Opinion : Coming Out Against HIV Stigma - by Alex Garner

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October 11, 2013

Coming Out Against HIV Stigma

by Alex Garner

The founding editor of PositiveFrontiers.com on the process of disclosure.

Alex Garner
Alex Garner

One of the most common emotions that people experience upon learning that they are HIV-positive is shame. It's a destructive and paralyzing emotion that serves no purpose with HIV. Speaking out is one of the best antidotes to shame. When people speak openly and unashamedly about their HIV status, we can find authenticity and empowerment, and we can help foster a stronger and healthier community.

This National Coming Out Day, The National Minority AIDS Council, The National Black Gay Men's Advocacy Coalition, and The Stigma Project have teamed up on a new social media campaign, "Come Out Against Stigma." This is an opportunity for queer people to come out, not just about their sexuality but also about their HIV status.


To come out about one's HIV status can be a risky prospect. We live in a world of stigma and intolerance, and all too often, coming out is met with anger, castigation, and possibly even violence. But people still come out. That's what we do. We come out.

Coming out is a constant process. Sometimes it's subtle, and other times it's explicit. We come out about our gender, our ethnicity, our nationality, or our sexuality. It's part of the human experience. We yearn to affirmatively declare our ever-evolving identities. To choose to come out as HIV-positive is no different.

Coming out about HIV is a very personal expression that can have profound political, legal, and cultural consequences. In an ideal world, stigma, shame, and homophobia wouldn't exist, and coming out about HIV wouldn't raise much attention. But we live in a messy, imperfect world, and we'll never make it completely safe enough for everyone to come out. But ironically, the best way to combat this risk is by coming out. It's the classic case of strength in numbers.

The history of coming out in the LGBT community has demonstrated that when people know LGBT individuals -- when they see us as actual flesh-and-blood human beings -- they are less inclined to discriminate and more willing to respect our humanity.

What does the general public really understand about HIV-positive people? In the early years of the epidemic, we saw ordinary people and activists, actors and athletes, step forward about their HIV. They transformed how people thought about the disease. But in the past 20 years we've lost a considerable amount of momentum around coming out. Now we have the opportunity to share our unique stories beyond the sensational and maudlin headlines, so that others can fully appreciate the diversity of our experiences.

Sometimes coming out about HIV can simply mean making it an incidental part of one's life. No more secrets, evasions, or strategic use of language. Being out can mean talking openly and honestly about the experience of living with HIV -- openly taking your meds with meals, discussing the challenges of a serodiscordant relationship, gabbing about dating with HIV -- just as casually as others talk about their diet plans, their marriages, or the struggles of raising a teenager.

I am not naïve about the risks of coming out. When I came out as HIV-positive, I encountered a hostile community that called me "stupid," "reckless," and "irresponsible." When I came out to my family, it meant the rupture of an already fragile relationship with my father. But I chose to affirmatively declare my HIV-positive status so that I could live my life open as a young gay man with HIV and, in the process, combat the stigma in our community.

It's very empowering to come forward and say, "I am not ashamed or embarrassed. This is who I am, no excuses or apologies." But it's not easy. As we move through life, the best we can do is strategically minimize risk. We do it all the time -- when we have sex, drive down the freeway, or decide to hold our boyfriend's hand in public. It's one thing to take a risk, and it's something entirely different to claim a risk as your own. To be able to determine the course of your life, including the risks and rewards, is something we strive for.

Our history is full of ordinary people confronting considerable risks in hopes of making things better for themselves and others, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, from the striking farm worker in California to the young DREAMer in Arizona to the trans youth running for homecoming queen in a small Southern town.

It's the ability to stand up for social justice in the face of such odds that makes stories of change so compelling. These declarative acts can have a profound impact on politics and culture and the lives of our community members. Now we have the opportunity to do the same thing around HIV.

We can demonstrate that speaking openly about HIV, whether you are negative or positive, can reduce stigma and create a healthier, more empowered community. Our complex, funny, provocative and inspiring stories have the power to create change. Now it's up to us to come out and start telling them.

Alex Garner is the founding editor of PositiveFrontiers.com. This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

Search: Alex Garner, coming out, disclosure, stigma

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  comments 1 - 15 (of 15 total)    

Jan, Ft. Lauderdale, 2013-12-28 01:01:29
I can appreciate the stigma that gay men experience but there are not enough articles on single white woman who have HIV/AIDS who also are in hiding. The stigma that we experience are totally different. We don't tell for fear of judgement from everyone. I can't tell you how many doctors have asked me with a negative tone how I contracted this disease. I'm a middle aged attractive woman and don't look like the "TYPE" This makes me so upset because there are many woman like me who won't get tested

Wendy, , 2013-12-27 16:25:28
I'm a positive, alcoholic female in NC. Since I got out of a treatment facility for alcohol,i've been stalked, followed, and spyed upon in my own home under survelliance, against my knowledge and will.Of course noone in my family believes me, so I've had to live with this for almost 2 yrs. I've tryed moving to a new place three different times, now at my sons apt. Still no relief from these people, called police, and people always say the samething, I dont know anything. How do I make this stop?

mike, somerville, 2013-12-24 17:03:53
Great letter Alex. I admire your courage when you came out to your dad. I've been poz since there was a test for it. I was in the Navy and living in New York City in 1981 - before and during the initial hysteria. The worst stigma that I witnessed were from my family. I was looked on as dirty and should have known better. I was judged by HIV and queer and not by my true self. I didn't get along with my dad either but four years ago, he died a peaceful death in my arms. Stigmatism hurts.

Rick, North Carolina, 2013-12-12 02:10:47
I am in a small rural town. I am the only HIV positive person that I know in this town; however, I have made my HIV status known by working with some statewide projects in order to help reduce the stigma faced by people who are living with AIDS. This has caused me to receive some negative feedback from ignorant cowards; however, I am hoping that it is also helping people who are living with AIDS

Frederick Wright-Stafford, Jacksonville, 2013-11-05 15:15:43
The problem I have coming out is that I worked within the AIDS field for years, and it is a culture shock I believe for a lot of private groups to assume one has AIDS, where the disability people say I not sick enough to have AIDS. The fighting stigma can be done in pieces without comingout, but coming out comes at a price with AIDS, and sometimes it can back fierier and one can be in a ditch for a moment in truth. I have learned that stigma is deep root in some communities, and courage is needed.

RC, , 2013-10-19 17:39:13
I've lived in some major cities where disclosing one's HIV status wasn't that big of a deal. Now, living in small town in the Deep South, it could be a tragic mistake. Recently, two newly diagnosed people here found out the hard way they should have kept personal information to themselves - one was fired from her job, another kicked out of housing. Discrimination is real, and to suggest that everyone come merrily screaming out of the HIV closet is simply unrealistic and bad advice.

Ivan, Brooklyn, 2013-10-17 21:19:55
Ernie. I don't think about what hetero HIV people go thru because nobody seems to want to write about it. Thank you for putting it out there. Maybe somebody body will pick up on it and write about it.

Ben Richard, East Hartford, 2013-10-17 19:49:14
I always have spoken against the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. I joined the Ryan White Planning Council of Greater Hartford (CT)to do just that but found myself confronted and put down by uninfected individuals who were just trying to hold onto their jobs that were subsidized by this federally funded program. I felt so awful that after time it was more stress being on the council than leading my own life and trying to be healthy. I can't tell you how disappointed I was and am.

Ernie, La Jolla, 2013-10-17 09:44:25
Ok with a Open Accepting Mind... What About Str8, Or Heterosexual HIV People..... We Get Shut Out of the Whole Deal .... Why does HIV Haffta Be Gay ...

JIMMY MACK, SOUTHAMPTON, 2013-10-15 21:26:24
Great article and I'm all for it! I tested HIV+ in 1987 and went public with my status after 28 days in a rehab where I heard "you're as sick as you're secrets".

Mark, Charlotte NC, 2013-10-15 15:34:53
I am a 53 male. I came out at 42 after being married. M After coming to terms with being openly gay and embracing my community and its activities I met am man of similar background; divorced kids, age etc. His time out was less than mine. Well He was very promiscuous which I dint know. Break up occurred. Testing regularly I found out I was poz. I am an elite controller/nonprogressor. Very lucky. I tell my status and the stigma hits me square between the eyes always. Very lonely in life.

Ken Howard, LCSW, West Hollywood, CA, 2013-10-15 12:26:36
Beautifully written! This article is an inspiration for everyone, gay/straight, male/female, poz/neg. The mental health aspects of HIV are as important as the medical aspects, as I know from 21 years being a therapist who specializes in gay men and HIV mental health, and as person living with HIV for 23 years. Like most civil rights and progressives movements, it all starts with declaring our own dignity and speaking out. www.PozTherapist.com

Mike, Hilo, Hawaii, 2013-10-15 11:20:40
The article is well taken, but living openly as a gay man (which I do) & declaring my private medical information to the world (which I choose not to do) are 2 different things. Let's get to a cure. Gay does not equal diseased. Silence no longer equals death. I am not the virus.

Ted G. Freitas, FRESNO, 2013-10-15 11:18:19
Great GREAT GREAT article!

Angel Hernandez, Puerto Rico, 2013-10-14 20:55:07
Excellent article, Alex. Speaking openly about being HIV positive is a powerful empowerment tool. As we create opportunities to tell our stories living as persons with HIV, many more people will follow. They will star getting "out-of-the-closet" of HIV. They, as we are, will be free.

comments 1 - 15 (of 15 total)    

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