HIV Stigma: Personal Stories from Gay Men and Transgender Women in Peru -- A UCI GHREAT Initiative
Gay Men and the HIV Stigma
If you're a gay man in United States living with HIV/AIDS, the HIV stigma is another part of the disease to cope with. Read how one man is working to change that.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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The United States has had some success in promoting AIDS awareness and AIDS prevention, but for a gay man living with HIV, dealing with the HIV stigma continues to be a painful and frustrating ordeal. Consider the June 2010 decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ to uphold the decades-old ban on any man donating blood if he has had sex with another man since 1977.
"The chance of getting infected blood is 1 in 1.5 million. Why eliminate the willingness for many to donate simply because they are gay?" asks Tom Donohue, a 31-year-old, HIV-positive gay man who is the founding director of a national organization called Who's Positive, based in Charlottesville, Va.
"A heterosexual who knowingly had sex with an HIV-infected partner 366 days ago is allowed to give blood,” continues Donohue. “In comparison, a man who has had sex with another man, regardless of the frequency, safe-sex practices involved, or duration since the episode, is denied for life.”
Donohue feels that this policy reflects discrimination based on sexual orientation. He believes that all blood products should be tested thoroughly for infection prior to being approved for donation, regardless of the sexual practices of the blood donor.
The HIV Stigma vs. the Statistics
Donohue thinks that the persistence of stigma surrounding gay men and HIV is partially attributable to the gay community itself. "The gay community continues to struggle with the realization that we play such a vital part in the spread of HIV/AIDS. Although millions of dollars a year is dedicated to our community in education, our community continues to produce infection rate numbers that are alarming," he says. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 53 percent of new HIV infections in recent years have occurred among men having sex with men.
Another part of the problem is the failure to increase AIDS awareness. The hysteria and panic that once characterized America's response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic is no longer there. "The media hardly covers the HIV/AIDS problem in America,” says Donohue. “How much media attention did World AIDS Day or National HIV Testing Day get? Too many people think HIV/AIDS is just a problem for Africa to worry about."
Consider the following:
- The rate of HIV infection in people over age 12 is about the same in Washington D.C. as it is in some areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
- There are more than one million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States and, over the years, AIDS has killed more than half a million Americans.
- Despite our efforts at AIDS awareness, it is estimated that about 20 percent of the people living with HIV don't know it because they have never been tested.
Overcoming HIV Stigma
According to Donohue, the HIV stigma is not going anywhere soon unless people with HIV can make their voices heard. "Stigma still continues to haunt all of us who are living with HIV. From discrimination in the workplace, or being ostracized by friends and family, HIV/AIDS continues to be something that people are afraid to talk about,” explains Donohue. “People need to know that we who are infected can lead normal lives."
Donohue also believes that the key to getting rid of the stigma and moving forward with AIDS awareness and prevention is increased education and testing. His organization recently completed a national HIV testing drive that traveled across the country, urging people to get tested. "We need comprehensive sex education which includes making condoms available in schools,” he says.
HIV education is a matter of public health, he continues. “At least half of all new HIV infections are estimated to be among those under the age of 25," notes Donohue. Some schools have already made condoms accessible to students — and Donohue feels that this reminds young people what an important role they themselves can play in AIDS prevention.
Perhaps the most important thing we can do to get beyond the HIV stigma is to put a face and a story on the virus. That is what Donohue has tried to do since he first found out he was living with HIV seven years ago. HIV/AIDS awareness and HIV/AIDS prevention are more than third world challenges. They are U.S. challenges, too.
"Those who are infected need to talk about it. Disclosure is one the hardest things for someone who is positive to discuss,” says Donohue. “What if all those knowingly infected individuals spoke up about being infected? What if we were able to put a human face on the virus? Maybe we would be looking at a different type of epidemic."
What Donohue hopes for is a future in which infected gay men won't feel the need to keep their infection a secret.
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