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People Still Think You Can Get HIV From Spit and Hugs

HIV stigma

It's the best and worst of times when it comes to stigma.

Lately, I was feeling heartened by how HIV had seemingly become easier to deal with and discuss. There was the recent and exciting rumor last year that Corey Johnson, the gay and HIV-positive Speaker of the New York City Council, might run for Mayor of Gotham next year.

Then, there was the booming popularity and the critically acclaimed show Pose, which presented HIV-positive people in a different, more favorable, happier light -- not all doom and gloom -- to a broader audience. The show has become a commercial hit.

Broadcast commercials about HIV medication began popping up on the leading networks, most notably, regularly airing during Good Morning America. HIV, it seemed, had gone mainstream.

And on Friday, an appeals court upheld a ruling blocking the Air Force (and Trump) from discharging two HIV-positive Airmen.

All this was secondary to a conversation I had with a close friend of mine who has been HIV-positive for over 20 years. At dinner in September, he told me how used to take six pills a day, at different times of the day, with meals, and without meals. Some with nasty side effects. Those pills ruled his life. And now, his life has been handed back to him. All he has to do is pop one pill in the morning. "When I was first diagnosed, I just assumed I was going to die," he explained. "And, the pills were such a pain in the ass. You literally lived your life around the medication regimen, and the side effects. I never thought in a million years that this would come down to me taking one pill a day and that I would be in such great health."

But in the midst of all this good news were some harsh reminders that the fight for acceptance and understanding is far from over.

First, and this utterly defies explanation, but a WCBS reporter in New York City was fired last week for describing an alleged spitting incident (an HIV-positive man spit on a New York City Port Authority police officer while being arrested) as an "HIV ATTACK" in a tweet and wrote in the subsequent article that the "suspect admitted they spit into an officer's mouth knowing they had HIV." All of this implying that the police officer's life was in danger because of the suspect's saliva.

In 2020 there are still simpleminded fools who think that HIV can be transmitted through someone else's spit. This was scientifically nullified almost four decades ago. How obtuse and ignorant do you have to be to still believe this? Or how desperate do you have to be to create sensationalism to drive clicks to your story? I'm hoping for the latter in some convoluted way. But it's likely to be the former. Dated information from an uninformed journalist. It's like saying that the only way to make a call in 2020 is from a rotary phone.

And just when you thought the Reagan-era ilk of gay-bashing politicians like Jesse Helms, William Dannemeyer, and Pat Buchanan were a thing of the past, well along comes another ruinous, rude ribald firebrand nearly 40 years later. Jenna Ellis was recently named a senior legal adviser to Trump and his reelection campaign. Among the litany of asinine assertions she's made is that gay and bisexual men have high rates of HIV because "we cannot escape God's moral law and His supremacy." Yep, she's a senior advisor to the president! It takes a moron to hire another moron who spews moronic garbage. God help us if anyone is relying on her counsel.

Then this from Fast Company last week -- cash hungry, dubious law firms and legal referral companies are placing ads on Facebook linking Truvada and other HIV-prevention drugs with severe bone and kidney damage. They are not only money-mongering but fear-mongering. By not mentioning the benefits of these life-saving drugs, some who may be at-risk and see these ads in their social feeds might be reluctant to seek help. Sure, all drugs come with risks, but the benefits in this case, far outweigh those risks. Misleading the misled. How thoughtless. The dark side of HIV drug ads.

And there's plenty of people with a malevolent murky side shading their attitudes towards HIV. Dishearteningly, back to my friend. The first person he told that he was positive was his best friend from college. She has been by his side for years, and later in life, she married, had two young children, and moved out west. In December, she and her husband decided to bring their kids to to New York City for the first time to experience New Year's Eve. Right before the trip, she called my friend. "Um, I don't know how to say this," she told him. "But my husband -- and I know you're not a big fan -- but he suggested that I maybe talk to you about the kids." My friend had no idea what she was trying to say, but then that one pill a day became a bitter pill to swallow.

"So, my husband is asking that you don't kiss the kids, or hug them, and not to share any glasses or bottles of water or anything with them. I know what you're thinking, but you have to understand. He's not as accepting as I am, and his main priority is the safety of the kids, so just please do me a favor, and just go along with it," she inconsiderately asked.

"What could I say?" he told me. "I was furious, so I told her that I hoped they enjoyed their trip to NYC, but that I wouldn't be seeing them." When she tried to coax him to change his mind, he had had enough. "I couldn't even breathe. I love those kids. They call me uncle, but I wasn't going to lower myself to someone so ass backwards. I told her when she had the balls to confront her husband, and explain reality, then I'd be happy to speak to her again."

The reality is that there are still some bad apples in the bunch, and until the day comes that there's a cure for HIV, we're just going to have to keep plucking those apples out. The reality is also that those bad apples casting aspersions are the ones who are really infected, riddled with bygone animosity, angst, anger and absurdity. The World Health Organization is aiming to eliminate HIV in the 2020s. In the meantime, let's keep calling out and nullifying the obliviousness from those who discriminate.

JohnCasey is a PR professional and an adjunct professor at Wagner College in New York City, and a frequent columnist for The Advocate. Follow John on Twitter @johntcaseyjr.

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John Casey

John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.
John Casey is a senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the United Nations and with four large U.S. retailers.