In the second issue of POZ in 1994, Sean Strub, the magazine’s founder, wrote, “Language influences how society, politicians and health care providers view people with AIDS. Most important, it influences how we view ourselves.” Words, Strub also wrote, affect health itself. “If a person is assaulted with constant death sentence messages, the immune system can’t function well.” Setting a positive tone when talking about HIV advances POZ’s goal: promoting the survival and dignity of people living with HIV.
Accurate, sensitive and empowering language has been desperately needed ever since the epidemic’s early days, when fear of the unknown ruled and medical treatment was nowhere in sight. Then, mainstream media and evangelical leaders used stigmatizing terms to describe us: GRID, AIDS victim, promiscuous, diseased and sinner, to name a few charmers. When POZ came on the scene in 1994, it joined an HIV community fighting for its rights and respect. The nation had had ample time to wrap its mind and heart around the epidemic. But oppressive labels such as AIDS-infected, AIDS-carrying, contagious and got the package were still used to refer to people living with HIV.
The name POZ didn’t emerge from a focus group or the political agenda du jour. According to Strub, it was accidental— a friend casually referred to people with HIV as “pozzies.” Instantly, Strub thought it was “colloquial and positive,” and the three-letter brand POZ was born.
POZ played a dual role as a member of both the HIV community and the media. Our title recognized the seriousness of HIV but added our own spin. At that time, the gay community heavily influenced AIDS activism. POZ sounded and felt very much like the in-your-face labels—queer, fag and dyke—that members of the gay community stole from the haters, remodeling them as tools of acceptance and pride in their own identity. (When POZ launched, a now-defunct satirical AIDS zine called Diseased Pariah News was still around.)
Beyond our brand name itself, POZ described our community in ways intended to counter negative perspectives and force others to rethink HIV—and what living with it meant. When folks said, “He’s HIV,” we corrected them: “A person is not a virus. You have a virus, but you are a person.” When countless media outlets wrote AIDS-infected, we taught them to use HIV positive and people living with the virus instead. Our content embraced this quest. With stories about HIV-positive artists, activists, mothers, teachers and politicians, we ushered in a shift in thinking: Positive people are not just patients. They are human beings with lives that reach far beyond any microorganism.
POZ understood that anyone living with HIV is likely to be someone’s patient. And while we appreciated our doctors, nurses and researchers, we kicked them off their pedestals, placing them on the same plane as those living with HIV. That’s why POZ lists a degree after the first mention of a doc, then identifies him or her as we do anyone else—last name only, please.
In the early days, this was part of our effort to encourage self-empowerment on the part of those living with HIV. We refused to accept death as the only option, to listen passively as experts insisted that because there were no treatments, there was little hope. When treatment did become available, we refused to allow doctors to push pills or doses we thought to be dangerous. We became activists by necessity—stripping off our hospital gowns, strapping up our combat boots and sharpening our journalistic pencils.