04/17/2012 10:04 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

From Village to Village in NYC, Still Battling AIDS Stigma

This year Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), the oldest HIV/AIDS service organization in the world, will commemorate its 30th anniversary. Much has changed since the 1980s and the beginning of this global disaster. As GMHC was forming, some of our first tasks were to care and advocate for people dying of AIDS. Today, through the ongoing expansion of our services, we assist people living with HIV and AIDS and help prevent new infections. Living or dying, our mission has focused on the right to dignity. We have counseled youth who carry profound shame for being HIV-positive. We have yelled at rallies to stop blaming gay men for this disease, testified at hearings on housing discrimination against people living with AIDS, and advocated for more funding to address the needs of women who live in silence with HIV, all to show that stigma has remained immersed in the epidemic. While the word "stigma" (meaning a mark of disgrace) sounds archaic and perhaps biblical, its lethal reach is ever-present, blocking people from HIV testing, imprisoning HIV-positive people in fear of rejection from families and friends, and setting up people for sexual violence if they try to negotiate safer sex.

From the East Village to Queens Village, from the Village of Harlem to the "Village" of East New York, we are still battling AIDS stigma. And there are those who simply do not understand this phenomenon. Why, they ask, is this still true? We have lots of community-based organizations in NYC, and public service campaigns in the subways, so what more is needed? The answer is that in fact, lots more is needed. AIDS stigma is embedded in how people feel about having sex, who they are when they are having sex, and the skills needed to negotiate safer sex. Since so many people do not want to talk about all kinds of sex -- and not just the sex we think looks good on TV -- we need more safe and nonjudgmental spaces to support people to talk about sex.

The fact that AIDS stigma is embedded in complex issues such as homophobia, cultural and religious rules, poverty, and sexism helps fuel this epidemic, so there is a considerable need for more complex webs of HIV/AIDS services. The work of empowering people living with or at risk of HIV doesn't just come in one form. When we integrate job placement, hot meals, and psychological counseling with legal services, GED classes, and medical care, we successfully help those who are stigmatized.

While increases in HIV/AIDS services cost more money, the impact of AIDS stigma is even more expensive. Recently, a family affected by HIV/AIDS was kicked out of their home because the landlord found out the father died of AIDS. They ended up in a city shelter, and we know the shelter system is very costly for the city's administration to manage. We were able to work with this family to help them find a more permanent home and linkages to care. As their lives stabilize, this family will be able to move forward with continuing their education, seeking work, and paying taxes, thus contributing to the city.

In GMHC's 30th year, we remain committed to providing supportive services to thousands of men, women, and families affected by HIV/AIDS; HIV testing and prevention programs; and advocacy for sound public health policies. And through our courageous and compassionate hard work, we will persevere in battling AIDS stigma. Ultimately, it still takes a village, and New York City's "villages" benefit from our collective efforts to decrease new infections and support those living with HIV and AIDS.