Discrimination is carried like a virus, spreading through a crowd and infecting the masses before anyone knows what hit them. Just like the cold or the flu, there is more than one strain of the D virus. Yet each strain has one thing in common, it infects the part of the brain that controls a person's judgment. Whether it be because a person is fat, black, female, gay, handicapped, or old, the virus infects all the same. It exploits the nastiest parts of a person and shows just how cruel a human can be.
Discrimination is far from sophisticated. In fact, complexity is the antithesis of this vile bug, as it disdains the idea of education, understanding, and the ability to convey empathy. No, the virus is actually quite stupid. It plays on people's fear of the unknown and that everlasting obsession with superiority.
In the last several years, the gay movement has enjoyed several tremendous and long-sought victories on the national stage. Gay men and women can serve openly in the military, the sitting U.S. president publicly endorsed gay marriage, and four states voted against a statewide ban on same-sex marriage, a first in state legislative history. Yet, when an open and honest discussion is held that deals with one of the gay community's vulnerabilities (what it means to have HIV today), we notice a spike in infection rates of the D virus, and it appears to be a particularly nasty strain.
As gay men, we learned from the best of them when it comes to condemning a group of people for being different. Living through discrimination over the past several decades has refined our skills and made our tongues razor sharp. Now, instead of working as a collective whole -- supporting each other and working to strengthen the vulnerabilities we possess -- we cast vituperative criticism on those who might fail to be the perfect example of the shiny, smiling figures on top of a wedding cake.
We scrutinize each other for being too feminine, too fat, too self-obsessed, too poor, or too pretentious. We denounce the party boys, tease the homebodies, and degrade the gym bunnies. The gay community has been whittled down into so many subgroups and sub-subgroups so much that you can often find a gaggle of gays discussing and even arguing over which category they may or may not fall into. We laugh about who's headed to daddy-dom, who is an abstemious twink, and who should just retire their halfhearted attempt at manscaping and accept that they are a big ol' bear. Each of these "categories" holds a specific spot in the hierarchy of gay culture. This process of labeling, division and rank has led to a tenuous immune system, so it's no wonder so many gay men have come down with the D virus.
We discriminate against other gay men for fear that the heterosexual society understands that we aren't "that" kind of gay. Whether it be feminine, promiscuous, or (gasp) HIV-positive, we want to make sure that, on the big game day, we get to play on our own team, separate from "those" gays.
The truth is, there is little that separates us, regardless of physical traits or late-night habits. We see a piece of ourselves in the ones we judge, and we project our fear of being discriminated against. But as we continue to fight for acceptance outside of the gay community, the presence of discrimination and segregation only weakens our immune system and further impedes our cause.
I remember the moment I was first exposed to the D virus. It was in the sixth grade during recess. My classmates were beginning to notice the surface differences that would continue to define our social status throughout the continuation of our public education. I was outgoing, friendly, and popular. I had many friends, both girls and boys, and even a girlfriend every now and then. But a few of the boys, who I had spent the last several years playing soccer with and celebrating each's other birthdays, started picking up on the differences between us. One day we were all laughing together and shooting spit wads; the next day I was a "fag" getting shoved around in the bathroom and excluded from the lunch table.
This new phenomenon only worsened. The boys turned into teenagers and the insults became more pointed. We all know how bad it can get, so I won't elaborate.
Still, I survived with my smile intact. I found friends who accepted me and learned the art of deflection. Eventually, the brutal anguish that was high school came to a close and I fled to the weirdo-haven of college. University is sanctuary for the gays. We are able to sharpen our skills and find our sources of confidence. As we evolve into powerful homosexuals, we finally find the antidote we've been waiting for someone to discover. Unfortunately, the vaccination only protects against one strain of discrimination.
I was exposed to a new strain of the D virus just recently. I wrote an article called "HIV-Positive, Unapologetic and Fabulous," where I discussed the psychological effects that took their toll after my diagnosis and the road I took to take back control and live my life to the fullest. It was a message to anyone that felt defined by a disease that they can be an even better version of who they were, but only if they choose to be. Some gay men, however, read something different. I was told that I was perpetuating the stereotype that all gay men are promiscuous and have AIDS.
I was told that I was glorifying the disease and that I should be ashamed of myself. I even had several HIV-positive gay men who were diagnosed over 20 years ago say that I won't be so confident when my face caves in and my body becomes disfigured. It may not have been elementary school, but I was in definite need of some Band-Aids.
After growing up with a limp wrist in the sticks of East Texas, I consider my skin to be on the thicker side. Malicious remarks such as these, however, have the potential to damage way beyond me. I wrote the story for the 20-year-old kid who just received the bad news at the local clinic, the girl who needed advice on how to comfort her HIV-positive friend, or the man who is about to go on his first date post-diagnosis. I know better than to believe these cruel comments. Muscle wasting and lipodystrophy were symptoms attached to old medications. I wasn't promiscuous, and even if I was, I answer to no one. I wasn't a stereotype and knew better than to lower my chin in the face of cowardly, faceless men and women. But still, I sat in horror, fearful that a newly HIV-positive kid would read these remarks from strangers and take them to heart. I could only imagine if I would have read them when I wasn't so strong, slowly sinking into a deep depression and losing my sense of worth. And the worst of it; it was gay men, even positive men, who were propagating the stigma associated with HIV and infecting each other with the D virus.
As homosexuals, often we are forced to create new families and develop a support system beyond the traditional social constructs of where we came from. We have had people shun us when we needed them the most and we have witnessed those closest to us fall prey to the virus. We remember that pain, and now we infect each other with it. The difference is, we know exactly what we are doing. We have lived through discrimination once and do not have the luxury of hiding under the guise of stupidity. We must try to be the person we all needed at one point or another.
If the gay community takes its medicine in the form of open, cathartic dialogue, education, and dare I say brotherly love, it is possible for us to overcome this nasty strain of discrimination. With a stronger immune system, we can return to helping other carriers of the virus outside of our community and fight for our rights as a united front. As we have seen with other minority movements, infection rates have declined with time and perseverance. The gay rights movement is the latest to bear witness to declining infection, but we must remember where we came from and what makes us so special. The gay community also must realize who we are fighting against, and it is not each other. We know what it feels like to be discriminated against, and we do know better.
I've said it before, but this time with a little more gusto. Ignorance is unacceptable and acceptance is everything.
So, be honest. Have you taken your medicine?
TYLER CURRY is a is a marketing writer for the Dallas-based plaintiffs' law firm of Baron and Budd as well as a fiction writer and freelance columnist for several online publications. Prior to working for Baron and Budd, Tyler was a kindergarten teacher in Seoul, South Korea, but was forced to leave the three Korean children he attempted to smuggle in customs upon his return. Twitter: @iamtylercurry or subscribe at Facebook.com/tyler.curry.16