The Only HIV/AIDS Stigma is That Which We Allow

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1069124_1395701127316032_824213272_n By Benjamin Gerritz, PQ Monthly
As a first time blogger, I am writing for PQ Monthly to address the issue of HIV/AIDS related stigma. In my posts, I hope to highlight personal stories of people who have experienced the harm of stigma while focusing on their resilience in overcoming it and, ultimately, help unite our community. For this post I am writing from my personal perspective. I currently work at Cascade AIDS Project, a non-profit HIV/AIDS service organization based in downtown Portland. I was diagnosed and have been living with HIV since 2008. I have been fortunate in my life, but everything hasn’t been easy. Throughout my youth and into adulthood I was deeply closeted, terrified of family and friends finding out what I knew all along -- that I was gay.  As a closeted gay man I often chose to escape my true self through heavy alcohol and drug use. In 2008, I felt my diagnosis was the culmination of my path taken to a complete life failure. It wasn’t until I found out I was HIV-positive that I quit alcohol and drugs and finally I told my family and friends who I was. What I found was support from most and abandonment from a few. Still, I do consider myself fortunate. I have a supportive family that embraces me for everything I am including loving my partner Luis, who happens to be HIV-negative. The biggest turning point for me in changing my perception from having been a failure to becoming an empowered man has been my participation in Positive Force NW. This community-led program was started in 2009 as a means to provide people living with HIV opportunities to eliminate stigma and contribute back to our community through service.  Positive Force NW showed me what I now believe: the only stigma is that which we allow. In identifying as an HIV-positive gay Portlander I am not dirty, my sexual identity is my own, and HIV is only a small part of who I am as a whole person. This is not to say that I haven’t seen the negative effects HIV/AIDS stigma has had on our community. I have seen stigma be a driving force of new HIV infections. I continue to feel stigma is our single largest barrier in Getting to Zero. I have worked with local people who have avoided testing because of stigma, who have lost their jobs because of stigma, and who have stayed out of medical care because they were made to feel ashamed about their status. In future posts I hope to share some of these powerful stories. I believe each of us has the role to play in eliminating HIV/AIDS stigma. Within our social networks we can decide whether we want to discriminate against each other or whether we choose to offer one another support.  For example, I recently pulled up postings on popular gay and bi men's social networking apps. Just like any other day, many of the postings stated guys were clean and looking for sex partners that were as well.  I know that if were I to ask these guys, the majority would say they don't intend to harm those living with HIV.  Yet in referring to oneself as "clean" it is logical for me to assume that this means HIV equates to being "dirty."  Now I’ m not saying that every HIV-negative person has to choose to be sexually intimate with an HIV-positive partner.  I understand if an HIV-negative person chooses not to be with an HIV-positive sexual partner based solely on status, just as I understand if an HIV-positive person chooses to be only with a partner that is also living with HIV.  Still, choosing to use words or phrases that damage one another to highlight our individual preferences can only divide us further. With this in mind, I ask those of you who are HIV-negative to look at yourselves and consider how you would want to be treated if you were HIV-positive. Together, we can decide whether we willfully accept an annual new HIV infection rate of 50,000 (Centers for Disease Control) year after year or whether we choose a future where we eliminate new infections through first eliminating stigma.  The choice is ours and should each of us choose to empower ourselves with HIV/AIDS education, we can make compassionate decisions that create an inclusive, healthier community. 249199_516865088331117_1409849265_nBenjamin Gerritz is the Prevention with Positives Coordinator at Cascade AIDS Project, a local non-profit HIV/AIDS service organization.  As a gay native Portlander openly living with HIV, Benjamin is also the Co-Coordinator of Positive Force NW, a community-led program of HIV+ individuals in Oregon and SW Washington working to eliminate HIV/AIDS-related stigma.  A first time blogger with PQ Monthly, Benjamin welcomes any personal stories, tips, and suggestions.  Feel free to contact Benjamin at