"I am HIV-Positive," can be one of the most difficult things to say. It can change the way others look at you or treat you and it leaves an indelible impression that people will always associate with you. Saying those words has power -- the power to complicate lives and upend relationships or the power to bring people together and demonstrate courage and determination. Being out about HIV creates change and that is what we hope to accomplish with OutAboutHIV.org.
For many people, living with HIV means living in the closet and that can be an isolating experience filled with shame and agony. In the past 40 years we've seen great success at tearing down closet doors in the LGBT community. LGBT people chose to come out, at considerable risk to their livelihood and safety because they felt a life lived in the closet wasn't worth living. The coming out movement of the LGBT community is a modern success story. It demonstrates that when people live open and unashamed lives, society can witness their humanity and our culture can evolve.
We can bring about the same kind of change for HIV. People living with HIV have no reason to be ashamed or embarrassed. HIV is a disease, and having it doesn't make us dirty, worthless or immoral. It simply means we have a virus.
There is no question that coming out poses significant risks -- legal, social, economic and familial. It's a privilege that not everyone is fortunate enough to take advantage of. When I tested positive for HIV, it was January of 1996 and I was 23 years old. It was months before the advent of antiretroviral medications and so the prognosis was still 10 to 15 years. I was young, just out of college, and had my entire life ahead of me when HIV happened. And I was devastated.
My best friend had seroconverted the year before and I was a community organizer who had worked in HIV prevention so I was very familiar with the world of HIV. Part of me had always expected to contract HIV, but nothing could have prepared me for the reality of how traumatic the first year was. I chose to be out about my status and understood the value of speaking openly as an HIV-positive queer youth, but I also learned that doing so had substantial costs.
I came out to my family a few months after I found out I was positive. My father and I had always had a very strained relationship and that complicated the interactions with my other family members. He reacted with anger and condemnation and kicked me out. Though it had been years since I lived in my parents' house, it still felt like I was losing my home -- the place I grew up and the one place I thought I would always be welcome.
Coming out about HIV can be risky but living an open and honest life is always a challenge. Many gay men talk about being in a "second closet" or having to come out twice. Like coming out about one's sexuality, coming out about HIV is an ongoing process. It's something we have to consider every time we interact with new people, especially in intimate settings.
When people come out about HIV it has a profound impact on stigma. HIV-related stigma is still an enormous concern, nationally and globally. Stigma can prevent people from getting tested for HIV and from seeking treatment. If less people are getting tested and treated, infections will not decrease and the epidemic with continue unabated.
Stigma can make living with HIV even more of a struggle. It can isolate people from family, friends, and their community and leads to unhealthy choices. Ultimately it will mean more deaths from HIV.
One of the best ways to fight stigma and empower HIV-positive people is by speaking out openly and honestly about who we are and what we experience. If more and more people came out about being HIV-positive the face of HIV would expand and people would begin to realize that we are a vital part of the community. We are lovers, husbands, wives, parents, children, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
OutAboutHIV.org is a website that allows HIV-positive individuals to upload videos in which they affirmatively and unashamedly come out about HIV and share their stories. These personal videos will help cultivate a social network for the HIV community while simultaneously fighting stigma.
We have the opportunity to create a coming out movement around HIV but it requires all of us, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity or age. We are all part of the HIV community. We can support each to live openly about our HIV while making it a bit easier for those who come after us. Living lives free of stigma means healthier and stronger communities for all of us.
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