Graham Schnaars
Op-ed: Stop Being Scared of HIV-Positive People

By Graham Schnaars

Originally published on Advocate.com May 10 2012 2:31 PM ET

When I was 6 years old, my uncle asked me to retrieve a pair of scissors from the next room. Holding the scissors by the handle, I walked down the hallway and handed them to him. Instantly he went into a frenzy and told me that I should only ever walk with scissors while holding them by the blade, because otherwise I “will die.” It was this guarantee of death that forever altered the way I walk, run, or even prance with scissors and made me paranoid that wielding scissors by the handle will be the death of me!

Now, 21 years later, I see this same type of fear and paranoia played out again and again, only this time with people my age and HIV. The sex education programs during our most impressionable years discussed HIV as an excruciating disease. Textbooks were flooded with images of drug cocktails that only slowed an inevitable death. Headlines were steeped in shock that Princess Diana would shake hands with AIDS patients. Photographs of those suffering from this horrific disease, with their sunken faces and weary manner, were forever placed in our memory banks. Our first impression of HIV was that your life was over.

As time has progressed, scientific improvements have emerged and academic curricula have evolved to be more realistic about HIV -- this is a disease no longer synonymous with death. Unfortunately, people my age have been unable to move past the unseemly first impression HIV left on us. I constantly see postings on dating sites informing HIV-positive readers not to contact that person -- insinuating those with HIV are not worth meeting. On more than one occasion, while out at bars and chatting with a guy, my friends have pulled me to the side to inform me that this guy is HIV-positive. They imply I should end the conversation and ignore all his other attributes. Too many people my age exclude themselves from even associating with those who are HIV-positive out of fear of catching the disease.

Bringing awareness to this issue and ending this stigma and exclusivity is why I am choosing to fly across the country and bike 545 miles. I see too many 20-somethings give themselves a false sense of security of never catching HIV by thinking they are only associating themselves with HIV-negative folks. Instead, their unwillingness to face the issue is putting them at greater risk because they force those with HIV into hiding and deception about their status. As a generation, we need to stop letting our paranoia rule the way we act toward others. Being a member of several organizations, I have had the privilege of meeting many HIV-positive individuals. If I followed the precedent set by my fellow 20-somethings, I should have completely shunned my HIV-positive friends and dismissed their contributions to our community and my life. I could not even imagine my life without these inspiring and loving individuals surrounding me.

Therefore, I ride for those who have been shunned, isolated, and forced into hiding out of fear they will not be accepted. I ride for my family and friends battling this disease, and those that have been lost. And while I am on my bike, every time I feel a tailwind pushing me down the road, I will know it is the support from everyone who believes in this cause working together to get one mile further to end the stigma and fear that has plagued us for too long. It’s time to do what’s right by putting our fears aside and start holding the scissors by the blade.