Fighting HIV Stigma with Openness and Honesty
Originally Published: June 22, 2007
Revised: December 3, 2013
“In the African–American community, HIV is a topic that isn’t discussed,” says Christopher Barnhill, a 19-year-old, majoring in business administration at Everest College in Washington, D.C.
At age 16, Chris wasn’t interested in being tested. “I was at a health fair and a counselor kept preaching to me the importance of taking an HIV test. So I decided to take one,” Chris explains. That’s when he found out he was HIV positive.
Not Just an “Adult” Disease
Chris doesn’t know how or when he contracted HIV. When he first learned that he was HIV positive, he had no idea what to think. “Before my diagnosis, I was so green about HIV,” he recalls. “I barely knew what the ‘H’ stood for. I [had] heard about it, but I wasn’t thoroughly educated about it. So just like most teens, I thought that it couldn’t happen to me. I used to always associate HIV as an adult disease, not a teenager disease.”
Good Positive vs. Bad Positive
Chris explains that there are different attitudes toward people who were “born with the virus versus the people who were infected through sexual contact.” He believes that it’s unnecessary and harmful to label people born with the disease as the “good positive” and people who contract the disease through sex as the “bad positive.” Chris stresses that this distinction only serves to further segregate people who are HIV positive. It makes sense that in a society where sex is a “bad” thing that getting a disease that can be fatal from sex is thought of as especially bad.
Regardless of other people’s fears about HIV/AIDS and the bias some people have toward people who are HIV positive, Chris calls the disease a “blessing in disguise.” HIV, he says, has inspired him to seize all of life’s opportunities. Chris is proof that with support and a positive outlook, a person can be HIV positive, manage taking care of himself and live a full life.
One thing about telling romantic partners that you’re positive is that it weeds out all the ones that are not going to be there for you.
Educating and Empowering
Even though you can’t get the virus through shaking hands with an HIV–positive person, HIV-positive people continue to be discriminated against by people who fear contracting the disease. Even some healthcare workers stigmatize HIV–positive people. When I ask Christopher about this he waves away all talk of stigma with a positive attitude and activism.
Chris sees educating others as part of his responsibility as someone with HIV. He is open about his HIV status and ignores any fears of stigma arising from being positive. “When I’m disclosing my status I try not to worry what others might think. I’m in front of my peers to educate them and empower them. If I decided not to publicly speak about HIV because of [the stigma], I would be selfish.”
Chris has been able to transform being HIV positive into a beneficial part of his life. “This may sound strange,” he says, “but HIV changed my life for the better. [The virus has] taught me how to live, how to act, how to speak and how to treat others. You can accomplish great things with being positive. It really teaches you not only how to live but how to live a healthy lifestyle. Maybe that’s the subliminal message HIV is trying to teach us. Some of us are caught up in all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons.”
Dealing with HIV through Communication and Knowledge
For Chris, honesty and openness are his priorities in addressing the disease. He tells any boyfriend he has “as soon as possible” that he is infected. “Some guys are comfortable and some are not. Some of the guys that I date have no reaction at all. The good thing that they do when I tell them is ask questions, which sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable, but it educates them about HIV. One thing about telling romantic partners that you’re positive is that it weeds out all the ones that are not going to be there for you. In the words of Beyoncé, I tell the ones that are not to go ‘to the left, to the left.’”
“Talking about the disease,” he continues, “will [allow] others to start talking about [the virus], and hopefully it will get others to get tested.”
If we abandon these stigmas and prejudices, Chris argues, we will be able to confront the epidemic as a universal, human issue.
Chris is an HIV/AIDS youth advocate and public speaker. As a final note, he says, “for those who are positive, stay strong and don’t give up.”
Chris has shown extraordinary courage in not just accepting the fact that HIV is part of his life, but also in seeing that this is not necessarily a terrible thing. “Some people feel that HIV is…a death sentence,” says Chris. “It’s not.”
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