Stigma surrounding HIV has become almost synonymous with the virus itself. But what does "HIV stigma" mean, exactly?
It isn't something that can easily defined. Instead, HIV stigma must be examined through the collective experiences of the people who have been affected by the virus and those who suffer from AIDS.
These are nine faces of HIV stigma.
The Boy Who Avoids Getting Tested.
He knows that an HIV test is long overdue, but his fears and insecurities about his past have him coming up with any excuse to avoid getting tested. He tells new partners that he is negative. What you don't know won't hurt you, right?
The Man Who Lives in a New Closet.
He came out as a gay man years ago, but his newfound positive status has him right back where he started -- living a secret. He's too afraid to tell his friends -- even his gay ones -- because he thinks they will judge him for being HIV-positive.
The Girl Who Feels Dirty.
She may have come to terms with being HIV-positive, but she still can't bring herself to date or have sex. She wants love, but is just too afraid that a partner who learns of her status will think she's "dirty."
The Guy Who Thought It Couldn't Happen to Him.
After hearing the words "reactive for HIV" during his most recent test, he rifles through the past year searching for where he went wrong. Sure, he had made a few mistakes, but he was dating guys, not just sleeping with them. He genuinely thought that if he tried to do the right thing and seek relationships instead of just sex that he would be protected from HIV.
The Guys Who Make AIDS Jokes.
They may make jokes about HIV and make fun of someone who is positive in their social circle. What they fail to realize is that one of their closest friends could also be living with the virus. There's a good chance these guys' insensitive jokes will make their friend feel even worse about his status -- and maybe push him back into that new closet (see above).
The Guy Who Is Judged for Using PrEP.
After not wearing a condom the last time he had sex, he knew that he had to take better care of himself. He went to the doctor, got tested for HIV, and asked for a prescription for PrEP. He didn't expect his regular hook-up, who he had condomless sex with, to criticize and judge him for acknowledging his unsafe behavior and taking action.
The Man Who Wears Struggle on His Face.
He survived the early days of the AIDS crisis and is proud, but HIV medications gave him lipodystrophy, which gave his physical appearance "that look" commonly associated with HIV. He may be unashamed of his story, but it still hurts when someone glares at him and thinks they know who he is or what he has gone through.
The Transgender Woman Who Everyone Forgot.
She hears people talk about how gay men are most at-risk for HIV infection. Meanwhile, one out of four trans women are HIV-positive -- a number that is far higher than that of gay men, but rarely discussed or targeted with prevention strategies or treatment options. She represents the girl who is at the greatest risk for becoming HIV-positive, yet no one seems to be worried about her status.
The Community That Wasn't There.
If you are affected by HIV, there is support available. Stigma keeps people from speaking out and seeking the support they need, leaving those struggling to face their issues in the dark. If you need a shoulder to lean on, there are people who can help you, but you have to be willing to ask.
Don't let the stigma of HIV silence you and those you love.