09/26/2013 04:48 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Origin of HIV/AIDS Stigma and How to End It

Illnesses have always been stigmatized. Even the person who ventures into the office with a head cold is ostracized by the others. We jokingly cross our arms to ward off any germs that may be airborne, and then we quickly find a pump sanitizer so that we can lather our hands back to cleanliness. Most of us can deal with a cold and the ostracism that comes with it.

There are more serious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, that come with cultural stigma attached to them. I think I was in the fourth grade when I was introduced to the Old Testament. "I will bring upon you sudden terror, wasting diseases, and a fever that will destroy your sight and sap your strength," Leviticus 26:14-30 says, illustrating the power of the Almighty. The message is not at all subtle. I lived in a world where God could make me sick if I disobeyed Him or failed in some way to measure up. If you look at other ancient scriptures, the message is roughly the same.

Muslims believe that we humans can try to cure illnesses, but it is Allah who cures. ("Allah huwa al-Shafi.") According to Dr. Omar Hassan Kasule Sr., we should not be so arrogant as to believe that we are responsible for the cure without Allah, but by the same token we should also not believe that we should leave it all up to Allah. In other words, we work in concert with Allah to achieve good health.

In Irish mythology, if the king is morally or physically blemished, or if his body is imperfect in any way, he must abdicate his throne. Nuada, though a great king, is forced to abdicate when he loses an arm in battle. Good health and possessing all your original parts equals perfection.

We can tell ourselves that the stories of the Bible, the Quran, the Vedas and other early writings have little to do with how we think today, but the truth is that what we hear stays with us. An atheist can tell himself that he doesn't believe in a creator or a deity, but he still hears the same cultural noise that everyone hears. We absorb what we hear and see. There is no getting around it.

In Western cultures some diseases carry stigma. Any cancers associated with smoking, sometimes diabetes, and STIs, including HIV/AIDS, are particularly stigmatized because there is an assumption that these diseases could have been avoided if the individual had taken better care of themselves or was more careful. HIV/AIDS carries an even greater stigma because, to a great many, it is still a "gay disease," despite its rapid spread through straight populations here and in other parts of the world.

Further complicating matters is a gay community that fails to find a cohesive voice and adopt a creed or set of beliefs to end the stigma of HIV/AIDS. Instead, some members of our community continue to buy into the noise of their given culture and, more or less, blame those with HIV/AIDS for getting sick and making the rest of us look bad.

How can we expect those with HIV/AIDS to step up to the plate and disclose their status when we don't have their backs?

We need to light the fire again, starting with a set of beliefs that we can all agree on. Here's what I propose:

  • People with HIV/AIDS have done nothing "wrong." Chances of infection are decreased when protection is used, but HIV/AIDS is a disease, not a moral punishment.
  • People with HIV/AIDS who disclose their status to co-workers, family, and friends need to hear that we support them and love them. We need to tell them this every day or every week, and then back up our words with our actions.
  • People with HIV/AIDS absolutely need to disclose their status to potential lovers.

Like everything else we fear, we have to bring it out in the open, talk about it, and give it some air. We have to turn off the noise we hear that makes us all afraid of HIV/AIDS. We can end this disease, but first we need to end the stigma.