At the recent 2013 United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) in New Orleans, the word "stigma" wafted through the event, in workshops and throughout the exhibit hall, like an annoying new pop song you can't stop humming.
The Stigma Project. The Mr. Friendly campaign. The CDC's "Lets Stop HIV Together" media campaign. My own POZ Magazine cover story, "The Sound of Stigma," an indictment of the gay community and the antipathy between the HIV-positive and the HIV-negative, which sat in stacks at the POZ booth.
Panel discussions and workshops were held on identifying stigma, combating it, and living with it. If Lady Gaga would only record an anthem about it, she could finally knock Katy Perry off the charts.
But there's good reason for it. As Peter Staley (the activist prominently featured in the documentary How to Survive a Plague) said in a session of people living with HIV, "One of the biggest generational shifts that I find most depressing is that most of the stigma we deal with now comes from within communities."
In my video blog recap (below) you'll meet a lot of people addressing this issue in various ways. You're also going to meet advocates of the celebrity variety (for example, Mondo Guerra of Project Runway, pictured above), as well as those doing the work on the ground in communities large and small. As usual, it was the people and their personal commitment that caught my attention, and this recap is a salute to their efforts.
The generational differences that Peter Staley spoke of are also a curious new bend in the culture of HIV. Once upon a time, our communal experience of AIDS, at least as gay men, was much the same. Our lives were bound in the sameness of death, despair, and then hope. But since then our generations have separated, with younger gay men less traumatized or fearful about the virus, and (too many) older gay men judging them for behaviors and mistakes we ourselves made in our youth. This too is a subject that is ripe for conversation, with writers like the irritatingly young Tyler Curry broaching the topic, and public forums springing up to address the matter of post-traumatic stress among "the AIDS generation," which I suppose means me.
To some, conferences like USCA represent "AIDS, Inc.," or a waste of resources that feels self-congratulatory, and a poor excuse for plane flights and plenary rubber-chicken lunches. I disagree. If the pharmaceutical industry, highly visible and paying much of the tab at events like these, wants to underwrite sessions while promoting their key messages and products, they can be my guest. Conference attendees are sharp enough to take what they need and leave the rest, and the pure energy and support between those doing the work is worth the costs, in my mind.
As Paul Kawata of the National Minority AIDS Council, the producers of the event, said to me, "If we can inspire people to devote one more to year fighting this epidemic, I feel like we've won."
Thanks for watching, and please be well.