World Aids Day: It’s Time to Kill The Stigma!

A year on from disclosing his positive status, Jason Reid looks at how stigma still pervades society.

 


This time last year I was contemplating one of the hardest decisions of my life: coming out to the world as HIV positive, a decision that I pontificated over for many years. It was only after deep discussion and pouring my heart out to friends and family that I decided to finally take the leap. And I’m very glad I did. Without wanting to sound too airy-fairy, I set aside any reservations I had and instead focused on the positives that could come from sharing my story. Awareness and shared personal experiences is what encourages people to act, in my opinion.

But why did it take me nine years to declare my status to all and sundry? This is a question I still often ask myself. The answer is two-fold: firstly, I strongly believed (and still do) that a medical condition is no ones business but your own and those it may affect. It’s personal. Especially HIV. When you disclose, you are laying yourself bare for everyone to see.

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This leads me onto the second part: shame and stigma. Knowing in the back of your mind there will be people who won’t accept you is very hard to take. Everyone wants to be accepted. It’s a human trait. There has been a dark cloud hovering above HIV for almost thirty years. We can pretend it’s not there but society has created a shame that for too long we daren’t speak of. It’s only recently that it has started to be addressed.

For me, dealing with that shame has always been the hardest aspect of living with HIV. Starting new relationships is hellish. When do I disclose? How do I do it? What if he rejects me? If I tell him at the beginning he’ll walk, and if I leave it a few dates he won’t trust me, as I wasn’t open to begin with. It’s like walking over a bed of nails in stilettos. I imagine. And more often than not, in my experience, rejection is what follows.

“Why did it take me nine years to declare my status to all and sundry? This is a question I still often ask myself.”

Many people still find it impossible to cope with. They simply cannot get their head around it. HIV = run a mile. So again, I question myself. There’s something wrong with me? I’m less of a person? Even though I’m as healthy as him and the chances of transmission are practically zero. It’s a vicious circle that makes me not want to date.

The only way this will change is through education and shared knowledge. You can’t blame those basing their facts on sensationalist headlines, if that’s the only resource readily available to them. We need to be holding media organisations to account when they print stories such as the recent Charlie Sheen exposé. We need to be proactive in stating the facts surrounding HIV. We need to STOP using revolting terms such as “riddled” and “clean”. We need to kill the stigma once and for all. Only then will the ‘coming out’ process become less arduous for those who wish to disclose. Only then will more people feel comfortable getting tested.

The Charlie Sheen story really brought home how prevalent stigma still is. My social media was littered with the most ill-informed sweeping statements from people I know. How?! What on earth gives someone the right to blackmail another person over their HIV status? There’s only one villain in that scenario: the blackmailer. A morally bankrupt individual.

It also reminded me of something that happened to me a few years ago, when I was in a bar and out of the blue someone approached me: “[Blank] has been saying you have HIV, and they’ve been telling people”. In that moment I felt so vulnerable and afraid. It prompted me to tell more friends initially. But it made me wonder why a person would do that?

The answer is power and control. They did that because at that time they knew I was still closed about my status. That should never happen. You should never be made to feel lesser a person because you have a chronic health condition. 1 in 5 people living with HIV in the UK don’t know they are, so please get tested regularly. We will kill the stigma.

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