma, simply put, is prejudice towards HIV and it can affect not just those living with the virus but also impact their partners, friends, families and the broader community.

HIV stigma can be driven from a place of fear, a lack of knowledge or ignorance. In many ways, we are still feeling some effects from the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when HIV was synonymous with death and a diagnosis came with many unfair labels.

Thankfully we are in a more ‘accepting’, sex positive, and informed place now, whereby having frank conversations around sex, pleasure and the many ways we can prevent HIV, we can make stigma sashay away with no invite for the reunion episode.

With all this in mind, let’s look at some shady situations you might find in the real world today; some of which you may have already encountered.

Casual use of ‘clean’ or ‘disease-free’ in a dating profile

Often when guys use ‘clean’ they are referring to being clear of STIs, which at first glance seems harmless. But the issue lies with what being clean infers; that if you do have an STI such as HIV you are considered ‘dirty’ and that is obviously hurtful and inherently wrong.

Using these terms is problematic, not only because it assumes that people living with HIV are unsafe and disease-ridden, but also because it places a higher status on being HIV negative.

While most guys who use these phrases may be doing so to reduce their risk of HIV, the language isolates and promotes stigma towards our HIV positive brothers – and that shouldn’t be something we allow into our shared vernacular.

If you can remember an eight-worded chorus-line like Greedy by Ariana Grande, then you can remember that ‘clean’ and ‘disease-free’ are absolute no-no’s.

How can you combat this?

As Michelle Visage said, ‘cliques are dangerous’, and if we allow this to be acceptable language within the community then that reflects poorly on all of us; individually and collectively.

You can start by checking your own profile description to make sure you aren’t a culprit.

Being hit up by someone who has this in their profile? Let them know it’s not on and that they should consider changing their language they use. It’s up to all of us to make this change.

You won’t hook-up with a guy because he’s HIV positive

Understanding the devastation brought by the HIV epidemic, when someone expresses that they’re not interested in hooking up with HIV positive guys, it’s not terribly hard to see how lingering attitudes towards HIV might inform their opinion. However, today with modern medicine, people living with HIV have access to effective treatments that increase health and provide a near normal life expectancy, while also reducing risk of HIV transmission.

Within six months of a HIV positive guy being on treatment, in most cases he can achieve an undetectable viral load (UVL). A UVL means that the amount of the virus in the body is so low it can’t be detected by testing and is unable to be passed on to partners.

This is certainly worth Hallelooing about, but the truth is that a lot of guys still don’t know about it and assume that hooking up with a HIV positive guy means they’ll be infected. For them, hearing that a potential partner has HIV can be frightening if they don’t know the good news of UVL.

How can you combat this?

For this week’s maxi challenge you are challenged to learn more about what undetectable viral load means and on the main stage, category is zero-stigma-realness. There are many serodiscordant relationships out there (when one partner is HIV positive and one negative) where a UVL protects the negative partner from HIV. So when it comes to hooking up, don’t let your choices be led by an outdated notion of HIV risk.

Remember, you can always negotiate other safe sex methods like PrEP, or condoms if this is a new partner and you are still establishing trust. But if it’s HIV transmission risk that’s your concern, a HIV positive status should be no reason for a flat no when it comes to sex.

You think you can tell someone has HIV by looking at them

Contrary to what AIDS films of the 90s to 00s would have you thinking, you cannot tell if someone is living with HIV just by their physical appearance.

We know now that for many poz guys, taking treatment and having routine visits to their doctor can benefit their internal functions. On the outside, well, much like you can’t assume that ‘spooky’ drag can’t take home the Drag Superstar crown, you can’t assume someone’s status by how they look. These days, any poz guy can serve fierce body-ody-ody just as equally to the HIV negative guy next to him.

In the end it’s always better to talk directly with your partners about status, just remembering a little sensitivity in the way you approach these conversations can go a long way.

How can you combat this?

When someone tells you they are HIV positive you should avoid the response ‘you don’t look like you have HIV’! While in those first moments it might sound like a compliment, you may actually be making an unintentional generalisation that people living with HIV look sick. Instead, consider thanking them – disclosing something as personal as this takes courage, so by them opening up shows a level of trust they have with you.

In the case where he’s a potential hook-up, while the choice is totally up to you if you want to take the next step, consider the words you use next. They could have a huge impact and you won’t able to ‘blame the editing’.

When it comes to conversations around HIV, it really pays to be informed and educate ourselves – because reading is fundamental.

Now, as a great queen once said…