Today is World AIDS Day.
Because of this, we're bringing you our featured post (usually MMMMonday!) a day early.
Each Monday, we bring you special, maintainer-curated content intended to enrich your VP experience. Please note that you can find past MMMMonday posts using the mmmmonday
tag.Also, a quick reminder about the other places you can find VP: vp_bulletins for local announcements; contact_vp for questions and feedback on the way VP is run; the Vulvapedia for basic questions; and don't forget about our sibling community over on Dreamwidth! Plus check out our post about VP seeking new volunteer SSMSMathew Rodriguez is the Editorial Project Manger at TheBody.com, the web's most complete HIV/AIDS resource. He is also a queer gender nonconforming Latin@ who engages in AIDS and queer activism. He is also a freelance journalist and lives in Queens. Please follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mathewrodriguez. If you want to learn more about HIV, please visit www.thebody.com. New York City Superstars can see Mathew speak with ACT-UP NY in Times Square today at 2pm!
Who Can Get to Zero?
The theme of World AIDS Day this year, which has been the theme two years in a row and will be through 2015, is "Getting to Zero: Zero New Infections, Zero AIDS-Related Deaths and Zero Stigma." For many people who are living with HIV, it may feel like that slogan was concocted in a room without their input -- for millions of people worldwide, they will never be able to "get to zero." They will always have HIV.
For those who are not aware, HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, which is a virus that causes one's immune system to falter and makes fighting common diseases that our body comes in contact with much more difficult. AIDS is a diagnosis that someone living with HIV gets when their "T-cell count" (T-cells are the cells that fight disease!) goes below 200 t-cells in a certain amount of blood. In order to get HIV, there has to be two things present: a transmitting fluid and a port of entry. The bodily fluids you most have to worry about are blood, semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluids and breastmilk. A port of entry is something like your veins, your mouth, your vagina or your rectum.
HIV is just a virus. It has no brains, no agenda. However, there are people that are much more likely to be infected with HIV than other people. Some of those communities include: people living in poverty, people of color, young people, queer people, people who are receptive sexual partners, people with mental health issues, transgender people and people who use drugs. What do all these communities have in common? These are all communities that one might call groups that are on society's margins, or "oppressed groups." There's a reason that, though gay men make up only about 2% of the population, they are about 63% of yearly infections. There's a reason that HIV is the fourth leading cause of death among black women in their 20s and 30s. And there's a reason that almost 28% of transgender women are HIV positive -- and the lion's share of them are Black or Latino.
To understand why HIV thrives in those communities, it is pivotal to understand how oppression occurs and how HIV thrives in these spaces. The people in power in a society -- people who often don't belong to any of the groups listed above -- have the privilege of making and implementing policies that are often meant to serve and better the lives of people who look just like them. In fact, some might ultimately define "privilege" as the ability to think about the world and only see people like one's self in it. When these marginalized groups, for many different reasons, don't have the same access to a variety of services that can help prevent HIV transmission, one is considered at "higher risk."
HIV is a biological phenomenon that transmits in places of social neglect. If you have less access to health education, if you have less access to quality health care, if you are told that you do not matter, if your health education growing up did not cater to the way or with whom you have sex, if your mental health is not being cared for, if your body is considered "other" than the norm, you will often move in spaces that have higher rates of HIV infection. Many people in power like to point to people in this population and say, "Well, if you didn't do *this,* then you wouldn't get HIV!" The "this" in the previous statement can be any kind of behavior that people point to -- have sex without a condom, use drugs, etc. However, the reality is much more vast and complex. While having sex or injecting drugs can be the method through which you are infected with HIV, the factors that put you in potential situations to contract HIV are many and varied.
Many people living with HIV come from these marginalized groups, though many do not. However, contracting HIV often creates a situation in which one becomes marginalized. Living in one of these marginalized groups often means the narrative around your life is simplified -- you become only your community. People's complexities become simple. People with HIV are often only seen as their HIV. When someone living with HIV is met with negative attitudes or behaviors because of their status, that is often called "stigma." The word "stigma" has a very long history, and one of its original meanings is a mark or a wound that brings disgrace. Christ's wounds are often called "stigmata," which is the plural of stigma.
While that is a visible meaning of stigma, the kind of stigma experienced by people with HIV is very different. Social stigma, a kind of exclusion, is a very different kind of wound. While it does mean that people living with HIV are excluded and denigrated by those who are HIV negative, it also means that there is a wound that the HIV-negative person carries. They carry with them the inability to love someone else who is living with an illness. Because it is social stigma, there is also a social wound at play. Stigma is an unhealed open wound that ravages many communities -- especially those communities listed above.
In a recent sit-down with Melissa Harris-Perry, an MSNBC news anchor, celebrated author and philosopher bell hooks said that "Shame produces trauma and trauma produces paralysis." While scientific breakthroughs in HIV treatment and care continue at a rapid rate, societal attitudes toward HIV have not changed much since the advent of HIV in the early 80s. Lack of knowledge and fear keep us in a perpetual cycle of stigma, which unfortunately only serves to traumatize those communities in which HIV thrives. That trauma expressed itself in the ability for those living with the virus to speak openly about their status and it stops open, frank conversations about sex and sexual health from happening, as well. And those on the margins have to live on the consequences. Make no mistake, stigma and shame are something that those on the margins have inherited, and something which our communities must continuously combat.
Imagine, if you will, living with HIV. Family members may be afraid to touch or interact with you. Your pool of sexual partners might dwindle due to ignorance and fear. When you do engage in sex with someone, you might hear language that might deem you "unclean" -- a term once used to describe lepers. In many states, there are laws in place that actively prosecute and demonize those living with HIV -- this is called "HIV criminalization." For instance, in many states, not informing a police officer that you are HIV positive when getting arrested can automatically inflate your jail sentence by a decade. Spitting at someone can be a punishable offense (though saliva does not transmit HIV!) and having a bad breakup with an HIV-negative ex in a jealous rage could lead to prosecution, even if they were completely aware of your status and the virus was not transmitted. In the case of Cicely Bolden, a 28 year-old black woman living in Texas, it led to her death at the hands of her intimate partner after she mustered up the courage to disclose to him. "She killed me, so I killed her," Larry Dunn, her partner, said coldly.
The order of "Getting to Zero" that World AIDS Day tasks each of us with is a tall one -- and a little bit misguided, as stated above. However, there are ways for those of who do not knowingly interact with HIV-positive people daily to do our part. It is important to have open and honest conversations about HIV with people we love and with people with whom we engage in sex. If someone chooses to disclose their status to you -- which is a huge task that really means that you are trusted and loved by that person -- you can respond with compassion. And, most importantly, you can fight oppression in all its forms. While many people are familiar with the maxim that "all oppression is connected," few understand how much HIV is connected to all other forms of oppression. While it may seem hard for you to join the fight against HIV, each one of us wields the best weapon of all -- love. Love can heal wounds -- stigma -- and love can help to fight ignorance. While society often tries to tell us there is no space in the collective conscience for those on the margins, the easiest way to fight that is to open a space in your heart and deem them worthy of your time and attention.Superstars, did you think of people with HIV as an oppressed group? How has HIV affected your life, or the life of your family and friends?