Op-ed: The HIV Shame Game

By Tyler Curry

Originally published on Advocate.com June 07 2013 6:00 AM ET

Throughout the modern history of http://www.gay.comhomo dating and mating, there has always been an undeniable, resilient link between sex and shame. The gay movement has made many strides in relinquishing much of the guilt associated with our innate attraction to the same sex, but shame still lingers. Sure, we now can be seen holding hands in Texas and kissing in Georgia, but there are still a healthy amount of guilty thoughts among gay men when it comes to sex. Why is that? Frankly, it's because there is still an unsettling fear associated with gay sex and HIV/AIDS. And when shame is involved, it is inevitably accompanied by a healthy dose of blame.
 
Naturally, it is easiest to pinpoint those who outwardly identify themselves as HIV-positive as the ones to blame for the continuation of this black stain on our community. It is easy to forget that these individuals were also HIV-negative at one point in time and, most likely, consumed with the same fears of transmission as the rest of the HIV-negative demographic. Now they must assimilate to the HIV-positive ranks and be constantly berated with stereotypes of behavior and health fallacies, which plague a population that should know better. It can be a difficult road for some, depending on how privileged they were before discovering their new identity. Turns out, those who dish the most shame aren’t very good at taking it.
 
Of course, the shaming of those with HIV doesn’t occur in a blatantly obtuse fashion. We have come a long way since the AIDS virus was discovered nearly 30 years ago. Then the viral divide was like a gaping crevasse within the gay community that had people plummeting to their death left and right. Now depths of the crevasse are much more shallow. People who are diagnosed with HIV are no longer plummeting but rather cast down into a lower rung in the community, where they are expected to stay. How do we keep them in their place? Through shame in the form of stigmatization.
 
Just like any prejudice born out of fear, we must eliminate the ominous stereotypes and prerequisite judgments that perpetuate HIV stigma among gay people. But where do we start? The answer is simple. We assess the language of the HIV culture and remove the words that inherently cast shades of shame.
 
Coming from a community that just recently removed the f word from America’s common vernacular, we know that words (whether intentional or not) are sometimes all it takes to keep a second class firmly in its place. Whether it is the way we address HIV education or the terminology we assign to our status, the HIV language is littered with dirty little innuendos that HIV-negative people would never notice and HIV-positive people can’t seem to forget. 
 
Speaking of dirty, what could be dirtier than the opposite of clean?
 
Any single gay man navigating the gay social media apps is bombarded by the stigmatizing sentiment of associating a person’s HIV-negative status with being "clean."
 
When asked what he thought about the use of the word "clean" in regard to a person being HIV-negative, HIV activist and acclaimed blogger Mark S. King said he didn't mind people wanting to disclose their status and know his.
 
"But 'clean'?" King posed. "There are ways to get this information without making me feel like one of the great unwashed."
 
After all, what could be more shameful than being inadvertently labeled as "dirty"? 
 
Who knows whether anyone has ever consciously made the outright connection between an HIV-positive person being dirty, but you can only imagine the impact this word can have on the positive community. 
 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 44% of gay men who are HIV-positive are unaware of their status. Unfortunately, the people who may be perpetuating the shame game may soon find that it is they who need the bath. This is where the real danger lies. Allowing language like this to permeate our culture only serves to promote the continuation of the HIV epidemic and enforce a second viral class among gay people. 
 
Of course, the burden of change rests on the shoulders of those affected the most by the shame game. It may seem easier for HIV-positive men to retreat into the shadows when friends and strangers alike unknowingly use language that make them feel like a pariah in dignitary's clothing. However, many of these accidental offenders are victim of the same phenomenon that was the basis of so much prejudice against gay men and women. They simply don’t have a personal connection to the disease. HIV-positive men owe it to themselves to speak out against language that demeans their worth. They also owe it to their HIV-negative friends to educate them on the reality so that they don’t continue to proliferate stigma or believe that they are removed from risk. 
 
HIV-positive men aren’t victims, vampires, zombies or martyrs. The social and psychological factors surrounding infection are complex, difficult, and impossible to simplify into one category. 
 
Of course, the language we use and terminology we’ve chosen to isolate one another is just the one element of the shaming that goes one within the gay community. Combating HIV stigma is a multifarious problem that will require numerous endeavors and will take time before we start seeing measurable change.
 
Until then, we must remain prudent in our efforts to erasing the divide that only serves to hinder our community and proliferate HIV infection. The next chapter in the fight against HIV begins with learning from our own history and removing words that place shame on some and keep others in the risk pool. 
 
Like I said before, it starts with those who are HIV-positive speaking out against hurtful terminology and naive generalizations that pervade their surroundings.
 
So I’ll start.
 
My name is Tyler Curry. I am HIV-positive, and there ain’t no shame in my game.
 

TYLER CURRY created the Needle Prick Project as an editorial and visual campaign to elicit a candid and open conversation on what it means to be HIV-positive today. To learn more about the Needle Prick Project, visit Facebook.com/getpricked or follow Tyler Curry on Facebook or Twitter at @iamtylercurry.