Discrimination is like a virus, spreading through a crowd and infecting the masses before anyone knows what hit them. Just like the cold or the flu, there is more than one strain of the D virus, but each strain has one thing in common: It infects a person's judgment. Whether a person is fat, black, female, gay, handicapped or old, the virus infects all the same. It exploits the nastiest parts of a person and shows just how cruel a human can be.
In the last several years the LGBT rights movement has enjoyed several tremendous and long-fought victories on the national stage. Since 2011 gay men and women have been able to serve openly in the military, and in 2012 the sitting U.S. president publicly endorsed gay marriage, the residents of three states voted to extend marriage to same-sex couples, and voters in another state rejected a statewide ban on same-sex marriage, a national first. Yet when we hold open and honest discussions about one of the gay community's vulnerabilities -- HIV stigma -- we notice a spike in infection rates of the D virus within our own community, and it appears to be a particularly nasty strain.
As gay men we learned from the best of them when it comes to condemning a group of people for being different. Living through discrimination over the past several decades has refined our skills and made our tongues razor sharp. Now, instead of working as a collective whole, we cast vituperating criticism on those who might fail to be the perfect, shiny, smiling figures atop the wedding cake.
We scrutinize each other for being too feminine, too fat, too self-obsessed, too poor or too pretentious. We denounce the party boys, tease the homebodies and degrade the gym bunnies. We laugh about who's headed to daddydom, who is an abstemious twink and who should just retire his halfhearted attempt at manscaping and accept that he is a big ole bear. Each of these "categories" holds a specific spot in the hierarchy of gay culture. This process of labeling, division and rank has led to a tenuous immune system when it comes to prejudice, so its no wonder that so many gay men have come down with the D virus.
We discriminate against other gay men -- whether they be feminine, promiscuous or (gasp!) HIV-positive -- in hopes that heterosexual society will understand that we aren't "that" kind of gay. We want to make sure that, on the big game day, we get to play on our own team, separate from "those" gays.
I remember the moment I was first exposed to the D virus. It was in the sixth grade, during recess. My fellow classmates were beginning to notice the surface differences that would continue to define our social status throughout the duration of our public education. One day we were all laughing together and shooting spit wads, and the next day I was a "fag" getting shoved around in the bathroom and excluded from the lunch table. This new phenomenon only worsened. We all know how bad it can get, so I won't elaborate.
I was exposed to a new strain of the D virus just recently. I wrote an piece called "HIV-Positive, Unapologetic and Fabulous." It was a message to anyone who feels defined by the disease and isolated by the LGBT community. Some gay men read something different, however. I was told that I was perpetuating the stereotype that all gay men are promiscuous and have AIDS, that I was glorifying the disease and that I should be ashamed of myself. I even had several HIV-positive gay men who were diagnosed over 20 years ago say that I won't be so confident when my face caves in and my body becomes disfigured. It may not have been elementary school, but I was in definite need of some Band-Aids.
After growing up with a limp wrist in the sticks of East Texas, I consider my skin to be on the thicker side. Malicious remarks such as these, however, have the potential to inflict damage way beyond me. I wrote the piece for the 20-year-old kid who has just received the bad news from the local clinic, for the girl who needs advice on how to comfort her HIV-positive friend, or for the HIV-positive man who is about to go on his first date post-diagnosis. I know better than to believe these cruel comments. Nevertheless, I sat in horror, fearful that a newly HIV-positive kid would read these remarks from strangers and take them to heart. I could only imagine reading them at an age when I wasn't so strong, slowly sinking into a deep depression and losing my sense of worth. And the worst of it was that it was gay men, even HIV-positive men, who were responsible for spreading this new strain of the D virus.
LGBT people must often must create new families and develop support systems beyond the traditional constructs we come from. We have had people shun us when we needed them the most, and we have witnessed those closest to us fall prey to the D virus. We remember that pain, and now we infect each other with it. Yet we have lived through discrimination once and do not have the luxury of hiding under the guise of stupidity. We must try to be the person we all needed at one point or another.
If the gay community takes its medicine in the form of open, cathartic dialogue, education and dare I say brotherly love, it is possible for us to overcome this nasty strain of discrimination. With a stronger collective immune system, we can return to helping carriers of the D virus outside our community and fight for our rights as a united front. As we have seen with other minority rights movements, D virus infection rates have declined with time and perseverance. The LGBT rights movement is the latest to bear witness to declining D infection, but we must remember where we came from and what makes us so special. We know what it feels like to be discriminated against, and we do know better.
I've said it before, but this time I'll say it with a little more gusto: Ignorance is unacceptable, and acceptance is everything.
So be honest: Have you taken your medicine?
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